Larry Bird must feel like there's nothing else he could have done to keep Lance Stephenson. He rented out a movie theater the minute the clock struck July 1 to show Stephenson and his family a short film about the guard's rise within the organization. The Pacers offered him $44 million over five years, a package with more guaranteed money than Stephenson was realistically going to see anywhere else. Bird supported him through everything, from his arrest shortly after the 2010 draft to the public scrutiny that came with his antics in the NBA playoffs.
NBA Free Agency
NBA Free Agency
It still wasn't enough. Stephenson chose to leave $17 million on the table when he accepted a three-year, $27 million offer from the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday morning. He'll be paid slightly more annually per year and will have the ability to reach free agency sooner when the salary cap should rise after the league's new TV contract.
The annual compensation was similar. If Indiana was ready to give Stephenson a five-year deal, Bird likely would have matched the terms of the contract he would eventually sign in Charlotte. For Stephenson, this wasn't about money as much as it was a chance to grow as a player. It seems pretty obvious now that Stephenson didn't want to be in Indiana as badly as the team's front office wanted him to remain.
It makes sense for an emerging two-way who turns 24 years old later this offseason. Even as criticism poured in that Stephenson was a selfish player over the second half of the season, he still finished seventh on his own team in usage rate. For Stephenson to truly reach his potential, he couldn't continue to take a back seat to Paul George, David West and the rest of his veteran teammates in Indiana.
David West (left) and Paul George (right), Photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images
It's a story the NBA has seen many times before. Joe Johnson was a critical cog on the 2004 Phoenix Suns, but he didn't really start to shine until he became the man in Atlanta. James Harden couldn't crack the starting lineup over Thabo Sefolosha in Oklahoma City, but he quickly became one of the league's 15 best players once he got to Houston. Stephenson wants that same opportunity, and he thinks he'll get it in Charlotte. Johnson and Harden, after all, each have max contracts in their bank accounts.
The fit with the Hornets could be great. Coach Steve Clifford is a defense-first disciplinarian who should be able to reign in Stephenson's wild side a bit. Stephenson and Al Jefferson will form a nice inside-outside attack, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist cutting on the baseline and Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams helping stretch the floor from the power forward spot.
Don't look now, but Charlotte is actually a lot deeper than the Pacers with a defense that could be just as stifling. If Zeller, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, or Noah Vonleh, the 18-year-old selected No. 9 this June, take a step forward in the next two or three seasons, the Hornets are going to have a very high ceiling in a weakened Eastern Conference.
There's always an opportunity in the East, and by signing Stephenson the Hornets put themselves in the mix. Like every other team in the conference, a lot will need to go right. Stephenson and point guard Kemba Walker must make opposing teams respect them from three-point range. You know Kidd-Gilchrist isn't a threat from the outside. If Walker and Stephenson can't shoot threes, there isn't going to be much space for drives or for Jefferson to work his magic on the inside.
It's a big blow for a Pacers' offense that already struggled. It's fair to suggest leaving the nest that nurtured him in Indiana might not be a positive for Stephenson's career, either. But by accepting less money to go to Charlotte, Stephenson has proven he's willing to bet on himself. It's risky, but it could pay off in a big way, both for the Hornets and for Stephenson.