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.