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Grading The Deal: Lance Stephenson Leaves Pacers For Hornets

The Indiana Pacers must find a way to replace Lance Stephenson midway through the offseason. Stephenson has agreed to a three-year, $27.5 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. The third season is a team option.

As my RealGM colleague Shams Charania reported, Stephenson met with Michael Jordan and other team officials in Las Vegas on Tuesday night when the offer was presented. The Pacers offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal shortly after free agency opened on July 1, but the two sides were not on the same page as time progressed. The Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks all had varying degrees of interest in Stephenson as well.

Stephenson’s agent, Al Ebanks, told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star that his client was seeking a short-term deal, which explains why he wasn’t quick to take more guaranteed money from the Pacers with an additional two years of security. Stephenson will make $1.5 million more in Charlotte this coming season than he would have under the reported Indiana offer. The total value of the Pacers’ offer was $16.5 million greater.

Four years after Larry Bird gambled on Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft, Stephenson is gambling on himself. Even if the Hornets exercise the third-year option on his contract, Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent once again at just 26 years old.

Grade for Stephenson: B-

There are two reasons why Stephenson is taking a calculated risk. There will be a larger offensive role for Stephenson in Charlotte, which could increase his value down the line. In addition, the NBA’s current television rights agreement ends after the 2015-16 season. Reports have indicated that the league will look to double the current fee, which would have a huge impact on future salary cap numbers and contract figures.

With that said, Stephenson is taking a chance. If he doesn’t continue to develop, which most expect him to do on a young, emerging team, he may not earn back the money he left on the table over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons (the back end of the initial Indiana offer). He also loses some the shine that comes from playing for a contender, which the Pacers may no longer be without him.

Ebanks stressed Stephenson’s desire for a shorter term deal than the Pacers offered, but the elephant in the room is the fact that he didn’t get that much more money. The average annual value of the Charlotte deal is just $300,000 greater than he have earned with Indiana. That leaves us to decide whether Stephenson was left hanging when the market died up and the Pacers moved on, or he truly valued hitting the market again in three years over waiting until his late 20s.

The Pacers will undoubtedly miss Stephenson, who provided much of their edge during the 2014 postseason, but it seems plausible that one of two things happened during negotiations. They pulled $44M offer off the table when Stephenson hesitated, or they offered him a five-year deal knowing full well that he wasn’t going to sign a contract of that length. Either way, Bird made a decision on how he valued Lance and didn’t budge.

I reached out to both sides asking if Indiana’s initial offer was still on the table up until the Hornets agreement, but both declined to comment.

Grade for Pacers: D+

Indiana deserves some credit for standing firm with their offer, especially in team’s NBA, but this loss cannot be looked at solely in a vacuum.

The Miami Heat took a step back with the loss of LeBron James, opening up the short-term window for the Pacers to contend. When LeBron left for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will need some seasoning before reaching an elite level, Bird and Co. should have seen it as an opportunity to finally get back to the NBA Finals. The Eastern Conference is no longer top-heavy, but with Stephenson re-signed the Pacers would have been the favorite among a number of possible contenders -- including Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Toronto.

Chemistry will often be mentioned as a positive for the Pacers with Stephenson gone, but that’s overstated. He may have cost himself a few million with his antics against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Indiana will severely miss his offensive tools and competitive nature.

The Pacers had the best defense in the NBA in 2013-14, but they scored just 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 23rd. Stephenson was often the only player on the roster capable of jumpstarting Frank Vogel’s offense when it stalled. He is volatile, and at times selfish, but can be a creative and willing passer. He led the Pacers in assists this past season.

Indiana needed help on the offensive end, even after signing C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez earlier this month, and the loss of Stephenson compounds the issue. Bird will almost certainly have to address the need via trade, unless the club is able to shed salary in a deal and sign a free agent outright. The market isn’t exactly flush with options at this point and if a cash-saving trade was easy, one might have already been made to free up space for a larger Stephenson offer or to target someone that is already signed.

Rodney Stuckey and O.J. Mayo have been mentioned in the past and present as options. Stuckey is a free agent, while Mayo would have to be acquired from the Bucks via trade.

Adding Stephenson looks like an odd move for the Hornets on the surface, but considering the current state of the Eastern Conference it helps their chances of making the playoffs for the second-straight season. Charlotte has Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal at shooting guard, which may mean a trade is forthcoming.

Signing Stephenson for roughly $9 million annually is good value, even if it carries risk as he becomes the second option on a good team after being the fourth option on a very good team.

Grade for Hornets: B

Kemba Walker, who will be a restricted free agent next summer, stands to lose the most. Stephenson is at his best with the ball in his hands, which will reduce opportunities for the third-year guard. Stephenson was Plan B for the Hornets, who signed Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet and then watched the Utah Jazz match it over the weekend. If the Jazz let Hayward go to the Hornets, Stephenson might have been forced to re-sign with the Pacers.

