Oct 22, 2014 11:16 AM EDT
Part of the allure that the Charlotte Hornets presented inside a deluxe Las Vegas hotel captured the mind of Lance Stephenson. Patrick Ewing patted a son of Brooklyn on the shoulder and shared with him stories of Michael Jordan, shared endless possibilities with an old rival in Kemba Walker and a connection only these New York stars can produce.
Ewing, Jordan, Walker and a stable coaching staff formed a major draw and ideas for a new future for Stephenson, but over and over, he mostly kept coming back to what failed to happen with his old franchise.
Before Stephenson had committed to Charlotte, his representatives had recognized his successful growth with the Indiana Pacers and a desire to stay. Move a salary off the books, move a player here or there and keep your homegrown talent, Stephenson’s management team urged the Pacers’ front office. With the ability to shed part or all of Luis Scola’s and Donald Sloan’s contracts, people involved in negotiations brought up scenarios to remove those deals to create an increased Year 1 and Year 2 salary for Stephenson in a deal with Indiana. Suggestions went unanswered, without execution.
Under the direction of Larry Bird and Herb Simon, the Pacers remained resistant in their contract offer to Stephenson, and lost him. Bird had called Stephenson’s behaviors “disappointing” late in last season’s playoffs, had failed to convince ownership enough of his former second round pick to spike into a luxury tax area, but Stephenson was his guy. He always shielded Stephenson privately and publicly. Away from this partnership, Stephenson understands there’s no turning back now, no grudge to keep.
“I never noticed anything change between us, nah,” Stephenson told RealGM. “Me and Larry were always cool.”
Cool, but how was the conversation with Bird? How was the explanation to his face -- or into his cell phone -- about why he found it unacceptable to be the lowest paid starter for two more seasons in the Pacers’ proposal? In the corner of a locker room recently, Stephenson shook his head.
“We didn’t have a conversation,” Stephenson said. “Haven’t talked. I’m focused on winning here now. This group of guys is good, hungry, and we want to win. This team is young and hungry to get far.”
For Stephenson, the plane flight to North Carolina in July washed over him that he’d need to leave behind Bird and Donnie Walsh, Frank Vogel and Paul George. For all of Bird’s imprints on Stephenson, Walsh sat courtside late in the Eastern Conference finals in the spring -- pointing toward George and Stephenson shooting pregame, admiring Stephenson and vowing he was emerging behind George’s stardom.
Stephenson had people in his ear a lot there, but he had the same people in his corner too.
“I’m sure part of him, part of his heart stayed for a little while,” Steve Clifford told RealGM. “When you’re in one place for four years, playing with primarily the same guys, it’s a significant change. But change is part of this league, and he’s fit in well with our guys.”
The maturation process continues for Stephenson under Clifford, one of the NBA’s best system coaches. Even given a depleted roster at times or a difficult stretch in the schedule a season ago, Clifford prevailed with foundation, structured schemes and harmony with his players so their efforts never wane. The Hornets brought four gritty players into training camp, and so far Jason Maxiell is the leading candidate to be retained for the 15th regular season roster spot, a source said.
Before the Hornets could grant Stephenson a Las Vegas meeting, before they could ever give him a contract, Clifford needed to see something for himself.
“Before we talked to Lance about coming here, I watched a lot of film on him,” Clifford told RealGM. “That stuff in the playoffs, that’s one or two plays. The bottom line is, if you watched him last season and through the playoffs, he had a tremendous season. He’s a great pick and roll player and a great defender and rebounder.
“The two things that stand out about him are: he’s worked hard since he’s been in the league, and his competitiveness. [Jordan] spoke to Lance about the fact that it’s one of the ways he can get better. People view Lance’s competitiveness sometimes as a weakness, and sometimes he has to channel that energy in the right way.”
Hornets' officials around him, and Jordan showered a free agent target with as much praise as constructive criticism: How we’ll continue to mold you into one of the NBA’s best two-way players. How that edge in the playoffs could work on LeBron James next time around. How you need the Hornets as much as we need you.
Everyone will wait for the next outburst, Jordan told Stephenson, but controlled emotion is key to competition. Now, Stephenson knows cameras will heighten on him for soundbites and endless highlight scrolls come postseason in Charlotte. This is why he spent part of the summer receiving training and guidance from his representatives on ways to handle being the player sent to the press conference room after a playoff game, ways to win over an interview in victory or defeat.
