LAS VEGAS – Lance being Lance.
That’s how some will explain free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson‘s decision to sign with the Charlotte Hornets for $18 million guaranteed vs. the $44 million offered by his previous team, the Indiana Pacers.
Given Stephenson’s occasionally erratic behavior and impulsive thinking – the blowing-in-LeBron‘s-ear stuff that drove down his market value just weeks before free agency – the idea of leaving $26 million on the table to switch teams might seem so … so Lance. According to the Charlotte Observer, Stephenson will be paid $9 million in each of his first two Hornets seasons, with a slight raise in 2016-17 if the team exercises its option to retain him.
As confident as Stephenson is in his truly impressive talents, that might just permit the brash Brooklyn native with the “Born Ready” nickname to market himself again sooner at a higher price. Heck, it might keep him relatively hungry and focused on his next deal, mitigating the fears many in Indianapolis and around the NBA had that Stephenson, if validated with major money, might go from incorrigible to unmanageable.
Then again, maybe he was just bored. And with such a short guarantee, if the mercurial Stephenson (who will be 24 in September) undermines the image-conscious Hornets on the court or elsewhere, he might face even more frustration the next time he hits free agency.
He is Charlotte owner Michael Jordan‘s challenge to handle now, after four years of Larry Bird‘s TLC in Indiana – if Stephenson still requires or accepts mentoring from an all-timer.
Assuming Stephenson locks in while on the court, Charlotte – in this fallback move after its offer sheet to Utah’s Gordon Hayward was matched by the Jazz – has added a formidable talent. Stephenson is a multiply skilled wing player who is a natural scorer, a terrific athlete, a crafty (and sometimes wild) passer when he spies the opening and a lively, tenacious defender who welcomes the task of stifling big scorers. He has good range that can get better after shooting 49 percent overall and 35 percent on 3-pointers, while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
At its best, Stephenson’s energy served as jumper cables for an Indiana team that could be too calm, too centered for its own good some nights. At its worst, that energy had the effect of Tasering his own team. The Pacers’ locker room was full of veteran players who could rein Stephenson back in; with the Hornets’ loss of Josh McRoberts and several young players trying to make their bones like Stephenson, who knows if Charlotte has the necessary steadying influences needed for Lance.
Indiana had offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal two weeks ago that, by all reports, had not been amended. Its average value of $8.8 million was only marginally different from the $9 million for which Stephenson is uprooting.
Even as players such as Hayward, Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza were getting bigger deals, Stephenson never pushed into eight-figure territory because of the risks associated with his behavior. He ranked among the league’s leaders in technical fouls and flopping fines, and was stats-centric enough to steal rebounds from teammates Roy Hibbert and David West (and to complain at the scorers table if he felt something was missed). Even Bird criticized him at the end for his distracting antics against Miami in the East finals, where Stephenson whipped up media scrutiny for days on end.
Now, however, the Pacers have a different sort of headache. Replacing good Lance might be just as challenging as handling bad Lance. There are precious few options left among free agents – especially since Indiana already cut loose former Philadelphia guard Evan Turner, who disappointed after his acquisition by Bird in February.
The latest Lance insurance policy is C.J. Miles, a 6-foot-6 veteran of nine NBA seasons with Utah and Cleveland. Last season, Miles averaged 9.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 43.5 percent. He hit 39.3 percent of his 3-pointers but isn’t comparable to Stephenson as an athlete, defender or offense generator.
Outside options? Rodney Stuckey still is available after moving into a bench role with the Pistons. Ray Allen at 39 wouldn’t be able to handle the workload Indiana needs from Stephenson’s spot. There’s always a chance the Pacers could indulge George Hill‘s inner off-guard dreams and find another point guard, like former Magic playmaker Jameer Nelson.
Barring a stealthy save by Bird late in free agency or via trade, Stephenson has gone from blowing in LeBron’s ear to boxing the Pacers’ ears … all at a head-scratching bargain price.