Like the Pacers, the Bobcats tend to struggle offensively. That means more latitude for Stephenson, but how will he handle himself without as much veteran leadership, fewer meaningful games and suddenly flush with cash remains to be seen.

The Market For Lance Stephenson

The most unpredictable and intriguing free agent of this summer's class could be Lance Stephenson.

Because Stephenson was a second round pick in 2010, the Indiana Pacers could lose a bidding war since he's an unrestricted free agent and just about to enter his presumed prime.

Larry Bird has publicly stated that the Pacers want to re-sign Stephenson, but doing so will be difficult because he figures to have several other teams aggressively pursuing him. Indiana has more than $50 million tied up in their four other starters -- Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill -- for next season, creating a significant salary cap/luxury tax dilemma.

Bird said Thursday night, after the conclusion of a draft in which Indiana traded their only pick (57th overall) to the New York Knicks for cash considerations, that he planned to negotiate a “very, very fair contract” with Stephenson. As those well-versed in the business of basketball know, where Stephenson is playing next season will be a result of what other involved parties -- agent Al Ebanks and the rest of the league -- think is a fair deal for the 23-year-old.

Stephenson’s age only adds to the allure of signing him. He was born in 1990, the same year as two 2014 second-round picks and he’s the same age as several other rookies. He’ll be in his fifth training camp before he turns 24.

For all his perceived faults, Stephenson has continually expressed loyalty towards the Pacers. He is aware that he is unlikely to find a better situation than he has in Indiana where he has established roots, personally and professionally, the staff largely laughs off his eccentric behavior and deep playoff runs are expected for several more seasons.

“The Pacers have made their position known on how they feel about Lance and we have made it clear that we have great respect for the entire Pacer organization,” Ebanks said via e-mail. “That respect and regard for the Pacers will serve as a yardstick as we explore the ideal situation for Lance.”

No matter how strong the mutual interest in between the Pacers and Stephenson, it’s money that determines most offseason decisions.

Indiana sits between $7 million and $8 million under the luxury tax threshold, but can create more room if they buy out Luis Scola. It would cost the Pacers about $1.9 million to buy out Scola's contract, but it would save them close to $3 million. Unless Bird and Co. pull off some arduous salary dumps, Indiana can only afford to offer Stephenson a starting salary around $10 million.

That sort of deal might be what Bird considers “fair,” but the rest of the league may have other ideas. There are a host of teams clearing cap space for guys like LeBron James, Carmeelo, Bosh and Wade and two different executives predicted in conversations that Stephenson could be a Plan B for a club that swings-and-misses on a superstar.

Timing will be key for the Pacers when negotiating with Stephenson, in large part because the list of interested teams figures to grow as free agency progress. They are well aware that they must strike quickly, which is why they have a full-court press planned to stroke Lance’s ego shortly after midnight.

Stephenson was a borderline All-Star in 2013-14, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. No player in the NBA had more triple-doubles. He was often the only member of the Pacers capable of jumpstarting a below-average offense.

He is known has ‘Born Ready’, but Stephenson has put in the work required to improve in each of his four seasons. He has been a mainstay at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during summers, while watching his shooting percentages (overall and from three) increase every year. Frank Vogel may have worried about his antics from time-to-time, but he never had to concern himself with Stephenson’s effort.

Valuable on both ends of the floor, Stephenson is most dangerous offensively when he has the ball in his hands. That fits well with Indiana’s current scheme, where George Hill is only a point guard because he’s the smallest player among the starting five. Stephenson logged a lot of minutes with the second unit, giving him the ability to operate as the main playmaker with C.J. Watson spotting up a lot.

Stephenson’s usage rate is lower (19.4%) than most would assume, even though he led the club in assists and was third in scoring. The Indiana roster wasn’t constructed to get the most out of him, but it has shown an ability to foster efficient productivity from the Brooklyn native.

Even before free agency began, a host of teams were either linked to Stephenson or mentioned as potential landing spots. The Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Charlotte Hornets have been most often mentioned.

There is varying legitimacy to reports linking the guard to those seven teams, but while speaking to a handful of executives over the last several weeks the Pistons, Lakers and Hornets were the clubs perceived good fits for Stephenson if he doesn’t re-sign with the Pacers. All three of those teams have the ability to outbid Indiana, which may be one of the main reasons why they are seen as a fit.

There is very little sentiment around the league that Stephenson cost himself a significant amount of money with his antics in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. “We could be talking about a few million over the life of a contract, but nothing major,” a source told me.

