Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan is aiming for the stars, but he doesn't have the funds nor the market to attract top-tier talent. Lance Stephenson is ready to collect on the open market, but suitors have been scared off by character concerns and his relative lack of game film.
If Jordan makes a significant addition to his franchise, he'll probably need to overpay to do it. If Stephenson commits to a long-term contract, he could be one of the few free agents in this class to not take home a bloated paycheck.
There's a middle ground for both—Jordan paying market price for a rising star, Stephenson securing the pay rate his statistics and age say he deserve—that makes this pairing worth exploring. The potentially snug systematic and organizational fits make it a no-brainer.
Stephenson has only been a full-time player for two seasons, yet he's already established himself as one of the NBA's most versatile swingmen. The 23-year-old set career highs in points (13.8), rebounds (7.2) and assists (4.6) this past season, marks rarely seen in recent years from players his age and always followed by massive paydays when they are.
The shooting guard is about to get paid. Considering how this season of spending has started, it's hard to imagine Stephenson hitting the market at a better time.
His most recent employers, the Indiana Pacers, want him back and proved as much by putting a decent offer in front of him. He pushed that one aside, as ESPN's Chris Broussard reported, and seems ready to wait for something far more than decent:
Sources: L Stephenson & Pacers at impasse. Indy offers 5 yrs/$44 mill. Lance wants more, will talk to others. Chi, LAL, Hornets interested.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 2, 2014
He doesn't necessarily want to leave Indiana, but whatever price he has in mind doesn't seem to mesh with the Pacers'. Indiana may not budge from its offer, and Stephenson's camp seems committed to getting what he wants, even if that means finding it elsewhere.
"Lance and his representatives aren't sure they're going to be able to reach an agreement with the Pacers," a source told Broussard. "It's clear they want him back and he wanted to go back, but they may not be able to come to terms."
Stephenson isn't hurting for interested clubs. Yet, there's a question as to whether any are willing to go as high as he would like.
In terms of his ability, he has something to offer any suitor, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted:
Any team with cap room and some guts could try to persuade Stephenson to be a fixture on the wing for the next half-decade. Rebuilding teams can’t even use the excuse about not wanting to splurge in free agency ahead of schedule; Stephenson’s age makes him a natural fit on any team at the start of its upswing. Nabbing Stephenson comes with the bonus of snatching a crucial piece from an Eastern Conference heavyweight, leaving Indiana capped out and without any means to sign an equal talent.
However, no one is putting the red carpet in front of him. In a summer where every market (shooting, defense, size, experience, youth) seems to be hot, his has been the exception.
"Stephenson has found a cool market that's unsure about his maturity, and teams are hesitant of aggressively pursuing him with significant long-term deals," sources told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.
For the Hornets, this is reason for excitement.
Here's a borderline All-Star with a ceiling that has yet to be set, and he potentially comes without a bidding war. Assuming the Pacers priced themselves out of this race—giving $18 million to C.J. Miles couldn't have helped their chances—the Hornets could be running unopposed if they move quickly.
Look at the other teams mentioned by Broussard, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Both were part of Carmelo Anthony's cross-country recruiting tour, and the latter were one of at least five teams to secure a meeting with LeBron James' agent Rich Paul, per Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein of ESPN.com.
If the Hornets buzzed in with a significant offer to Stephenson, would the Bulls and Lakers even take notice? This is the time for Charlotte to strike, but Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer doesn't think the franchise will pull it off:
FWIW, I don't think there's a strong chance Lance Stephenson ends up signing with the Hornets.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) July 2, 2014
If the Hornets pass on Stephenson, they'd be making a big mistake.
After snagging Al Jefferson last summer and watching him put together a third-team All-NBA campaign (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds), Jordan made it known he planned on going big-game hunting again.
"I think we made a difference last year with Big Al [Jefferson] and some of the acquisitions, and I don't anticipate this year being any different," Jordan told reporters. "...Hopefully we can look at that and attract some other superstars."
Stephenson isn't a superstar but neither are the other players said to be on Charlotte's radar: Luol Deng, Gordon Hayward and Trevor Ariza. Of course, with the right opportunity and fit, second-tier players can make a superstar impact, as Jefferson proved last season.
Behind Big Al's lead, Charlotte rattled off 43 wins and secured its first playoff spot since 2010. Jefferson and Kemba Walker (17.7 points, 6.1 assists) shared the offensive burden, while coach Steve Clifford fashioned the rest of his roster into a scrappy bunch that hustled, rebounded and defended.
Scoring was a constant struggle, though, as Charlotte ran paper thin on shooters and playmakers. Stephenson hit a career-best 35.2 percent from three in 2013-14, while connecting on almost as many triples (86) as Charlotte's starting off-guard Gerald Henderson has hit in his five-year career (95).
Stephenson isn't a knockdown shooter by any stretch, but he can hurt a defense if he's left alone. His best offensive work, though, comes with the ball in his hands, as Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star described:
Stephenson provided some character to an otherwise less than dynamic Pacers' halfcourt offense. When a guard relies on isolation, the knee-jerk response is that the player has ball hog tendencies. However, Stephenson showed a skillful touch in iso, shooting 70-of-153 (45.8 percent) from the field and producing a score — anything from a 3-point shot to a free throw — 46.9 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports. Stephenson also led the Pacers with 263 points on drives to the basket. So, even when the ball stuck in his hands, he frequently produced a positive result.
Outside of his own offense, Stephenson averaged 4.6 assists, another team-leading mark.
Walker was Charlotte's top creator last season, but he was also its second-best scoring option. He showed a willingness to pass, but sometimes the team was just better off with him hunting his own shot.
Journeyman forward Josh McRoberts emerged as a secondary playmaker (4.3 assists), but he isn't nearly the same scorer (8.5 points on 43.6 percent shooting) as Stephenson (13.8 on 49.1).
The Hornets need a dynamic offensive weapon like Stephenson, and the swingman would be moving from one dominant defense to another. He held opposing shooting guards to an 11.0 player efficiency rating last season, via 82games.com, so it's not as if Charlotte would be risking any defensive regression.
Stephenson complements the Hornets' strengths and helps address several of their weaknesses.
Yes, he comes with some baggage, but his price will reflect that. He's been a favorite of Pacers president Larry Bird, who's had to reel him in at times but who apparently likes Stephenson's talent and the competitive fire.
Couldn't Jordan, one of the fiercest competitors in NBA history, form a similar bond with Stephenson? Isn't having too much passion better than running short on it?
"At the end of the day, if I'm a GM, if I'm a coach, if I'm a team president, a decision maker, a policy maker, it's OK for me to have to rein in a guy," Stephenson's agent Alberto Ebanks said, via Buckner. "I don't want a guy who I have to beg to get after (it)."
Stephenson wears his heart on his sleeve. He needs to find a filter, but that could be said for a lot of 23-year-olds. He has some growing up to do but all the time needed to do it.
He's the type of investment a success-starved franchise like Charlotte needs to make. It takes a risk to get things headed in the right direction, and the reward here is head and shoulders above the price.
The Hornets are waiting for a big-time player to take a chance on them. Stephenson is seeing which competitor will gamble on him. For NBA free-agent matchmakers, it doesn't get any easier than this.
Both parties need each other, and the potential to do great things together is high if they can figure that out.