Lance Stephenson was one of the most unusual free agents in recent memory.
A second-round pick hitting free agency early is not unusual in and of itself; Chandler Parsons was a free agent this summer, too.
But unlike Parsons, whom the Rockets made a restricted free agent by declining to pick up his team option for the fourth season of his deal, Stephenson was a second-round pick who played out the entirety of his four-year contract with the Indiana Pacers, so he became an unrestricted free agent at the age of 23.
Players of Stephenson's caliber and age just do not hit the unrestricted free-agency market. Most quality two-way players don't become unrestricted free agents until they are 27 or 28 years old at the earliest, because most quality two-way players are first-round picks and thus subject to the rookie salary scale.
This means they don't even hit restricted free agency until after their fourth NBA season, if they even get there before signing a contract extension.
Despite his immense talent, Stephenson was sitting on the open market for a couple weeks. The Pacers reportedly presented him with a five-year, $44 million offer, according to Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star—an offer Stephenson deemed not quite good enough.
If talent were the only consideration here, it wouldn't be a good enough offer. There is no doubting Stephenson's immense talent anymore.
He just keeps getting better and better. For the third straight season, Lance established new career-highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes.
He is now one of 26 players ever to have a season in which he grabbed at least 10 percent of available rebounds, assisted on at least 20 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, and recorded a true shooting percentage above 55 percent while using at least 18 percent of his team's possessions.
He was one of just four players to hit those benchmarks this past season, joining LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. That's pretty impressive company.
The 6'5", 230-pound Stephenson is also one of the strongest, stoutest wing defenders in the league—a true menace even when gambling out of scheme and able to guard any of the three perimeter positions.
On talent alone, this is an outright steal.
Of course, talent is not the only consideration. Stephenson has developed a reputation as a hothead, stat hog, showboater and cancer. A few team execs told Grantland's Zach Lowe they wouldn't touch Stephenson in free agency.
This all led to the Charlotte Hornets—they're the Hornets again, guys—snatching him up at a discount with a three-year, $27 million deal in which the third season is a team option, according to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer.
Truth be told, the Hornets did better with this Stephenson signing than they would have had the Utah Jazz not matched the offer sheet the Hornets presented to Gordon Hayward. They picked up a player of similar—arguably better—quality for just over half the price.
The structure of the deal also works in Charlotte's favor. If Stephenson continues to be a malcontent, the team is only on the hook for two seasons, and the dollar amount makes him a very tradable commodity.
If he excels and becomes more of a model citizen, the Hornets have a big-time discount on a big-time player, and if they lock in the team option for that third season, the Hornets will hold his Bird rights when he hits free agency again at age 26.
Stephenson is also a seamless on-court fit for the Hornets. For much of last season as they broke through into the playoffs for the first time since Michael Jordan's initial half-season as majority owner, the Hornets only had one player capable of creating offense for himself and others from the perimeter: point guard Kemba Walker.
Stephenson gives Charlotte another ball-handler to take some of the playmaking burden off Walker's shoulders. He worked as essentially a de facto point guard for the Pacers last season as head coach Frank Vogel shifted ball-handling responsibility from George Hill to Stephenson and Paul George.
Stephenson was Indiana's primary creator of shots for others when he was on the court, often operating as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he showed himself equally skilled at finding the roll man and spot-up shooters dotting the arc.
As he took on a bigger ball-handling role and attempted to stretch himself as a passer and playmaker, Stephenson became a little turnover prone. He tried showboat passes and dribble moves, often seeking out the highlight pass over the right one.
As such, he was joined by only Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, Jameer Nelson, Mo Williams, Tony Wroten and Victor Oladipo as players who used at least 18 percent of their team's possessions and turned the ball over on at least 17 percent of those possessions last season.
But this isn't necessarily a problem that will last, or even much of a problem at all. Many of the league's best passers had early-career turnover problems. It's something that comes with finding yourself as a passer as you attempt to make more and more difficult reads.
Stephenson is not in their league as a passer, but Magic Johnson and John Stockton had turnover problems at age 23, too. It's entirely possible Stephenson grows out of it as he matures into his mid- to late 20s and beyond.
Either way, the Hornets could use the injection of creativity, especially with Josh McRoberts now plying his trade for the Miami Heat.
Charlotte ranked only 24th in the league in offensive efficiency last season, per NBA.com, and the team ranked in the bottom half of the league in points per play on plays finished by both ball-handlers and roll men in the pick-and-roll, spot-up shooters, players shooting off screens and in transition.
Stephenson can help in all these respects. While Walker will still likely act as the primary pick-and-roll ball-handler, Stephenson can easily do so as well, and he is ever-dangerous as a driver when attacking off a kick-out pass as a secondary option. He even turned himself into an ace catch-and-shooter, nailing over 38 percent of his spot-up threes last season, per Synergy.
And again, he's more than capable as a primary or secondary creative option in the half court.
He could be more aggressive with his drives (he averaged only 4.2 per game, according to SportVU data released by the NBA in conjunction with STATS LLC, far less than both Walker and Ramon Sessions did), and he needs to learn how to better make the timing pass on the drive and dish to the big man under the hoop, but he is getting there.
He's also absolutely terrifying in the open floor, in ways both good and bad. There are few players who go harder up and down the court in transition, and he can get to the rim pretty much whenever he wants on the fast break. He's built like a ton of bricks and has enough handle to navigate small spaces in the lane.
The problem is he's even more turnover happy in transition than he is in the half court, as that's the situation where he most often chases the highlight play. It's easy to say that reining in his impulses would turn him into a more dangerous player, but it may be those very impulses that make him such an exhilarating force.
What he needs is to find the correct balance, not the eliminate the risk-taking entirely.
Defensively, Stephenson should be able to make the transition from Indiana to Charlotte pretty easily. The system employed by Charlotte coach Steve Clifford that led to the Kitty Committee ranking a surprising sixth in defensive efficiency last season is pretty similar to the one Stephenson played in with the Pacers.
Both coaches instruct their centers to mostly hang back in the paint to corral ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll while using more athletic forwards to blitz the ball or at least step out to even with the screen. Then they tell the guards and wings to pretty much never stray too far from the shooters dotting the arc unless they aren't a true outside threat.
Stephenson likes to gamble out of scheme for steals at times and may have to rein in that tendency, but his ability to pick up perimeter players of any ilk should make him a nice fit next to Walker. That will also allow him to play with any combination of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gary Neal, Marvin Williams, P.J. Hairston or Jeff Taylor.
All in all, this is a good value play for the Hornets, with some downside risk that Stephenson just goes crazy but a much, much higher upside if he realizes his full potential. Whether he does or not, Charlotte should be one of the handful of the best teams in the East next season, and its cap sheet is still clean enough to add some pieces moving forward.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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