Already, Stephenson’s had interest off the court in local endorsement deals, but he has made clear to hold off on any commitments until the season starts. His deal with AND1 runs for two more seasons, so any discussion of a shoe partnership with Jordan is simply speculation for now. Whatever, because Stephenson is still configuring his knowledge of Clifford’s play sets.
“I’m trying to learn the offense still,” Stephenson said.
Before Stephenson attended the Hornets' meeting and was handed team material on that July night in Las Vegas, pleas were made to find salary space and a shorter-term deal with the Pacers. No one would be released or traded by the Pacers for this; negotiations held firm. “No regrets. I just want to win games,” Stephenson says, and so he bet on himself and took a deal to enter free agency again for the NBA’s cap spike.
No forever bond with Larry Bird and the Pacers. No turning back now for Lance Stephenson.
Oct 20, 2014 5:41 PM EDT
Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Central Division, where most of the action in the Eastern Conference is. After four seasons of wandering in the desert, Cleveland is celebrating the return of their prodigal son, a move which instantly changed the trajectory of the Cavs franchise and the balance of power in the league. So what teams are positioned to be their rivals over the next few seasons?
The last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls were one of the up and coming young teams in the NBA, losing to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. A lot has happened in the meantime, but the Bulls have managed to bring along a number of young players and they have a few promising rookies coming down the pipeline. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy and return to form, that could quickly become one of the best rivalries in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers emerged as LeBron’s chief rival when he was in Miami, but they have been decimated by injuries and free agent defections in the off-season. Like Chicago the last few years, they are trying to overcome a devastating injury to their franchise player while using that time to develop a few young players and position themselves to get back into the fray. It could turn out for the best, as the Pacers might benefit from adding a lottery pick to their core.
Down the road, both the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks have the young talent to conceivable challenge Cleveland. While both are still in the beginning of a rebuilding process, they already have the most important parts behind them - acquiring potential franchise players. The Central Division is interesting now, but it could conceivably become much more interesting in the next few years ... or the Cavs could just steamroll everyone. That’s possible too.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters:
After receiving a max contract in the offseason, Kyrie Irving is the young player who has gotten most of the pub on the Cavs new super-team. Waiters, meanwhile, is best known for some of the more reckless things he has said to the media. However, if he can continue to improve and live up to being a No. 4 overall pick, Cleveland can be really scary. For all the legitimately goofy stuff he does on and off the court, he is a very good young player.
At 6’4 220 with a 6’7 wingspan, Waiters is a dynamic scorer who can shoot, handle, pass and swing between either guard position. While he will have to play more without the ball in his hands this season, he is going to get a lot of open looks and he is more than capable of capitalizing on them. If he makes the easy play, moves the ball and competes on the defensive end, he could be one of the best fourth options in the NBA and start living up to his boasts.
- Chicago Bulls: Tony Snell:
After being thrust into the Chicago rotation by necessity as a rookie, Snell will have to compete for minutes on a much deeper team. He has all the tools to be a successful wing player in Tom Thibodeau’s system - at 6’7 200, he has the length and athleticism to swing between multiple positions on the perimeter and he has shown the ability to knock down 3’s. While he was only at 32% last season, he was a career 38% three-point shooter at New Mexico.
In order to get on the floor, he will need to internalize Thibodeau’s defensive principles while also becoming a more complete offensive player. He shot 38% from the floor last season, numbers only Kirk Hinrich is allowed to put up in Chicago. In a best-case scenario, Snell makes a leap similar to the one Jimmy Butler made in his second season. If not, with Doug McDermott breathing down his neck for minutes, he may not be long for the Bulls.
- Indiana Pacers: Solomon Hill
Hill didn’t really get a chance to show what he could as a rookie, when he was behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in Indiana’s rotation. With all three gone this season, the Pacers will give Hill every chance to eat up minutes and establish himself as a legitimate NBA player. They made their bones as a franchise that drafts and develops, so they have to hope that Hill learned something going up against those guys in practice.
Coming out of college, Hill had a rep as a guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. At 6’7 225, he doesn’t have elite athleticism and he was never an explosive scorer at Arizona. He was a very smart four-year player who could do a little bit of everything - shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend. While he probably can’t handle a huge offensive burden, he could become an effective NBA player by just filling in the cracks and playing within himself.
- Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
There was only one real reason for Stan Van Gundy to take the Pistons job - the 21-year-old freak of nature on their roster still young enough to be molded into anything. Despite all the dysfunction around him last season, Drummond put up some fairly eye-popping numbers - 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting. Not only is he one of the biggest human beings in the league, he is incredibly athletic for a guy with his monstrous size.
