Can Michael Jordan Succeed with Lance Stephenson Where Larry Bird Failed?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJuly 20, 2014

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When one of the NBA’s all-time great trash-talkers thinks your antics are beyond the pale, you know you’ve crossed a line—especially if that all-time great trash-talker happens to be your boss.

Blowing in LeBron James’ ear didn’t cost Lance Stephenson his job with the Indiana Pacers, but judging by team President Larry Bird’s subsequent offer (five years for $44 million, per ESPN’s Chris Broussard), they weren’t exactly desperate to have "Born Ready" back, either.

Jilted and jaded, Stephenson eventually signed a three-year, $27 million tender with the Charlotte Hornets, where he’ll now answer to the most legendary of roundball rabble-rousers, Michael Jordan.

Now the question becomes, can Jordan successfully do what Bird couldn’t and turn Stephenson into the controlled force of nature he’s capable of being?

May 3, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana won 92-80. Mandatory Cre

First, the silver lining: After three years of unpredictable minutes and uneven play, Stephenson’s 2013-14 season was something of a happy harbinger, with the 23-year-old charting career highs nearly across the board.

Stephenson’s play was so steadily stellar that the Pacers prodigy very nearly secured his first All-Star appearance. As Indiana surged to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Stephenson’s heady mix of passion, playmaking and perimeter defense served as crucial constants on a legitimate conference contender.

He was—and remains—a triple-double threat every time he puts foot to floor. That Charlotte could use that five-tool tenacity goes without saying.

It’s the extra basketball baggage Jordan should be concerned about.

Trash-talking has always been a part of Stephenson’s game. In that sense, he’s not unlike any of the hundreds of other players who look for any modicum of a competitive edge.

The timing—that’s where Stephenson slipped.

By now we all know the most famous foible: Blowing in the ear of LeBron James during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Not surprisingly, Stephenson’s stunt was met with brutal backlash, both from Bird and head coach Frank Vogel as well as fans and NBA notables.

After USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt sent Bird a text message asking whether the Boston Celtics legend and longtime Pacers staple was upset with Stephenson’s display, Larry Legend’s response was as curt and terse as his on-court demeanor:

“Yes I am,” he said.

"Blowing in his face probably crosses the line," Vogel added (per Zillgitt). "That's not really who we are. We want to be a competitive team, but we don't want to cross the line."

That Stephenson chose to nonchalantly saunter into Miami’s huddle during the same game certainly didn’t exactly help his cause.

However, such slip-ups pale when compared to some of Stephenson’s past transgressions.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Sure, there was the time he attempted to fight an opponent after getting his shot blocked in a pickup game. But even that fails to match what was by far Stephenson’s most infamous episode: physically assaulting his then-girlfriend by pushing her down a flight of stars not long after being taken by the Pacers with the No. 40 pick in the 2010 NBA draft (per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com).

The case was ultimately dismissed, according to Mark Lelinwalla of the New York Daily News.

Just three years removed from narrowly escaping jail time, Stephenson continued tempting fate, albeit in subtler, far less violent ways.

The “selfish dudes” Roy Hibbert referred to after a particularly embarrassing regular-season loss? According to Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports, the player in question was—to the surprise of few—Stephenson.

How about having to be separated from teammate George Hill during a heated exchange in the midst of Indy’s end-of-season downward spiral (per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst)?

The alleged mid-practice fistfight with Evan Turner (from Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski)? That was Stephenson, too.

In the end, Stephenson's most notable shenanigan—let’s just call it Whispergate—wasn’t what put the Pacers off. It was merely the last in a 10-ton-bail’s-worth-of-straws, years-in-the-back-breaking making. For the Pacers, anyway.

AJ MAST/Associated Press

Jordan and the Hornets, meanwhile, must know the risk they’re taking. On one side of the coin you have Stephenson: The “Born Ready” basketball prodigy—a tenacious tank of talent and energy that, directed through the right lens, creates a laser capable of cutting through statistical steel.

On the other side: An unpredictable headcase of passion and rage who too often forgets what’s demanded of his stage.

As CBS Sports' Matt Moore recently underscored, the risk—from both a basketball and a human-relations perspective—is a real one for Charlotte:

Going from the Pacers' dreadful offense to the Hornets' dreadful offense means expectations remain low, and the defensive stoutness will help. Stephenson will get touches in Charlotte, and have the chance to create and score. But Stephenson has to be aware, based on the fact that he gravitated so hard to Larry Bird, that he needs structure. He needs leadership. He needs guidance.

And that may not be prevalent in Charlotte. Al Jefferson is a good guy and a veteran leader. But on Charlotte, the vet leaders are few and far between. It may work better that there isn't a hierarchy in Charlotte like there was with Indiana in terms of Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert for Stephenson to chafe at. He has his place. He's coming from a winning environment. But while Hibbert and George are far from old guys, the impact players on Charlotte outside Jefferson are still very young.

If Stephenson gets out of control in Charlotte, there may not be a fence to keep him corralled.

One of the biggest criticisms levied upon His Airness since retiring from the NBA in 2003 concerns the fungibility of greatness—the idea that Jordan’s peerless career would translate to front-office success.

Save for last year’s surprising playoff appearance, that equation has yet to ring true. Similarly, there may be a part of Jordan, however genuine, that believes the same hero who hoisted his teammates to shoulder through so many smoldering fires can somehow steer Lance aright.

By just about every metric and makeshift list, Jordan tops Bird in the NBA’s all-time pantheon—due, in no small part, to the former’s ferocious competitiveness.

Except, of course, when it comes to the front office. Here, it's Bird who's had the edge, turning the small-market Pacers into a paragon of NBA success and stability.

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 28:  Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan watches on against the Miami Heat in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 28, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Redeeming Stephenson would, for Jordan, take one more mark from Larry's ledger.

Some clichés are such because they’re true, and this one is no different: The only one who can turn Lance Stephenson around—channel the charred heart and belligerent behavior into a basketball star to savor—is Lance Stephenson.

In his piece, Moore writes part of Stephenson’s problem is “that he wants to win too much…He talks trash to LeBron James because he wants to try and get the best player in the game off his rocker by any means necessary.”

Stephenson’s competitiveness and drive have seldom been questioned. Which is why, perhaps more than anyone else, Jordan has a chance to break through the scarred facade.

Because if you’re willing to wager an edge on talking trash to today’s best, imagine what kind you'll gain from listening to forever’s.


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