Lance Stephenson is the Greatest Physical Comedian of Our Time

Matt McMahon explores the comedy of the recently minted Los Angeles Laker.
By    November 6, 2018

Matt McMahon is 65% from the field in his Sunday league.

The King now plays in Purple and Gold, but whenever I watch a Lakers’ game I can’t seem to take my eyes off the Court Jester. Despite all the hype that comes with LeBron James playing in Los Angeles alongside a starting squad assembled out of stretched out Tiny Toons characters (who says we need a Space Jam 2 when we’ve already got the 2018 L.A. Lakers?), I find myself completely mesmerized by another of the team’s offseason “veteran” acquisitions, Lance Stephenson. I anticipate, with no estimation, his next move, tracking his body language as he hunches over towards an off-ball mark, afraid to miss out on what I consider to be consistently the greatest televised display of physical comedy in our current time.

For those newer to the wonders of Lance Stephenson, let me give you a two possession summary from the first quarter of Friday night’s game against the Trailblazers that perfectly sums up Stephenson as a player. With under a minute left in the quarter, Stephenson took a baseline dribble move to the key and attempted what looks like a less than halfway thought out 360-degree layup to capitalize on a two-for-one situation. That layup may or may not have hit rim–I can’t remember because I was too busy laughing at not just the audacity of trying to pull that move off in a game while being guarded by a fellow NBA player, but at the way the layup looked in the hands of Lance Stephenson’s body (weird mixed metaphor, I know, but stay with me here).

He then, of course, went on to foul the rebounder out of frustration; about the most expected move he made in this entire sequence. But then, on the next possession, with time winding down, he turns around and hits a hesitation stepback 3-pointer, and my only reaction was to laughing even harder. On the stat sheet, that’s a +1 net rating sequence; on the screen, it’s comedic gold. But that’s the beauty of watching Lance Stephenson, you never know what you’re gonna see, and, as a result, whatever that ends up being–whether a positive basketball play or negative–ends up being funny as hell.

The Lakers acquired the 8-year vet this summer from free agency after his second stint with the Indiana Pacers. Having started his professional career there, he’s something of a folk legend among Pacers fans, for his on-court heroics and antics all the same. Like a Draymond Green, or a Joakim Noah before he finessed the entire city of New York while simultaneously forgetting how to shoot a basketball, he’s one of those guys that you love to have on your team, but otherwise can’t stand. The Lakers, like LeBron’s 2014-era Cavaliers before them, signed Stephenson as part of their team rebuilding centered primarily on competing with the Golden State Warriors.

Like J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver for the Cavs, the Lakers took bets on their own relatively low cost, tenured stretch shooters (Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo) to spread their offense and field a team of lengthy guys who can guard at least the 2 through 4. But I think the Lakers had another reason for signing Stephenson, one predicated on becoming the most entertaining–if not necessarily best–team in the NBA, a throwback to the Showtime Era, with Hollywood James in the spotlight.

Think about it, it’s the perfect straight-man role for LeBron to really show his acting chops, with a flummoxing cast of characters surrounding him, Lance perhaps the biggest hurdle for him to overcome. He’s already done the supporting comedic relief thing (Trainwreck), and he’s in your theatres right now trying out voice acting as the infamous Gwanghi (Smallfoot), so what better way to round out his resume than with a leading role that’ll rival his main acting adversary and prior teammate, Kyrie Irving? But that’s neither here nor there. This isn’t a deep dive into LeBron James’ future acting career. This is an appreciation of Lance Stephenson, genius physical comedian.

I don’t think I truly noticed Lance’s specific talents until he started playing alongside LeBron. “Make ‘Em Dance” Lance, as LeBron calls him (further proof that LeBron is corny as hell) [ed. note: LeBron is now perfect, leave him alone], moves around the court with the same mannerisms as his new teammate. But while he shares a similar build, his body is compressed just a little bit more, making his movements appear just the slightest bit off. He basically plays like an overly aggressive guy at the park–one of the funniest types of pick-up players to watch along with “undersized rec-spec gym rat” and “kid who doesn’t yet have control over his 99th percentile-for-his-height limbs–doing a LeBron impression.

Where LeBron glides like an F1, Lance jerks around like an older model with engine issues. He leads fastbreaks, inexplicably skipping through them (I haven’t seen the ESPN Sport Science segment on whether or not skipping is actually faster while dribbling than running is, but I’m sure John Brenkus will get to it eventually), like they’re taking place on the 405 after a home game: stuttering, stopping short, and taking long lunges to make up the gaps before anyone can enter his lane.

So far in this season alone he’s provided a whole studio comedy’s worth of gags and setpieces. On Halloween, Lance Stephenson went to work in a “guy who’s never attempted a trick pass in his life who’s nevertheless trying out for the Harlem Globetrotters” costume when he tried this behind-the-back alley-oop toss during a well-defended transition. They won the game by a point, but can you imagine if they lost by less than a basket in a game in which he tried that?

A few days earlier he gave us this amazingly unathletic altercation with a rebound, which looked as if the ball was being remotely controlled by someone with a vendetta against him. Somehow, in the same play where he extended well above the rim to pull down a tough offensive rebound, he can’t find his footing when pressed by… nobody, and has all the air taken out of him by the time he’s trying to put that rebound back. Either he truly is that unfamiliar with being confronted with a basketball, or he absolutely sells the implicit premise of playing with a ball cursed by a wizard–named Jose Cauldrone–to attack him on contact. And yes, LeBron’s already optioned a script for that very concept with Blue Sky Studios, so don’t get any ideas.

Fittingly, this particular clip also features “NBA equivalent of a newborn deer walking on a frozen pond,” Two-Time NBA Champion JaVale McGee. If Lance Stephenson is the greatest physical comedian of our time, JaVale McGee would be the Lance Stephenson of the Lakers, if Lance Stephenson weren’t also on the Lakers. McGee is another one of those off-season vet signings, acquired from the Warriors, where he perfectly fit their system of flashy high-risk playmaking that sometimes sacrifices fundamentals at the expense of invigorating the team and crowd.

The Warriors were set up specifically to absorb McGee’s undisciplined style of play, always choosing to go for the explosive block that otherwise leaves him out of position for a rebound or extra pass, because they could afford it. But they only needed to go to him for that spark 10 minutes a game. With the Lakers relying on him for 25+ minutes a game and 100% of their rim protection, as fatigue sets in we’re bound to see more 11-foot-tall skyhooks and subsequent Stephenson fumbles. Thank god, because that sequence is at least as funny as the two best bits of physical humor in a comedy this year.

I firmly believe Lance Stephenson makes every movement on the court with the ultimate goal of pissing off his opposition. In turn, his every move also ends up resulting in entertaining his audience in a way no other comedian, let alone other non-comedic genius NBA player does. Whether he’s blowing in his opponent’s ear (an opponent who he now plays with, no less) or strumming on an air guitar to celebrate a buzzer beater, everything he does is uniquely aggressive and silly, and kind of pointless, and that’s what makes him so funny. I mean, he once had one of his shoes fall apart in the middle of a game. A professional basketball player had their basketball sneaker FALL APART during a game, and somehow it’s one of the least ridiculous things that has happened with him. I don’t know how, but Lance Stephenson planted that shoe for us viewers, and I appreciate him for that.

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