His flopping battle with Wade and infamous blowing in the face of LeBron were Internet favorites, but many decision-makers simply saw a vicious competitive streak. On a team that lost their way over the second half of the season, Stephenson was simply trying anything to get Miami off their game.

Stephenson would best fit on a team that has an established core, not a young, rebuilding team that may still lack an identity. That’s why the Pacers have had success with Stephenson, especially early this past season when George was a strong-minded MVP candidate and Hibbert a confident, Defensive Player of the Year favorite.

It all comes back to the Pacers, who are going to have to offer Stephenson an escalating contract even if they make additional room with a Scola buyout. The first contract he signed with Indiana was extremely team-friendly -- he’s made only $3.5 million over four seasons. He figures to make that much within a couple months in 2014-15.

A four-year, $50-plus million deal with a starting salary in seven figures that reaches around $15 million in 2018 will probably be the best the Pacers can do. West and Hibbert will come off the books after the 2015-16 season, allowing Indiana to offer an average salary around $12 million without having to pay him that much in the first two seasons.

Does Stephenson want to remain with the Pacers badly enough to take less money than he might be able to get elsewhere?

Will Indiana’s best offer be all they can offer without handcuffing themselves over the short-term?

Does Bird even truly want to bring the entire band back together for another run at that elusive title, or is he playing possum?

If the Pacers and Stephenson have been sincere in their desire to remain together, it won’t take long to find out if dollars and cents will keep them from doing so. The Pacers already have a dollar figure in mind and few have entered into a stare down with Bird and come out the winner.  

Lance Stephenson is about to get paid, but by which team?

David West Plays Vital Role In Helping T.J. Warren Realize NBA Dream

History was made on Thursday night when the Phoenix Suns selected T.J. Warren with the 14th overall pick. Warren, a 6-foot-8 forward out of N.C. State, is the first player drafted that worked directly with David West through his AAU Garner Road Basketball Club program.

Warren, who was invited by the NBA to sit in the green room, had the support of his mentor on the special night. West lends a hand, and ear, to players in the family program during the season while his older brother, Dwayne, runs the AAU club.

During the summer, West instills strong values -- in basketball and life -- in the youngsters enrolled in the program. If you go to the Garner Road website, the first thing you are greeted by is the motto: “No Books, No Ball.”

Warren declared for the draft after a sophomore season in which he was named the ACC Player of the Year and a Second Team Associated Press All-American. He has been lauded as having one of the most polished offensive games in a very deep draft class.

The Suns were one of the teams that worked Warren out and he felt as though he performed well in front of the team’s decision-makers. He couldn’t be sure where he’d go, but Phoenix was a logical landing spot.

“I felt like I had strong workouts. The Phoenix Suns were one of my best workouts,” Warren said after being drafted. “I did a lot of great things there, and it showed today. I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”

Warren has West to thank for helping him realize his dream. West has been a part of Warren’s life for nearly half of it.

“David has been a mentor to me since a very young age,” the 20-year-old said. “Since I was 10 years old, just learning from him, from his game. It means a lot to me.”

The importance of the moment wasn’t lost on West, who was drafted 18th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in 2003. Warren spent several summers away from his family and in the care of West’s as he worked towards his basketball goals.

“It’s a pretty special moment. We’ve had T.J. since he was 11, his parents trusted us with him,” West told RealGM on Thursday night. “They trusted us during the summer to stay on him. They gave us a lot of leeway with him in terms of pushing him. This is something he’s talked about since he was a little kid. Something he’s worked his butt off for; it’s great that it happen for him.”

Not only has Warren achieved his goal, but Phoenix’s system also suits his game extremely well. The Suns like to score and Warren can do that in bunches.

“I think my style of play fits very well,” Warren said. “I like to get up in transition for easy baskets, running the floor very hard. Their style of play matches my style of play. So it’s a perfect fit.”

West agreed.

“Perfect,” he said of the match. “They’re an open, run-and-gun system. Very good offensively, one of the highest scoring teams in the league. He’s the best scorer in this draft, so he’s going to fit in perfectly with what they do.”

Warren was one of the first players West was able to take under his wing early on. The two have maintained a close relationship as Warren has grown up and West has moved through what is now an 11-year professional career.

“Everyday I’m there for him, even now,” West said. “I stay in his ear everyday, keeping his mind in the right direction in terms of making sure he remains focused. Early on with him, I was with the Hornets and we weren’t making the playoffs so I was with him from April all the way through to the end of September. We had three or four years like that and they paid off for him.

“Just his hard work, him being a basketball guy. He’s a basketball junkie. He doesn’t have a whole lot of things going on outside. He’s got his family, a very small circle. He’s going to make the transition well. This is something we’ve been talking about since he was a young, young kid.”

The Suns drafted Warren in large part because of his work on the court, but West believes that success will come at the next level because of how strong he is mentally. It’s not surprising given the tenacity the mentor as brought to floor since he was Warren’s age.