If you close your eyes and project a few years forward, you can see Van Gundy using Drummond in many of the same ways he used Dwight Howard in Orlando. To be sure, he still has a ton of work to do on both ends of the floor and his free-throw shooting is going to have to improve. Nevertheless, for as raw a player as Drummond still is, he still managed to put up a 22.6 PER last season. Spread the floor around him and anything is possible.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis was one of the best stories in the league last season, but all the positive press has obscured what a raw player he still. For all the flashes of greatness he showed as a rookie, he wasn’t all that effective in his time on the floor, with per-36 minute averages of 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 41% shooting. Translation to potential to production is not easy in the NBA, especially for a 20-year-old on a bad team without many veterans to lean on.
For Giannis, this season is all about filling out his body and becoming strong enough to deal with the physicality of the league. If he can handle that, his length, skill and athleticism should take him a long away. Jason Kidd has made noises about using him as a point forward, which might not be a bad experiment for a Bucks team going nowhere. He can conceivably improve every facet of his game, which is exciting but also tells you how far he has to go.
Jul 17, 2014 10:59 AM EDT
Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, a number that was closer to Jodie Meeks (3-years, $19 million) than Chandler Parsons (3-years, $45 million). Nevertheless, he was one of the best all-around players available in free agency. The Indiana Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.
Over the last four seasons, Stephenson went from second-round draft pick to integral part of the Pacers core. As he has gotten better, so has Indiana. He was a benchwarmer on a 37-win team, a fringe player on a 42-win team, a starter on a 49-win team and a featured player on a 56-win team. His emergence allowed them to survive the loss of Danny Granger, the best player on their team four years ago. This time around, they don't have anyone in the pipeline who can replace Stephenson.
The Pacers built an elite team through the draft - three of their starters (Stephenson, Paul George and Roy Hibbert) were draft picks and the fourth (George Hill) was traded for one. However, as they have dropped lower in the first round, the pipeline has dried up. They have almost nothing to show for the last three drafts - they dealt their first-round picks in 2012 and 2014 for Luis Scola. Solomon Hill, their first-round pick into 2013, was a senior without a high ceiling who didn't get a lot of minutes as a rookie.
It's tough to sustain a run at the very top of the conference without a transcendent player like LeBron James. A team like the Pacers needs all five starters pulling in the right direction, which is hard to maintain over 4+ seasons - someone gets hurt, someone gets a bigger contract with a new team, someone gets old. Paul George is on the upswing, but Roy Hibbert and George Hill seem to have peaked and David West is 34 next season. They are going to need more from the SG position next season, not less.
Stephenson only had a 19.4 usage rating last season, but his departure leaves a giant hole in their offense. Despite being tagged as a selfish player, he was their best playmaker, averaging 4.7 assists on 2.7 turnovers a game. Without him, they will have a much harder time moving the ball and creating open shots, especially when you consider how poorly they space the floor. Stephenson is one of the only SG's in the league who can shoot 3's, create his own shot off the dribble and run point.
Going forward, he was also one of their only areas for internal improvement. With West aging, Stephenson could have picked up a much larger share in the offense over the next few seasons. Instead, they will have to depend on Hill and Hibbert, neither of whom has shown much of an ability to assume a bigger role. George is only 23, but the team is getting older around him, is in a market that has never attracted free agents and doesn't have many assets they can turn into another elite player.
The Hornets, after making the playoffs for the first time in four years, now look like a perennial playoff team in the East, for whatever that's worth. With Stephenson and Al Jefferson in place, they have two foundational pieces to build around as well as wealth of young talent that can develop in small roles on a good team, much like Stephenson did in Indiana. They won't win the Eastern Conference overnight, but they have a good young core that should grow and improve together over the next few seasons.
Stephenson takes the spot of Gerald Henderson, a solid player who was probably stretched in the role of a starter on a good team. Henderson has the size and athleticism of a starting SG, but he's a limited offensive player who doesn’t shoot 3's or create shots for anyone else. Replacing him with a player who can shoot, create and pass like Stephenson has a domino effect on the rest of the line-up - there is more space on the floor for everyone else to attack and more opportunities for them to get open shots.
He will make everyone in Charlotte better. His presence will relieve some of the ball-handling and playmaking pressure from Kemba Walker, who shot 39% from the field and was stretched as a primary option. It will create more opportunities for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to get out and run, as he and Stephenson should form one of the most athletic wing duos in the NBA. Stephenson can run pick-and-pop plays with Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson and get them easy shots, just as he did with West in Indiana.
