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.