Charlotte Hornets Take Smart Gamble on Lance Stephenson's Future

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2014

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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.

The Charlotte Hornets are incredibly smart for syncing up with Lance Stephenson

According to The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, "Born Ready" is ready to leave the Indiana Pacers:

Bonnell also offers a few more details on the contract:

Chris Broussard of ESPN.com confirms Stephenson's decision:

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

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 28: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers drives to the basket as Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat defends during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 28, 2014 in I
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After watching Josh McRoberts sign with the Miami Heat and missing out on restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, the Hornets needed offense. They needed it badly.

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. 

Only four players averaged at least 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game last year. Stephenson was among them, joining Nicolas Batum, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. 

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.

Jefferson and Walker need Stephenson.
Jefferson and Walker need Stephenson.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

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. 

And he comes at the perfect price.

Perfect Price

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 20:  Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates after making a basket against the Miami Heat during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 20, 2014 in Indian
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

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:

Moreover, this isn't a deal Stephenson "settled" for. He, too, wanted the short-term contract:

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.

Savvy Gamble

MIAMI, FL - MAY 30: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers looks on from the bench against the Miami Heat during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 30, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO U
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Does any of this make Stephenson's new pact a risk-free gambit?

Of course not. He's a wild card. His disobedient ego and raw fire know no bounds. He helps you; he hurts you. He scores a basket; he taunts. He plays defense; he blows in LeBron's ear. 

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. 

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.

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.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.