The fact is Lance Stephenson wasn’t the first choice in free agency by the Charlotte Hornets and Charlotte wasn’t Stephenson’s choice as a destination.
But more than two weeks into the July period when NBA teams could negotiate with players not under contract, the Hornets and Stephenson both had reason to be anxious.
The Hornets threw a huge offer sheet at restricted free agent Gordon Hayward ($63 million over four seasons), only to see the Utah Jazz match to retain the 6-foot-8 swingman. Along the way, power forward Josh McRoberts – the player Hornets owner Michael Jordan called the team’s “connect-the-dots guy” – chose to sign instead with the Miami Heat.
Meanwhile, Stephenson – a gifted 6-foot-5 shooting guard, but also a quirky, sometimes disruptive player – was not getting what he wanted in negotiations with the Indiana Pacers.
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The Pacers had offered $44 million guaranteed over five years – a big raise for a player chosen 40th overall in the 2010 draft. Stephenson felt he was worth more, but the Pacers wouldn’t budge.
So Tuesday, for the first time since free agency began July 1, the Hornets and Stephenson contemplated a union. The two sides met late afternoon in Las Vegas. By 6 a.m. Wednesday, general manager Rich Cho and Stephenson agent Alberto Ebanks had a deal.
As first reported by the Observer, Stephenson will sign a three-season contract with the third season at the Hornets’ option. He’ll make $9 million each of the first two seasons and $9.4 million if the Hornets keep him for 2016-17.
Stephenson is expected to sign the contract in time for a Friday news conference in Charlotte.
It was quite intentional, by both Stephenson and the Hornets, that this deal was three years long, rather than the five the Pacers proposed.
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.
And the Hornets limit their downside, should Stephenson not work out. At $9 million per season and only two seasons guaranteed, Stephenson probably is tradeable no matter how this turns out.
The Hornets need scoring and perimeter shooting, and Stephenson delivered that last season. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists as the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before being eliminated by the Miami Heat.
The only way to make center Al Jefferson more effective inside is to occupy perimeter defenders, so opponents find it harder to double-team Jefferson. Stephenson has that capacity, far beyond that of incumbent starters Gerald Henderson at shooting guard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward.
Stephenson is also a rangy defender and finishes strong at the rim. There’s a lot to like about the player who picked up the nickname “Born Ready” on the playground courts of Coney Island in his native New York City.
There’s also plenty to wonder about.
Stephenson can be high maintenance and it’s not Cho’s habit to go after that type of player (though rookie P.J. Hairston qualifies).
Last season alone, Stephenson committed 14 technical fouls, the third-highest total in the NBA. Yahoo Sports reported Stephenson got in a fist-fight with then-teammate Evan Turner during practice preparation for the first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks.
That intensity has a good side, as well. Stephenson treats every game like a personal challenge. He’ll volunteer to guard the other team’s best wing scorer. But he can go over the top.
In the conference final Stephenson blew in the ear of Miami’s LeBron James. Rather than distract James, it focused the superstar to negate the Pacers’ home-court advantage. He also barged into one of Miami’s timeout huddles. More than once Larry Bird, the head of Pacers basketball operations, told Stephenson to knock off the theatrics.
Heat guard Ray Allen called Stephenson’s behavior “buffoonery.”
That’s not to say Stephenson lacked supporters in Indianapolis. Bird told the Indianapolis Star before free agency began, “That’s my boy, you know that. I’ll take care of him – if I can.”
Pacers center Roy Hibbert celebrated Stephenson’s playfulness on Twitter on Tuesday, writing, “Gonna miss having you around. One of the funniest teammates I’ve ever had.”
Yet you can’t dismiss everything about Stephenson’s past with the label “class clown.”
He was suspended five games in high school over a fight with a teammate at New York’s Lincoln High. As a high school senior he was charged with sexual assault, involving a groping incident with a 17-year-old girl. He eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. In 2010, he was accused of pushing a girlfriend down a flight of stairs and then slamming her head on the bottom step. The resulting charge was later dropped.
“My mistakes were really bad and I regret it,” Stephenson told the Indianapolis Star in a 2013 article. “At the same time, I learned from them. I learned to keep my distance from things that could get me in trouble and sacrifice my career.”
Now he’ll continue that career in Charlotte, entering a locker room that prizes teamwork and unselfishness beyond typical in the NBA.
This is Cho’s gamble but it will be coach Steve Clifford’s problem if Stephenson gets out of line. Ask Clifford about discipline and he frequently quotes his former boss, Jeff Van Gundy: Enforcing discipline is easy, playing with discipline is hard.
Can Stephenson live by that standard? And if he doesn’t, how will the franchise react?
The next two years could be quite a ride.
Staff researcher Maria David contributed to this story.