Way to go, Charlotte.
Smart free-agency gambles have been everywhere during the NBA offseason. The Cleveland Cavaliers were super smart to clear enough cap space for LeBron James. The Washington Wizards were smart to roll the dice on veterans Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries.
According to The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, "Born Ready" is ready to leave the Indiana Pacers:
The Charlotte Hornets will sign Lance Stephenson to a 3-year contract, the last season a team option, the Observer has learned.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) July 16, 2014
Bonnell also offers a few more details on the contract:
Under terms of the deal Stephenson will make $9 million next season and in 2015-16, with a slight raise in the 2016-17 team option.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) July 16, 2014
Chris Broussard of ESPN.com confirms Stephenson's decision:
Sources: Lance Stephenson accepts 3 yr, $27 million deal with Charlotte— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 16, 2014
This is a resolution people would always love or hate. There would be no in between. There never is with Stephenson.
As the most unpredictable and turbulent free agent available, Stephenson would be a worthy investment or an overpay. And once the Pacers tendered their five-year, $44 million offer, this had the makings of an overpay.
Some team would swoop in, trounce Indy's offer and be stuck paying Stephenson too much for too long.
Charlotte, though, managed to get this just right.
Filling a Need
Coach Steve Clifford's band of understated talent put together a strong defensive performance last season, finishing fifth in defensive efficiency. But their offense was stagnant and uninventive. They relied too heavily on the self-sufficient Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson, and ranked in the bottom seven of efficiency.
Stephenson is another weapon who can create his own shots and make plays for his teammates. His three-point percentage—another area in which the Hornets struggle—climbed to a career-high 35.2 percent last season as well.
Signing him isn't a concession on Charlotte's behalf, either. The Hornets aren't sacrificing defense for offense with Stephenson. He can make contributions on both ends of the floor.
There are times when he takes unnecessary gambles, doesn't get back in transition and fails to read the direction of his man coming off screens, but he logged more than 35 minutes per game on the league's best defensive team last season.
He was, in fact, one of only five players to maintain a defensive rating under 102 while playing that many minutes. The other four were Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Paul George and DeAndre Jordan, all of whom are regarded as elite defenders at their position.
Opposing shooting guards also only registered a player efficiency rating of 11 against him in 2013-14, as per 82games.com. Small forwards fared slightly better at 12.8, but they still fell well below the league average of 15.
It doesn't get any better for the Hornets, especially with the free-agent market drying up like prunes exposed to hours of sunlight. Stephenson, who led the league in triple-doubles last year, is exactly the kind of two-way threat they can use.
Most triple-doubles in NBA last season: • Lance Stephenson 5 • Steph Curry 4 • Joakim Noah 4 • Kevin Durant 3 • LeBron James 1— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 16, 2014
And he comes at the perfect price.
This is essentially a two-year commitment. That's nothing. The Pacers were dangling five years and $17 million more in guaranteed cash.
If after two years the Hornets have had enough and wish to move on, they can.
"For Charlotte, they limit their exposure to the talented but immature Stephenson by keeping this a two-year deal if they don’t pick up the option," Kurt Helin of NBC Sports writes.
It's that simple—so simple, in fact, Nathan S. of Indy Cornrows cannot believe the Pacers weren't willing to do the same:
The Pacers will be left to mull on their options when it comes to replacing Stephenson's contributions on the floor, but most curiously is why the Pacers weren't players at Charlotte's 3 year, $27 million. Larry Bird stated he wasn't going to waver from his original 5 year, $44 million contract, but a deal monetarily similar, on shorter terms, it seemed like a no brainer decision, assuming Stephenson allowed the Pacers the chance to match terms.
Offering something similar would have cost the Pacers more annually, but like Adam Zagoria of SportsNet New York points out, it wasn't much:
Lance will make $1.36M more in the 1st year w/ Charlotte than he would've w/ the Pacers, his agent tells @SNYtv— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) July 16, 2014
Moreover, this isn't a deal Stephenson "settled" for. He, too, wanted the short-term contract:
Lance gets to free agency 2 years quicker with Charlotte than with the Pacers deal, agent says. Was a major advantage.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) July 16, 2014
There isn't one thing about this pact not to like for the Hornets. They played their hand perfectly, and now they have a fringe star on a reasonable contract with a built-in escape clause to show for it.
Does any of this make Stephenson's new pact a risk-free gambit?
On so many levels, Stephenson is a double-edged sword who can be both constructive and destructive in a matter of minutes. The Hornets are going to get the good with the bad.
But this is a calculated risk.
Think Larry Bird motivated Lance Stephenson? Born Ready will have no problem taking guidance from Michael Jordan. Will thrive with #Hornets.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) July 16, 2014
Length is everything here. That cannot be stressed enough. Two guaranteed years. That's all Charlotte is on the hook for.
And in taking this measured risk, the Hornets are affording Stephenson a fresh start. No matter how much the Pacers wanted him back—and there's nothing that suggests they didn't want him—he would always be seen as their residential pariah, a difficult personality that cannot be tamed nor counted on to change.
"It's Lance being Lance," now-former teammate Paul George said of Stephenson's playoff shenanigans, as per IndyStar.com's Zak Keefer.
Perhaps things stay the same in Charlotte. Maybe Stephenson reveals himself to be a criminally fickle athlete who will adjust to opposing defenses and offenses but never adapt to his environment or the stakes they bring.
Or maybe he proves himself to be exactly who Grantland's Zach Lowe says he is:
Players this talented almost never hit the market unfettered so early in their careers, and when they do, crazy stuff tends to happen. ...
... 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.
The Hornets are looking to build something special. Fresh off a name change and their first playoff appearance since 2010, they're looking to take the next step in a wide-open, up-for-grabs, come-get-a-top-four-spot-if-you-can Eastern Conference.
Lance has played in 38 playoff games the last 2 years and agent says that experience can help Charlotte.— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) July 16, 2014
All Stephenson does is help push this team further. His skill set is something they don't have. His attitude, his unbridled passion are virtues they lack.
Everything Stephenson does, everything he is, the Hornets need—right down to the colorful, uncensored, oft-nocuous displays of emotion.
Stats via Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.