Charlotte is a great situation for him, on and off the court. It's a fresh start where he can play unencumbered from some of the baggage he picked up in Indiana and they play a four-out system which better suits his talents. Williams, after shooting 36% from 3 on 3.5 attempts a game in a similar role in Utah, should be able to step in and fill Josh McRoberts role as the stretch 4. Instead of playing in a two-post system without any driving lanes to the rim, Stephenson will be able to play in space.
And rather than everyone around him getting worse, Stephenson will be on a team where everyone is getting better. Jefferson is one of the only Hornets players in his prime - Kemba is 23, Cody Zeller is 21, MKG is 20 and Noah Vonleh is 18. It's unclear exactly what any of those four will end up being in the NBA, but they've all shown flashes of high-level talent and they all still have a lot of room to grow. Unlike many lottery picks, they won't be asked to do too much too soon in Charlotte
Stephenson is only signed to a three year contract, but three years can be a really long time in the NBA. Three years ago, Indiana looked like they would be permanently in the shadow of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. In three years time, they are likely to be worse than they are now and there's a good chance the Hornets will be one of the teams they are looking up at. At some point in that process, they might face Lance Stephenson in a seven-game series and wouldn't that be something.
Jun 27, 2014
With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.
Jun 26, 2014
Breaking down which teams had Great, Good, Enh and Bad drafts with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid going in the top-3.
May 29, 2014
The Pacers are a very good basketball team, despite what the Internet would like you to believe, but issues with maturity and mental toughness have kept them from playing consistently since the All-Star break.
May 29, 2014
No oneís amassed the identical amount of energy and physical toll defending LeBron James in the last two years, no one but Paul George. Before each matchup across the regular season and late in the playoffs, James and George pound each otherís chests in acknowledgement, and then the understudy thrusts into duty.
May 21, 2014
While the apparently parity of the first round was a refreshing and encouraging development for the NBA, we saw the teams ranked first, third, fourth and sixth in net efficiency during the regular season advance to the Conference Finals.
May 18, 2014
Indiana isnít afforded Lance Stephenson behaving like every other 23-year-old, nor afforded his lapses in judgment. So, yes, Stephenson had issued a challenge on the eve of this Eastern Conference final series, a calculated approach to work Dwyane Wade, work his legs to swell on the court.
May 03, 2014
Roy Hibbert had clapped on the sideline, gathered teammates for huddles on the court and punctuated a defensive revival in Game 7. This resembled the Hibbert of last season, and these were the Pacers of last season.
Apr 18, 2014
A 10-year season-by-season Win Rank snapshot for an NBA franchise creates an insightful visual narrative.
Apr 08, 2014
The Pacers have known all along that they need George Hill, but that has never been more apparent than now. He wonít receive any votes for an individual award, unlike many of his teammates, but thatís just fine with Hill, who would rather blend into the surroundings than find himself at the forefront.
Mar 17, 2014
While RealGM has an excellent database of the draft picks that have been traded between teams, we wanted to put together a summary more focused on the upcoming draft.
Mar 08, 2014
The extra seasoning Roy Hibbert received in four years in college as an athlete and person was vital to his eventual success. Then a plodding big man, he has transformed himself into a two-time All-Star with Defensive Player of the Year merits through hard work and patience.
Mar 04, 2014
Most players have very little control over their destination for their first two NBA contracts, but the third contract creates a complete shift in power dynamics.
Feb 20, 2014
Evan Turner gives the Pacers a creator off the bench to improve their title aspirations, while also providing value in multiple ways this offseason.
Feb 02, 2014
We may not be able to truly quantify what Andrew Bynum brings to the Pacers until the postseason, when we could see an incredible battle between reclamation projects if Greg Odenís Heat matchup with Bynumís Pacers in what could be another entertaining Eastern Conference Finals.
Dec 23, 2013
When you evaluate under-25 players, skill-set is more important than statistics. And when you look at Lance Stephensonís game in total, itís scary how good he could be. Still only 23, heís already a better shooter than Wade, a better defender than Harden and a better passer than George.
Nov 08, 2013
The challenge that the Pacers have is that Lance Stephenson has only demonstrated to play his best when he believes he is entitled to game privileges other starting shooting guards are entitled too; starting every game, shooting 10 plus times a game, attacking in transition, not getting back on defense, arguing with referees, etc.
Oct 29, 2013
The goal here is look at overall long-term value of players by considering age, contract, positional scarcity and of course overall quality, without factors like a playerís connection with a franchise or fit within a specific system.
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