Ranking Best NBA Free-Agency Fits for Lance Stephenson

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

Ranking Best NBA Free-Agency Fits for Lance Stephenson

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    Free-agent swingman Lance Stephenson does not want to leave the Indiana Pacers, and the team would like to bring his two-way versatility back.

    Yet that mutual interest has not been enough to take the 23-year-old off the open market. Money, as it often does in these negotiations, has driven a wedge between the player and his most recent employer.

    Stephenson declined a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers, sources told ESPN's Chris Broussard. That report surfaced on July 2, and neither party has budged since. Both are "far apart on a deal," sources recently told Broussard, with enough distance between them that Stephenson has started exploring other options.

    He has plenty of potential landing spots to choose from, as one would expect for a nightly triple-double threat. However, the economic side of his market is cloudy, with questions about his maturity and focus potentially preventing him from collecting the cash his production says he should.

    Someone is going to pay Stephenson, but it's hard to say who and how much. He needs a club that can afford his services, but also one with enough offensive chances and defensive structure to maximize his impact.

    Combine those elements with a strong locker room built to manage his distractions, and you'll find the free-agency destinations that are ready for "Born Ready."

The Wild Card: Boston Celtics

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    It would take some financial maneuvering for Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to create enough cap space for Stephenson.

    As NBC Sports' Dan Feldman noted, "The Celtics can offer just the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,305,000 starting, $22,652,350 over four years)." Considering Stephenson has already left $44 million on the table, he's well outside of Boston's price range for now.

    However, the Celtics could be looking for ways to close that gap. A source told Broussard the Celtics are interested in Stephenson despite having a slew of perimeter players under roster.

    The basketball fit in Boston would be a curious one. The Celtics already have three playmakers on the team in Rajon Rondo, Marcus Smart and Phil Pressey, a perimeter stopper in Avery Bradley and an athletic wing in James Young. The 6'5", 230-pound Stephenson could serve as an undersized small forward, but his addition could be a precursor to a bigger deal.

    A league source told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn that "Ainge is attempting to gather assets to acquire Kevin Love." Washburn also noted the Celtics could trim their backcourt by landing Stephenson in a sign-and-trade for "likely Bradley, another player and potentially a first-round pick."

    The Celtics seem interested in Stephenson, but it's hard to see how he would fit this team. If he winds up in Boston, he's probably not joining the complete cast of characters currently in place.

5. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks have done an about-face on Stephenson, which could prove more telling about their other free-agent pursuits than their interest in the swingman.

    Late last month, ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon reported that the Mavs "simply aren't interested in making a significant investment in a known knucklehead, particularly one who tends to dominate the ball by over-dribbling."

    Stephenson may not have started the summer on Dallas' big board, but he has forced his way on there since. Sources told Broussard Stephenson is on the Mavs' radar, although the team has "other free agents prioritized above" him.

    Yet this newly discovered interest makes one wonder about those high-priority targets. The Mavericks were one of five teams to get a face-to-face meeting with Carmelo Anthony, but a friend of the scoring machine told Frank Isola of the New York Daily News that Dallas and the Houston Rockets "are not considered realistic possibilities for Anthony."

    The Mavs have money to spend and the need for a defensive presence on the perimeter. However, MacMahon said Dallas "will not outbid the Pacers," and Stephenson's ball dominance may not mesh with scorers Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Like the Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers have spent the early part of their summer big-game hunting.

    The Purple and Gold are alive and well in the Anthony sweepstakes, recently held court with LeBron James' agent, Rich Paul, in Cleveland and have been linked to Chris Bosh. If there's a big fish in free-agent waters, the Lakers' line is nearby.

    Stephenson is somewhere on L.A.'s list, sources told Broussard. The Lakers have holes all over their roster, and they could use a long, athletic, young defender on the wing.

    Kobe Bryant's no-nonsense approach could either get Stephenson under control or push him off the deep end, but history says the five-time champion would try to make it work.

    "As long as you play hard, which Stephenson does, Bryant is generally supportive," CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted.

    The problem for the Lakers could be maximizing Stephenson's value at the offensive end. If Bryant and Steve Nash both manage to stay healthy, L.A. already has two playmakers running the show. Stephenson needs touches to be effective, as he's not a consistent enough shooter (career 32.5 three-point percentage) to do all of his damage on drive-and-kick looks.

