Charlotte Hornets Showing How to Play Free-Agency Game as a Mid-Market Team

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Charlotte Hornets Showing How to Play Free-Agency Game as a Mid-Market Team
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

You're not worthless just because you're not perfect. Someone should tell that to the Lance Stephenson critics.

The 23-year-old Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets after turning down a five-year, $44 million deal with the Indiana Pacers, for whom he played the first four years of his career.

The Stephenson signing makes two straight seasons that Charlotte has snagged a bigger-than-expected name on the free-agent market. The then-Bobcats inked Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41.5 million deal last summer, a bulky contract met with some criticism, considering Jefferson's defensive reputation.

"Overpay" is a relative term. A destination town probably shouldn't have given a non-rim-protecting center like Big Al all that money last offseason, but for Charlotte, he was worth the dollars. And it paid off just fine.

Jefferson ended up earning that money and more during his first season under Steve Clifford, averaging 22.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes while noticeably improving his defense and earning Third-Team All-NBA honors.

His presence, meanwhile, can't be understated enough in the Hornets' attempts to try to bring in other big names, like Stephenson.

Purely based on the numbers and production, Stephenson is hardly an overpay. Actually, he's exactly what this team needed—a ball-handler next to Kemba Walker who can add shooting and playmaking to a 43-win playoff squad that desperately needs offense. But Stephenson has earned himself quite the reputation as a difficult personality to handle off the court.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Thus, he gets only $9 million a year, less than you'd expect for a young, defensive-minded shooting guard who averaged 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes.

As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote back in July, small-market teams have to operate differently than large-market ones:

This is exactly the kind of bet a small-market team with no history of drawing A-level free agents has to make. Stephenson is just 23, he plays both ends, and he’s going to get better. He fills a glaring need for another dose of off-the-dribble creation — a guy to ease the pressure on Kemba Walker and to run secondary offense when Professor Al Jefferson, PhD, kicks the ball from the post.

Even after the acquisition of Jefferson, Charlotte won games on defense, not offense, this past season. The artists formerly known as the Bobcats may have implemented the league's sixth-ranked defense, but the offense sat just 24th in points per possession.

Simply, Charlotte didn't have spacers or creators. And that's not exactly the best way to score points.

Aside from Walker, not many put the rock to the wood to find looks for teammates from the middle of the court.

That's why last year's Bobcats attempted the fourth-fewest corner threes in the NBA, per NBA.com/Stats (login required). They didn't have guys who could get to the lane and draw helpers into the paint. Teams accounted for the lack of dominant shooters on the outside, and defenders ended up mainly sticking with their original assignments, guarding the corners well.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Even when it got the chance, Charlotte wasn't making those shots, hitting only 37.2 percent of corner-three attempts, 22nd in the league. Stephenson can help change that.

The Pacers had a similar issue last year: They didn't have shooters. Now, the Indiana offense will be even harder to watch with Lance out the door and Paul George done for the year with a broken leg. 

In Charlotte, Stephenson can actually provide a second source to handle the rock next to Walker. The Hornets got themselves a pick-and-roll threat who can force his way to the hoop when dribbling around screens, developing shots for others when he does it.

It's a different dynamic—a new kind of offense. And Coach Clifford should be excited about its prospects. 

As Walker told Tom Sorensen of The Charlotte Observer, Stephenson's presence can be a major help for the Charlotte attack:

He’ll help me in a lot of aspects. I think he can make shots; I think he can take a lot of pressure off me as well. In late game situations we can go to him. And I can go off the ball at times. If he rebounds I can run and depend on him to make some plays.

Rebounding is an immensely important skill Stephenson possesses, considering Charlotte's inability to push pace last year. And Stephenson posted the best rebound rate of any NBA shooting guard this past season (11.4).

For a young, athletic team, the 2013-14 Bobcats played slow. Much of that had to do with their persistence in keeping Big Al involved, and Jefferson isn't one to sprint down the court and act as a fast-break finisher.

USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson is a post-up center, and for him to get the ball and make his best moves comfortably, Charlotte needs to set itself up in the half court. But Stephenson gives some energy to a team that finished in the bottom 10 in pace last season and struggled to find rebounding at the guard spots.

The Hornets don't need to run often. It's just a nice additional option to have.

When Stephenson gets a defensive board, there's no need for an outlet pass. He can gather and gun. And he already has experience in that role for a slow-moving team.

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A sum of $27 million over three years is a bargain for a do-it-all, two-way, 23-year-old shooting guard...in a vacuum. But Stephenson's chemistry-killer reputation made him a turnoff for plenty of teams, possibly including the Pacers, themselves. But that's how small-town Charlotte has to operate.

The Hornets have to take on some risk in going after big names.

It could be basketball risk. It could be character risk. But there has to be some, considering the Hornets aren't outbidding the big boys.

They can, however, welcome in guys who are one flaw away from upping their stock. For Jefferson, that trouble was his defense. For Stephenson, it's his off-the-court antics. 

There is a theme, though. These are fixable issues.

Jefferson entered Clifford's defense and, though he hardly became an elite guarder, he did play arguably the best defensive season of his career. Jefferson used to be a revolving door against the pick-and-roll, often miscalculating exactly how far he should drift from the basket. Because of that, ball-handlers darted by him all the time in Utah.

USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson's competence against the pick-and-roll has skyrocketed. When he makes a mistake, it's the opposite type, messing up because he sagged too far back as opposed to straying too far from the hoop. That adjustment falls perfectly in line with Charlotte's philosophy to manipulate offenses into settling for mid-range shots.

Clifford worked this magic in one year. Imagine what he could do in a second.

Defensive struggles aren't the only correctable traits. Character can change too, especially in a kid. And as much as we love to consider Stephenson as anything other than that, he's still just 23. A kid.

We know the Hornets' formula. Find an otherwise beautiful painting with a smudge on it, and entrust it to an artist who is meticulous enough to remove the blemish without damaging the piece. 

It worked with Jefferson. Because Clifford already seems like a polished, veteran leader after one season as an NBA head coach, it could easily work with Stephenson.

This time, when the Hornets make noise in the East, it shouldn't be a surprise.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of August 14 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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