Court Changes: Lance Chooses Charlotte

Does the signing of Stephenson signal a new era for the revived Hornets?
by July 22, 2014

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

Lance Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

The Hornets signed Stephenson because: this no longer the team formerly and sadly known as the Charlotte Bobcats.

Two years ago, the Bobcats won seven total games in a 66-game shortened season. Seven.

Since the team’s foundation in 2004, the Bobcats have struggled to find their way, as most expansion teams do from the get-go. Yet, the Bobcats were more than just a bad team; they became a running joke among the NBA community and an image of ineptitude. The phrase “at least you’re not the Bobcats” suddenly appeared as a commonly used expression to appease depressed sports fans.

Charlotte’s front office rarely took risks while free agents had little desire to become the player who would have the task of bringing some life to the franchise. At one point in the Bobcats’ short history, the only notable free-agent signing was Shannon Brown. Every other major player acquisition came in the form of a draft pick or trade—which is a way of forcing someone to play for a team.

That franchise is now as distant a memory as the fiasco of Adam Morrison.

Last year, the Bob-nets had one of their best seasons ever by going 43-39, earning the 7-seed in the East and finding their place among Playoff teams. Yes, the East may have been watered down and yes, the Heat handily swept them in the first round. But they no longer looked like the laughingstock of the League, showing drastic improvements in coaching, playing and management.

In terms of playing, the development started with Al Jefferson, the first (and last) sought-after free agent to choose the Bobcats over his other 29 options. Big Al gave Charlotte a legitimate low-post threat and another option to run the offense through.

Lance Stephenson now enters as a player most of us will correlate with the resurgence of the Hornets’ image. In the past, this franchise would have never chased a player of Stephenson’s caliber, and Stephenson wouldn’t have even given Charlotte a second glance.

This is a different franchise with an owner in Michael Jordan who has taken leaps as an executive these past few offseasons. No longer is MJ considered a joke in the front office. No longer are these the Charlotte Bobcats. The Charlotte Hornets are back and ready for a new image in more ways than one.

This is good for the Hornets because: they snagged a vital third scorer in a low-risk, high-reward situation.

The concept of a “Big Three” is highly regarded in the League and seen as a key element of success. Bringing together three elite players has been accomplished even before the recent surge of Big Threes across the League. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper (and then James Worthy). Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. For Schoolhouse Rock and the NBA, three is certainly a magic number.

Even though the triad of Kemba Walker-Jefferson-Stephenson doesn’t have the flash and fame as the other trios in recent and past NBA history, it certainly has the potential to work on the court.

Last season, first-year head coach and basketball lifer Steve Clifford implemented a simple but effective defensive system in Charlotte. His team focused on limiting an opponent’s transition opportunities, second-chance points and free throws. They ended the season with the fifth most efficient defense in the League.

As stout as the defense was, though, the team’s offense lacked any sort of creativity or flow as it was cripplingly reliant on two players.

Walker and Jefferson combined to score practically all of the Bobcats’ points. At least that is what it often felt like. Jefferson averaged 21.8 ppg and 10.8 rpg and Walker averaged 17.7 ppg and 6.1 apg. Gerald Henderson, Gary Neal and Ramon Sessions all averaged double-digits in scoring but didn’t have the ability to take the responsibility as that third piece to the Big Three puzzle.

At 6-5, 230 pounds, Stephenson goes to Charlotte as a wing who can provide dependable perimeter defense in Clifford’s system while coexisting and possibly flourishing alongside a star point guard and center. In his breakout season with the Pacers last year, Stephenson averaged 13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 4.6 apg. He was one of only four players with at least 13.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.0 apg, joining Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Nicolas Batum.

It isn’t coincidental that Stephenson led the NBA in triple-doubles (4) last season. He expanded his game on both ends of the floor and doesn’t look to be plateauing anytime soon. For a team that constantly struggled to put the ball in the basket and ranked in the bottom seven in offensive efficiency, the Bobcats now have a starter who can offer a new, different and electric source of scoring.

These three play different positions and all can create their own shots—a vital characteristic for any Big Three. They obviously need to feed off the other’s strengths, but each member of a successful trio must also have a sense of independence. Born Ready certainly has the confidence and creative skills to be a scoring option in and of himself. Also, Stephenson should play well in the backcourt with Walker since these two have played with and against each other during their formative years in New York.

And when Walker needs a breather, the momentum will no longer come to a screeching halt as Clifford can run the offense through Stephenson. (As fun as Josh McRoberts is, he can’t be a playoff team’s second source of playmaking. Stephenson is a drastic improvement.)

This might look like a desperate move since Stephenson comes with plenty of lingering and potential problems, but when looking at the contract, the Hornets have put themselves in a great position during the next few years. Stephenson’s contract is certainly tradable and gives the team an out if the charismatic shooting guard does in fact self-destruct. With a team-option on the third year, the Hornets can decide to cut ties with Stephenson after only the second season and be off the hook completely.

