The Splash Brothers are widely considered the NBA’s dopest backcourt. Two gunners with rafter-range playing on a high-caliber playoff team out in Cali and getting more press than The Kardashian Sisters. The soaring, scoring Golden State Warrior backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson know how to get buckets, and that’s what sells tickets and gets the ESPN love. As far as the most intriguing backcourt is concerned, Charlotte’s freshly-dipped NYC tandem of former first-round pick Kemba Walker and newly acquired free agent Lance Stephenson probably holds down that title.
Stephenson reportedly shunned other offers for more money to hitch his swag wagon to MJ’s rising Hornets, who were swept out of the playoffs in the first round last season by Miami. Charlotte signed Lance to a 3-year $27 million deal in July and hours ago they reached terms on a contract extension with Walker. According to league sources, Walker receives a four-year, $48 million extension that will commence with the 2015-16 season. As the centerpieces of such lucrative investments, it's clear that these guys are the cornerstones of the Hornets future.
And now the hope is that the Big Apple hoopsters can team up with paint-punisher Al Jefferson and continue building a long overdue, consistent winner in Charlotte. I hope NC is ready. The entire basketball culture is about to change in Charlotte. Especially when you add Lance, the often toxic, rim-rocking, non-stop shadow boxing ear whisperer to the mix. Even if there’s nothing going on, he will create some excitement.
New Name, New Game
The franchise has chucked The Bobcats name that it’s held since 2005 (good riddance, because they achieved two first-round playoff exits in nine years) and returned to the name of the original Charlotte Hornets franchise that entered the NBA in 1988 before then-owner George Shinn moved the franchise to New Orleans in 2002. It was a franchise that drafted such diamond-studded NBA products as Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson “AKA” Grandmama and even Kobe Bryant (before trading him to LA on draft day).
Michael Jordan is starting to figure out this team construction thing, and he’s placed Charlotte’s basketball hopes on the backs of two boys from the concrete jungle. They might not win 50 games, but the Hornets won’t be accused of playing boring basketball. The sound of sneaker soles ripping up the hardwood will be a familiar tune and you best keep an IPhone on deck because each night you will see something special as these guards begin to emerge as a lethal combo, develop chemistry and quickly rise through the ranks of the NBA’s top backcourts.
For a NY basketball scene that has fallen from grace and been suspended in time for over a decade, this basketball union between Lance and Kemba hints at destiny.
NYC’s last two great point guards, after years of playing on opposite ends of the floor, will finally be pairing up at the pro level. It’s a union that has surely perked the curiosity of basketball fans located hundreds of miles north of The Carolinas. From a New York City basketball perspective, the Bronx-BK connection is like Thor and Zeus hooking up.
Stephenson and Walker were elite guards and coveted college prospects that went head up in AAU and the New York state high school tournaments back in the day. Stephenson's public school Lincoln squad went 2-0 against Kemba and Catholic school powerhouse Rice, including winning the 2007 championship.
And both players have garnered their share of highlight passes, high-flying dunks and legendary street fame while teaming up on the various prestigious NYC blacktops throughout the years.
Both guards entered the league with undisputed talent and some swirling doubts ( ironically because of the recent lack of success at the pro ranks by NYC’s top prospects) but eventually asserted themselves as bonafide ballers. Each has his own shoe deal. Kemba was drafted 9th overall by Michael Jordan in the 2011 NBA Draft and quickly became the first rookie from the 2011 Draft Class to sign a multi-year shoe deal (with Under Armour). Stephenson signed an endorsement deal with AND 1 back in 2012 and he will shortly unveil his upcoming AND1 "Born Ready" sneaker—designed after the Parachute Jump on Coney Island.
"When I saw the opportunity with the Hornets, I knew that backcourt was going to be sick, knowing that I would play with Kemba," Stephenson told TBR, "He was so competitive [in high school], and every time we played against them it was a tough game. I feel like with our quickness and our handles, and the way that we make plays for our teammates, it's going to be tough for a lot of guards to guard us."
