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How Lance Stephenson Left Behind Pacers For Hornets

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.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Central Division

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.

Projections, The Year After A Breakout Season, And The Importance Of Scouting

This past week at Sports Illustrated, Luke Winn and I revealed our Top 100 Scorers for 2014-15, our Top Freshman Scorers, our Breakout Scorers and our Top D1 Transfers. Past college stats, coach effects, and recruiting rankings were used to predict player performance.

Every year I try to do something new with my projections. Last year I added a simulation. Rather than simply project a mean for each player, I looked at the variance in performance based on player type (freshman, senior, transfer), and I allowed individual performances to vary as some players outperform or underperform expectations. I simulated the season 10,000 times and used the median projections to rank all 351 D1 teams. This year’s team rankings will be revealed by SI on Nov 4th.

This year the biggest thing I wanted to do was to make player projections more accessible to readers by projecting PPG, RPG, APG for some of the nation’s top players. I chose to focus on PPG in large part because I think it is more accessible to most casual fans of college basketball. I certainly understand how PPG can be misleading in certain situations. There are certainly a large group of fans that value ORtg and usage over PPG and would prefer we not indulge in “paceism” thereby elevating players from North Carolina at the expense of players from Virginia.

But I don’t think we should completely trash PPG. As a single measure, it contains a lot of information. PPG incorporates both information on efficiency and usage. It also incorporates information on a player’s relative value to a team. Coaches are interested in playing their best players major minutes. In the preseason, it doesn’t make sense to project a bench player to be very efficient and under-utilized unless a team is extremely deep at a certain position. Certainly in most sensible preseason models, minutes will be correlated with player quality. And because PPG incorporates efficiency, usage, and player value (through minutes), it says a lot about who are the most important players in college basketball.

PPG is very sensitive to the minutes’ projection. And that’s why working with Luke Winn has been such a tremendous advantage. Luke has the contacts to help vet more of our lineup projections. But Luke also has a great statistical background as well. One of the first things Luke noticed when he saw the player projections was that we needed to adjust playing time based on coach-specific rotation patterns. For example, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey tends to give his best players major minutes, while Arkansas’ Mike Anderson tends to use a more balanced rotation. Thus this year we added coach-specific rotations to the model.

That said I am always looking for areas to improve the model. And that’s why I love Twitter questions. Sometimes readers innocently ask questions that shed a lot of nuance and light into the projection process:

Paraphrasing @DarenHill: Why is Branden Dawson projected to have fewer RPG than last year?

First, we think Dawson will be one of the best rebounders in college basketball this year. We project him to have the 26th most rebounds per game in the nation.

When I first saw this question, I panicked and wondered if the model was putting too much emphasis on Dawson’s height. I have a separate regression equation for freshman, transfers, and veteran players based on various characteristics, and height is an important predictor of rebounding. Dawson is an under-sized post-player and I was worried that the model might be weighting his height too heavily. But when I double-checked the numbers, Dawson’s height was not the key factor. For a senior like Dawson with three years of player stats, height is almost irrelevant in the model.

The second thing I was worried about was that we had Dawson’s minutes’ projection wrong. We project Dawson to play around 30 minutes per game. That could be low for a player many of us think will be Michigan St.’s best player this season. But keep in mind that Dawson is a forward and it is hard for forwards to get major minutes because they are more likely to get foul trouble. The current model will sometimes project a guard to play 35 minutes per game, but that’s a very dubious prediction for a post player. More importantly, Tom Izzo is not a coach who overuses his best players early in the season. Izzo really likes to give his bench a chance to play to evaluate his players. Dawson was playing more than 30 minutes per game in the post-season last year, but on the full year that was a fair representation of his playing time.

As it turns out, the reasons for Dawson’s slight decrease in rebounding is Dawson’s past college stats. But before I delve into Dawson’s situation, I want to talk about the problem of small sample sizes and bounce-back seasons. If I have a college three point shooter who shoots 40% on 30 shots from three as a freshman and 30% on 50 shots from three as a sophomore, I think we’d all acknowledge that we would expect him to bounce back and shoot better on his threes as a junior. And 10 years of historical data back that up. Last year’s performance is the best predictor, but we shouldn’t throw out the data on what happened two years ago.

The dilemma we often face when projecting players is what to make of players with a huge improvement in performance. For example, if a player shot 30% on 30 shots from three as a freshman and 40% on 50 shots from three as a sophomore, is that a breakout performance or a hot-streak? I can tell you based on the historic stats that when a player has this profile, on average he will make about 38.5% of his threes as a junior. And that slight drop in efficiency can actually lead to a lower ORtg prediction and a lower PPG prediction for what everyone perceived to be a breakout player.

