Lance Stephenson's Next Chapter Starts with a Clean Slate

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Lance Stephenson's Next Chapter Starts with a Clean Slate
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Career seasons have a way of generating scrutiny where there previously was none.

Lance Stephenson knows this well by now, or at least he should.

The 23-year-old made significant strides in his fourth season, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He proved himself one of the Indiana Pacers' top playmakers and even raised his scoring average to 15.4 points during a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

Numbers were never the problem. The distractions, however, were a different story.

Distractions the Charlotte Hornets could soon inherit after signing the Cincinnati product to a three-year deal reportedly worth $27 million in July. That deal apparently comes with a team option for the third season, a potentially useful safety valve should Stephenson's stint with his new club go awry.

"Lance will miss the city [Indianapolis], the team and the mentor who helped transform him into the dynamic player he has become," said Stephenson's agent Alberto Ebanks in a statement, per ESPN the Magazine's Chris Broussard. "He looks forward to making a strong contribution and beginning a new chapter with the Charlotte Hornets."

A new chapter that desperately needs a clean slate.

Stephenson's antics reached their public plateau during last season's conference finals. 

After first describing LeBron James' trash talk during the series as a "sign of weakness," Stephenson then employed what can only be described as a sign of desperation.

He blew in James' ear.

Despite the unquestioned entertainment value, the stunt crossed a line. Pacers team president Larry Bird wasn't happy. Miami veteran Ray Allen called it "buffoonery." In turn, the often electric play that elevated Stephenson's brand throughout the season was quickly overshadowed by immaturity.

The same man who led the league in regular-season triple-doubles now led it in head-scratching side shows as well.

To be sure, this wasn't the first strike against Stephenson.

According to ESPN.com's Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst, Stephenson's play took a selfish turn after he was denied an All-Star selection.

"Overall, the team noticed a shift in Stephenson from a more team-oriented approach to a more self-oriented focus, where he started obsessing about his statistics," wrote Wells and Windhorst. "People within the team believed his upcoming free agency was also a motivating factor for Stephenson, who wanted to enhance his value, something he believed suffered when he didn't get an All-Star nod."

Wells and Windhorst note that Stephenson's assist rate plummeted as the season continued, adding, "Stephenson's act had long worn thin by late March. When the players had meetings to address issues with the sudden struggles, Stephenson sometimes wasn't involved. Occasionally he appeared to be unaware they were even happening."

By season's end, Wells and Windhorst concluded that, "Stephenson has become one of the most polarizing players in the league and certainly on his own team," and that, "he requires constant maintenance by the entire operation, and losing focus for one second can lead to various levels of disaster."

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Internal tensions reached a breaking point with the postseason just around the corner.

Stephenson and teammate Evan Turner reportedly got into a scuffle during practice, with Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski indicating that, "Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson."

Anecdotes like these shed light on what appeared to be a collective identity crisis plaguing the Pacers' late-season march to the playoffs.

And the big takeaway is that Stephenson's shortcomings weren't simply momentary lapses of judgement.

They were patterned, consistent and detrimental to the team.

In short, they're hardly the kind of one-off shenanigans Charlotte can tolerate in its bid to improve upon a first-round playoff appearance.

The organization's short-term deal with Stephenson highlights the extent to which this could be a very temporary arrangement.

"Stephenson is banking on his upside and that he'll be a far more attractive free agent in the summer of 2017, just about the time the NBA's new television contract pumps tens of millions more into the salary cap," wrote the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell

He adds that, "The Hornets limit their downside, should Stephenson not work out. At $9 million per season and only two seasons guaranteed, Stephenson probably is tradable no matter how this turns out."

Kent Smith/Getty Images

The hope, of course, is that this turns out to be a steal.

There's real potential that Stephenson treats these next couple of years as an opportunity for damage control, rectifying an image he neglected during his rise to fame. With his next shot at free agency already looming, the time to erase any doubts is now.

The Hornets will need to do their part too. And with few tenured veterans on the roster, that leadership may need to come from the very top.

Indeed, Hornets owner Michael Jordan has already gotten that ball rolling.

"He told me what he likes about me, he told me what I need to calm down on," Stephenson told the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell of MJ's advice. "He told me how I can contribute to the team. And he told me he believed in my talent. He likes my competitive edge.”

Stephenson also acknowledged that his ear-blowing had overshadowed his ability, saying, "I've just got to change that around and learn from it.”

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For his part, head coach Steve Clifford appears to be prepared for the challenge. Per Bonnell, he added, "He knows that sometimes he has crossed the line a little bit. I think he does that out of competitiveness.”

Some even seem to believe Stephenson's presence will yield more than on-court production alone.

"Everybody in the world sees him in the playoffs," Hornets point guard Kemba Walker told the Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen. "Everybody talks about his antics and stuff like that. He’s a really good guy off the court, gets along with everybody, jokes with everybody. I think guys will definitely love him. He’s a great guy."

From Jordan and Clifford to Walker and big man Al Jefferson, the Hornets are now responsible for creating an environment in which Stephenson can grow up and thrive. He's already taken the first step, but the next one may be the hardest.

And his career depends on it.

As The New Yorker's Ian Crouch put it during those bizarre conference finals, "If, in a year or five or ten, Stephenson emerges as a calm and seasoned veteran, his current idiosyncrasies will be held up as the dark 'before' moments in his professional journey toward a respectable 'after.'"

In other words, it's not too late for Stephenson to be remembered for all the right reasons. 

A change of scenery may all the opportunity he needs. 

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