“He has it up here,” West said, pointing to his head. “He’s constantly grinding, pushing himself. He pushed himself all the way to this level.”

In many ways, Thursday night could be a stepping-stone for the AAU Garner Road Basketball Club, but the program’s guiding influence insists that he won’t use Warren as a promotional tool. Still, guiding a player from his pre-pubescent years through to high school, college and ultimately the NBA is bound to get the attention of young players and those around them.

“We don’t really look at it like that. We are basically looking at it as just the beginning. We are invested in terms of these young people,” West vowed. “That’s my passion. That’s just what we do, my brother, we ultimately want to guide these kids and give them whatever we can in terms of what we’ve learned. Basketball is just a tool; it’s just a vehicle to reach these young people. T.J. is one of those guys that bought in right away; he’s a listener. Once he gets comfortable and opens up, anything that I would tell him when he was younger he took it to heart because I was where he eventually wanted to be.”

It seems likely that we’ll see West at future NBA drafts, supporting more young talent he has helped guide.

Are there more T.J. Warrens in the Garner Road pipeline?

“Oh yeah,” West said with a smile.

The Present And Future Of Lance Stephenson

For all the trouble and ‘lines-crossed’ that Lance Stephenson brings to the table, it is easy to overlook that he is only 23 years old and still learning how to be a professional. In this day and age in the league, young talented swingmen don’t grow on trees, especially not one in the second round.

Why Lance Stephenson Will Be Worth Every Penny

Just like Lance Stephenson, James Harden excelled in the role he was forced to play on the team that drafted him, but he was ready for a much bigger role. Don’t mistake opportunity for talent, especially not with a 23-year-old.

Heat Throttle Pacers, Who End Once-Promising Season Miserably

The Pacers owned the first four minutes of Game 6 before the Heat turned on the jets and coasted into the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row.

George Erupts In Fourth, Pacers Hold On To Force Game 6 Against Heat

Paul George scored 21 points in the fourth quarter and LeBron James was hampered by foul trouble as the Pacers topped the Heat to force a Game 6 back in Miami.

Pacers Wallow Through Game 4 Loss, Face Early Elimination Against Heat

Chris Bosh scored the game's first eight points and the Heat never looked back in Game 4, pushing the Pacers to the brink as the series moves back to Indianapolis.

Pacers Lose Control In Second Quarter, Heat Dominate Second Half To Win Game 3

After the Pacers built a 15-point lead in the second quarter, Ray Allen helped the Heat put them away with a three-point barrage midway through the fourth.

LeBron, Wade Dominate Late, Pacers Miss Chance To Take Commanding Lead

The Pacers were a few minutes away from taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade went on a game-winning run to save the Heat.

Pacers Come To Play, Take Game 1 Against Heat

The Pacers took Game 1 against the Heat thanks to their best offensive effort of the postseason, shooting 52% and assisting on 23 of their 35 field goals in a 107-96 victory on Sunday afternoon.

West Takes Control, Pacers Respond Late To Eliminate Wizards

David West put the Pacers on his back when the Wizards briefly took the lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6, ensuring a long-awaited rematch with the Heat.

Wizards Outwork Pacers, Dominate Game 5

With a chance to send the Wizards home, the Pacers showed little effort or energy in a 102-79 loss in Game 5. They are now headed back to Washington, D.C. with all their momentum gone.

George Refuses To Lose, Pacers Storm Back In Game 4

The Pacers are one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals after rallying from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter on Sunday night to take Game 4 over the Wizards.

Pacers Win Low-Scoring Game 3 Over Wizards

The Pacers scored 51 points in the second half to beat the Wizards in Game 3, which featured some historically bad offense.

Hibbert Rises, Pacers Earn Split Heading To D.C.

Roy Hibbert responded to his critics with 28 points and nine rebounds when the Pacers needed him most, leading his team to an 86-82 win over the Wizards in Game 2.

Pacers Start Slow, Cough Up Home Court Once Again

Bradley Beal played like a postseason veteran in Game 1 as the Wizards beat the Pacers 102-96 and stole home court in the semifinals from the East's No. 1 seed.

George Stars, Pacers Reappear To Advance Past Hawks

Paul George capped off a strong seven games against the Hawks with 30 points and 11 rebounds and Roy Hibbert made an appearance as the Pacers won Game 7 at home.

Pacers Wake Up Late, Use Run To Force Game 7 Against Hawks

Trailing late, the Pacers closed Game 6 with a 16-4 run over the final three-plus minutes to beat the Hawks and force a deciding game back in Indianapolis this weekend.

You Can Never Have Enough Tall Shooters

The Pacers are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7’2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6’9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.

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