Oklahoma’s Isaiah Cousins is a good current example of this. He improved his ORtg from 72.9 as a freshman and 112.8 last year. I now project him to have an ORtg of 110.0 this year. The reason last year gets so much weight is because college players are at the developmental stage of their career and breakouts are quite common. But it should also make some sense that the previous season should get some weight. The college season is short and we have a limited sample of games to ever have full confidence in a player’s ability. Cousins made 38 of 94 threes last year, but that’s not a large enough sample to really know that he is an elite three point shooter. (The model is also worried because Cousins was a 2.7 star recruit out of high school. Star ratings often provide information about a players potential and they suggest that Cousins may be close to his ceiling.) Regardless, when you see my projections for Oklahoma this is one of the reasons my model doesn’t have the Sooners as high as some other college basketball experts.

Jumping back to Branden Dawson, as a sophomore he grabbed 16% of the available defensive rebounds. As a junior he grabbed 21% of the available defensive rebounds. My model projects him to grab 20% of the available defensive rebounds this season. Thus his overall rebounding numbers are projected to be a little worse.

The historic stats say this is the most likely outcome for Cousins and we can debate whether last year’s improvement was real. But there’s an added wrinkle with Dawson and that’s the reason I wrote this longer column. Dawson essentially changed positions between his sophomore and junior seasons. As a sophomore, Dawson played a lot on the wing and spent a lot less time close to the basket. As a junior, particularly late in the season, Dawson was playing almost exclusively at the four-spot. And Dawson is expected to play major minutes at the four this year. Thus we should probably weight last season even more highly and discount his sophomore season when projecting Dawson’s numbers.

This is a hard adjustment to make systematically. In terms of Dawson’s position on the official Michigan St. roster, nothing has changed. But there is some data of this type available. Here at RealGM.com, we have a projection for player position based on the recorded stats. Ken Pomeroy also added this feature last season. Perhaps by incorporating this type of information, we can do an even better job projecting players in the future.

But in college basketball there is still a lot that the stats overlook and that we can only learn from watching the games. As much as I believe in the projection model Luke Winn and I have been working on, I can say emphatically that over the next month as teams begin to have exhibition games and host their first early season opponents, you will learn things that dispute what our numbers suggest. Basketball is still a sport where scouting and watching film is incredibly important. But to me, this is also the beauty of college basketball relative to MLB. In baseball, almost everything, including range on defense, can now be quantified to some degree. But in basketball, there is still a lot to be learned by watching the games.

Why Anthony Davis Will Be The NBA's Golden Ticket

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Raptors Look To Build Upon Top-10 Efficiency On Both Sides Of Floor

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Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

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How Nikola Mirotic Rose From Soccer Destiny, To European Phenom, To The NBA

Nikola Miroticís grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to Real Madrid and he's now in the NBA. He discusses his basketball journey with RealGM.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

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14-15 Euroleague Power Rankings: Centers

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College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big Ten

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Boston's Rebuild After 16 Months: Time For Patience And Optimism

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College Basketball Preview 14-15: The Rest

In this piece, we preview the Ivy, Big West, MAC, Horizon, MAAC, Conference-USA, Patriot, Summit, CAA, Ohio Valley, Sun Belt, Big South, WAC, Big Sky, America East, Atlantic Sun, Southern, NEC, Southland, MEAC and SWAC.

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

While Mark Jackson had a lot of success, he was far from a perfect coach, so thereís nothing wrong with replacing him with Steve Kerr. But if David Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, the Warriors have been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than Xís and Oís.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big 12 Conference

Despite an uncertain point guard situation, Kansas remains the clear favorite in the Big 12 with Texas and Iowa State a clear step behind.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

As players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. Jacksonís current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

Outside of the Jason Kidd saga, the Nets experienced a relatively quiet offseason. Their lack of cap flexibility made it difficult for them to add any impactful players and even retain their own free agents. The loss of two key contributors and the injury-riddled histories of their star players could cause the Nets to struggle to make the 2015 Playoffs.

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

The scariest part about the United States' performance is that this wasnít even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain, yet they still haven't lost a game since 2006.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

While it is unclear where Wichita State ranks nationally, they're the clear favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of Northern Iowa.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

Boris Diaw served as Franceís primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

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