This is good for Stephenson because: his next free-agency period could be drastically different.

Not only is this contract favorable for the Hornets, it also offers Stephenson the chance to receive another major increase in pay.

The current offseason didn’t turn out the way Stephenson had hoped for. With the likes of Gordon Hayward, Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons and Luol Deng triggering plenty of interested suitors and lavish contract offers, Stephenson’s name fell silent during the initial chatter of free agency. Earlier, he turned down the Pacers’ five-year, $44 million offer in hopes of finding a better deal. (Or he wanted out of Indiana no matter what.)

This might not have been the deal Stephenson was looking for when he finished the 2013-14 season, but if he excels while in Charlotte (possible All-Star?), the tide could turn in the New York native’s favor.

At age 23, Stephenson will be a free agent again at the age of 25 or 26—which is right at the cusp of an athlete’s prime. If the next contract he signs is for four or five years, Lance would be joining a team during some of his best years.

But it all starts with his current contract. Stephenson is betting on himself to grow into an elite player. If he can find consistency and reliability while still maturing on and off the court, he could ultimately find a multitude of player-friendly contract offers right at his doorstep.

This could hurt the Hornets’ chemistry because: Stephenson isn’t the type of player Charlotte has been acquiring of late.

Owners of professional sports teams generally create a certain culture, revolving around a type of style, attitude or player. For Jordan, he clearly values professionalism in a basketball player. His second most-recent signee, Jefferson, embodies this maturity and responsibility as Big Al is considered to be a team-first, level-headed player who has a positive influence in the locker room. Walker is certainly an intense competitor and passionate player but has learned to harness his emotions and has quickly grown up during his first three seasons in the League. Just like Pacers owner Larry Bird, Jordan is a no-nonsense owner who expects on-court and off-court issues to remain at a minimum.

Lance Choke-Gesture, Blow-In-Your-Ear Stephenson can’t seem to develop into a player void of a variety of antics. He has cut down on his troubles with the law faced during high school and college, but Stephenson still consistently exhibits his peculiar behaviors and has shown no desire to “grow up” any time soon.

Additionally, the insertion of PJ Hairston, who has plenty of his own issues, combined with Stephenson’s conduct could further taint the culture Jordan has been cultivating. But the returning Hornets, along with Clifford, might end up positively influencing two men trying to find their footing.

With a roster, though, filled with youth and lacking a boisterous veteran to put teammates in their place, the Hornets are running the risk of Stephenson being a detriment to his new team.

This is good for the Hornets’ relevancy because: they might actually receive some national coverage.

Last year, the Bobcats were one of three teams that did not receive a single nationally televised game during the regular season. Jefferson might have been a great fit to their frontline and certainly was central in pushing the team into the postseason, but he doesn’t dazzle with his play or entice NBA fans to see what he will do next. To put it simply, Jefferson is boring to fair-weather fans and so were the Bobcats (except for McBob’s locks).

Stephenson changes all of this. As annoying as he may have been when joining the Heat’s huddle or playing possum after he flopped, Born Ready is one of the most tantalizing characters in the NBA. The kid also has a level of transparency with reporters not often seen in today’s PR-driven sports world. And when all of this is combined with the entertainment he showcases when actually playing basketball, a beat writer’s dream player has arrived in Charlotte.

This national attention has the possibility to grow into bigger and better things for Charlotte, as players and sponsorships might have more of an incentive to team up with the Hornets. Relevancy is just on the horizon. (One thing is for certain: we should all prepare for a potential nationally-televised game between the Hornets and Pacers. We need that.)

This will have a significant impact on the Hornets because: they are taking risks and making moves with impeccable timing.

As I mentioned in a previous Court Changes, a team’s championship window does not stay open for very long. Sometimes franchises don’t recognize when it is open while others simply play in the wrong conference or time period.

Michael Jordan is fully aware of championship windows and can sense when it is time to push all his chips to the center of the table. He’s peaking through a slight opening in Charlotte’s window.

The Hornets certainly aren’t ready to be included in the discussion of NBA “contenders” for the time being. They still have an untested coach and a team that hasn’t experienced a legitimate playoff run.

But by signing Stephenson, Jordan is building a defensive-driven squad that is ready to prove to the League they have the makeup to take advantage of the wide-open Eastern Conference and snatch home-court advantage in the first round. That’s the first step along the winding and demanding road to the Larry O’Brien trophy, and the Hornets are sprinting ahead.

For two consecutive offseasons, the now Charlotte Hornets have convinced a free agent to play for their team. That had never happened before since the Bobcats came into existence. And now, they have the chance to appear in back-to-back postseasons and show why teal is making a strong comeback in the NBA.

Previously in 2013-14 offseason:
Court Changes: Thomas Joins the Young Suns
Court Changes: Dallas Adds Another Chandler
Court Changes: Pau Gasol Heads to Chi-Town
Court Changes: Return of the King
Court Changes: Tyson Returns to Big D