There hasn’t been this much excitement with two NYC point guards sharing an NBA backcourt since Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland were bumping heads for PT with the Knickerbockers in the late ‘80s. The Knicks actually dropped the ball when they traded a 23-year-old disgruntled Strickland for an aging 33-year-old Maurice Cheeks. If NY’s executives and coaching staff were more innovative, progressive and resourceful they could have found a way to utilize both Jackson and Strickland’s vast talents on the same court, rather than dismiss the idea as unconventional and therefore unachievable.
The increasingly popular two-dribbler systems have already been employed by several teams in the NBA. Just last season, guards in Brooklyn, Dallas, Portland and Phoenix played large minutes together where both had the ability to spark the offense or freestyle the flow when necessary. Imagine Jackson and Strickland “swishing and dishing” as Walt Clyde Frazier would say. Of course, the problem with putting two light-shooting point guards on the floor is that your offense lacks at times.
While Kemba has averaged 17.7 points per game the past two seasons, his shooting percentage dropped below .40% in 2013-2014. The Hornets finished 24th in offensive efficiency and were 25th in made 3-pointers per game. Pairing Walker with Stephenson likely won’t help the Hornets get Splash Brothers production from behind the arc, but the frenetic pace at which these playground legends maneuver makes “Crash Bruvas” an appropriate moniker.
The Hornets should be a fast-tempo squad with the capacity to also feature Jefferson in the half court, and head coach Steve Clifford is hoping these dudes can wreak havoc on opposing defenders in the dual ball-handler system.
The Come Up
After they dominated the H.S basketball landscape as McDonald’s All-Americans, Lance dipped to college and did a quick bullet with Cincinnati before bouncing to the NBA. As a freshman, he showed flashes of brilliance but his game was still very raw. In his only season at Cincinnati (2009–10) Stephenson started 32 games and averaged just 12.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, with a shooting percentage of .440 from the field and .664 from the free throw line.
Once he made that NBA leap, “Born Ready” didn’t really blossom until his fourth-year in the league when he averaged nearly 14 points per game for a well-balanced Pacers squad and battled LeBron James in several dramatic Eastern Conference Finals. Still, Stephenson has always fancied himself a star and a No. 1 option. Despite the close relationship he developed with Pacers President Larry Bird, there weren’t enough touches in Indiana to satisfy his insatiable appetite for buckets, live-wire wilin’ out and the limelight.
Kemba became a UConn legend and led Jim Calhoun’s final Huskies team to an improbable Cinderella run to the NCAA Title in 2011. He cleaned out the awards podium and his Herculean NCAA performance was one for the ages. He continued to show his clutch gene in last year’s playoffs. Al Jefferson was injured, which really hindered Charlotte’s chances at an upset of the defending champs because Miami had nothing for the workhorse. But under the playoff spotlight Kemba’s scoring spiked to 19.5 points per game, his shooting percentage increased to 47.3 % and his three-point shooting was off the hook at 50 percent. Kemba is quick to the hole and explosive on the move. He plays D, has sick court vision (6.1 assists per game) and he’s not afraid to take the big shot, but he’s undersized at 6-1.
The strength of Lance’s all-around game is his defining attribute. The boy is always turned up on the court. He averages seven rebounds and nearly five assists and more importantly his size allows him to post up smaller guards, muscle his way to the rack and get easy buckets.
He shot a career-high 49 % from the floor last season and 35 percent from three-point range. Stats are what they are, but the fact that these guys are not close to their prime yet and are showing signs of obvious improvement each season is invigorating and exciting for Charlotte fans. In this offense, Lance will get his opportunity to get his numbers. The coach won’t be trying to reign him in, he’ll be hoping Born Ready has some 30 number nights in him.
“[Coach Clifford] wants me to come off screens, he wants me to be more of a scorer. A little bit of the same stuff I was doing with the Pacers, but more,” said Stephenson.
Yeah much more. Lance and Kemba are bringing NY back, but like the rappers of today they had to go down south to do it. I guess that’s just keeping with the times, but in essence, it’s preserving history and reminding us of the diamond-studded list and rich history of NY point guards that have shaped the game of basketball.
With the Crash Brothers together, as one powerful NYC force, the Hornets can be a reminder of what basketball used to be like in New York City before Jordan and then Kobe and then LeBron came through and crushed the buildings.