    Financially, the Lakers could make something work if they miss out on their top targets, but they might not offer more than an inflated, short-term deal. With his reputation in mind, Stephenson may opt for a long-term deal elsewhere.

3. Chicago Bulls

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    On paper, the Chicago Bulls should have plenty of incentive to chase Stephenson, assuming they come up short in the Anthony sweepstakes.

    Stephenson would fit with coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive mentality, and his offensive creativity would lighten the load on Derrick Rose. Bringing Stephenson in would also hurt Chicago's biggest Central Division rival, as the Pacers are limited on avenues to replace him.

    The Bulls reportedly have Stephenson on their radar, via Broussard, and could move him into a priority position if the biggest free-agency dominoes fall outside of the Windy City.

    However, Chicago might stop short of pushing all-in on him.

    He's similar to Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler in that both are defensive pests, athletic and inconsistent shooters. Chicago needs optimal floor spacing for the Rose-Joakim Noah pick-and-roll game to get off the ground, and that would be hard to build with Stephenson and Butler (a career 30.9 percent three-point shooter) manning the wings.

    Plus, Stephenson's volatility would threaten to disrupt Chicago's tight-knit chemistry.

    "He just doesn't really fit the culture," Comcast SportsNet's Aggrey Sam said. "I really like Lance, I've known Lance since he was a high school kid. But I just don't see him fitting the culture."

    A lot of teams could conceivably raise the same concern, but culture could be more of a driving force in Chicago than anywhere else.

2. Charlotte Hornets

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    The Charlotte Hornets are another team that has interest in Stephenson, per Broussard, and the logic behind it is not hard to follow.

    Owner Michael Jordan told reporters he's hopeful the team can "attract some other superstars" after All-NBA third-team selection Al Jefferson helped the franchise snap its three-year playoff drought this past season. The Hornets do not have superstar appeal, though, so they're forced to pursue second-tier targets like Jefferson and Stephenson.

    Obviously, those players can still make a major impact.

    Stephenson's scoring would be a welcome addition alongside Jefferson and Kemba Walker. With Swiss army knife Josh McRoberts reportedly headed to the Miami Heat, the Hornets' need for a secondary creator has increased.

    Unlike a lot of places, even Stephenson's three-point stroke would be an upgrade in Charlotte. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson has struggled to find a perimeter shot (career 30.0 percent), and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has attempted only 18 triples (and converted just three) in his first two seasons.

    The Hornets play a scrappy brand of defense like the system Stephenson has thrived in with the Pacers. Coach Steve Clifford would appreciate the fire Stephenson brings to the hardwood.

    The biggest concern, though, would be how the youthful Hornets could handle Stephenson inside the locker room. This team does not have a lot in terms of veteran presence, and it's hard to say if the ones they employ would be enough.

    Stephenson's talent could still outweigh the chemistry risks, but there's still one team better equipped to bring him on board—or keep him around, rather.

1. Indiana Pacers

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    There's a reason both parties want to keep this relationship alive. Both parties can scratch major itches for the other.

    The Pacers cannot afford any defensive leaks on their perimeter, and that's not an issue with Stephenson. He held opposing shooting guards to a mere 11.0 player efficiency rating in 2013-14, via 82games.com.

    More than that, Indiana needs his offensive production. He ranked third on the team in scoring this past season (13.8) while leading the Pacers in both assists (4.6) and field-goal percentage (49.1).

    Indiana, meanwhile, offers Stephenson a support system that has fueled his development as a player. Team president Larry Bird has publicly backed Stephenson or spoken out when Stephenson's antics have crossed the line.

    Stephenson may not find a situation better suited to help him improve as a player and a person than the one he has in Indiana. The Pacers are limited in what they can do should Stephenson take his talents away from the Circle City.

    "He's a skilled 23-year-old player, and if he bolts, the Pacers would have no ready means to replace him," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote.

    The addition of shooter C.J. Miles doesn't change that, either. Stephenson has a unique skill set the Pacers will not find in another free agent.

    If the financial hurdles between them don't prove to be insurmountable, a reunion would be the best-case scenario for both Stephenson and the Pacers.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.