The Hornets have signed free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million contract, according to the Charlotte Observer and ESPN.com. The deal includes a team option on the final season.
Stephenson, 23, was a key member of a Pacers team that went to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and '14. The '10 second-round pick distinguished himself with high-energy, pesky defense, and he improved as a playmaker last season. Stephenson put up career highs across the board, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists and finishing with a 17.6 Player Efficiency Rating.
The Indianapolis Star reported this week that the Pacers offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal. Stephenson has been one of the best bargains in the NBA, earning about $3.5 million total over the last four seasons.
Stephenson, SI.com's 11th-ranked free agent this summer, has developed a reputation as a bit of an instigator. He reportedly got into a practice fight with teammate Evan Turner last season, he famously blew into LeBron James' ear during the postseason and he has been repeatedly fined for violating the NBA's anti-flopping policy.
In Charlotte, Stephenson will join a starting lineup that is expected to include point guard Kemba Walker, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and All-NBA Third Team center Al Jefferson. The Hornets lost starting power forward Josh McRoberts to the Heat in free agency.
Owner Michael Jordan has delivered on his pledge to make some splashes after the Hornets' surprising 43-win season and playoff appearance. Charlotte also landed forward Marvin Williams this week, with his two-year, $14 million contract and the deal with Stephenson coming after Utah matched the Hornets' four-year, $63 million offer for restricted free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward.
The Pacers will feel the impact of Stephenson's departure. Turner is an unrestricted free agent after the Pacers declined to make him a qualifying offer. Indiana has signed 27-year-old wing C.J. Miles, who could wind up replacing Stephenson in the starting lineup.
Charlotte rebranded from the "Bobcats" to the "Hornets" after the season.
The initial wave of reaction to this deal seemed to be that the Hornets were taking a big risk by investing in Stephenson, given his buffoonery during the postseason. That framing might be overstated.
This is a team-friendly contract -- less than $10 million per year with only two guaranteed years -- that should encourage the volatile Stephenson to be on his best behavior for its duration. The real danger with a player as emotional and unpredictable as Stephenson is committing to him for so long that he believes his actions will not impact his next contract; that just isn't the case here.
Stephenson fits nicely into Charlotte's lineup: the Hornets, like anyone, can use a play-maker and an accomplished wing defender. His fierce personality and postseason experience should also be welcomed by coach Steve Clifford, who totally overhauled a broken culture during his first year on the job. Clifford's top task will be establishing productive guidelines for Stephenson's role on offense, as too much Lance can obviously be a bad thing.
Leaving the Pacers does require that Stephenson adapt to a new support system, but one assumes that the Hornets realize that their latest acquisition will require a little extra attention. In an Eastern Conference that now lacks a clear favorite, it's possible that the Stephenson acquisition is enough, by itself, to vault the Hornets up into the middle of the playoff pack. For a franchise that was historically bad just a few seasons ago, such progress would be a major, major victory.
In an ideal world, this summer sends a message to Stephenson that his behavior has meaningfully hurt his earning power. If he channels that information as motivation and settles into a larger role on a team that needs his scoring and passing, he could easily outperform this contract. Under the worst-case scenario -- if he melts down off the court or takes a selfish turn on the court -- the Hornets can begin shopping his flexible deal without delay.
The bet here is that Stephenson trends more towards the best-case scenario, as he simply doesn't have the comfort of leverage. Hopefully he has someone that he trusts spelling all of this out for him.