The Charlotte Hornets announced the signing of unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million deal with a team option on the last year. After swinging and missing on restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, Stephenson represents a nice consolation prize.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers are looking at one fewer offensive option on a team starved for offense. Here's a quick look at how this move impacts the Pacers, Hornets and Stephenson himself.
For the Hornets
Charlotte had its own offensive struggles last season (albeit not as severe as Indiana's), and Stephenson goes a long way to helping the Hornets in that respite. He's a strong, sturdy guard who can legitimately play three positions. His dribble penetration skills force defenses to collapse, and his size and strength allow him to finish at the rim. While he's no drop-dead shooter, Stephenson has improved every season and shot a career-high 35 percent on 244 3-point attempts last season -- respectable for a guy who made just four 3-pointers two seasons ago.
He's also a willing passer with good vision for an off guard. No doubt, however, the biggest perk to adding a talent like Stephenson is his contribution on the defensive end, where his strength and wingspan allow him to effectively defend a variety of positions. We laugh at his ear-blowing antics during the playoffs, but the truth is he did a great job of making LeBron James and Dwyane Wade work hard.
The key to this deal for Charlotte was the structure of the contract: at $9 million flat for the next two years, the Hornets are clearly taking a risk that Stephenson will continue to mature and earn his salary, with Michael Jordan taking on the role of Larry Bird as sage mentor who will kick the 23-year-old in the backside when necessary. However, the third year is a team option, so this simultaneously gives the Hornets a "carrot" to dangle in front of Stephenson. It's a nice mix of incentive and punishment.
For the Pacers
If you're an eternal optimist, you could look at this departure as good riddance -- Stephenson was always erratic, and while the first half of 2013-14 saw him focused and on his best behavior, it all unraveled toward the end. But make no mistake, his contributions will be missed. Stephenson was, many times, the primary offensive initiator for this Pacers team: George Hill isn't a prototypical point guard, and Paul George hasn't shown the ability to continuously generate offense and shoulder the burden for his team.
So without adding a true offensive creative force (or without a huge jump from George), the Pacers are looking at a weak offense that just got worse. They'll miss Stephenson's defense, which really allowed George to take breathers or switch off to lesser offensive threats, which in turn gave him more energy on the offensive end (we saw some of this effect against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals). Yes, Lance was out of control at times, but he did more good than harm for the Pacers and replacing him won't be easy. It will be especially interesting to see if agent David Falk can convince Bird & Co. that Evan Turner would be the perfect replacement for Stephenson's role. (He's not, but we'll see.) Other reports have the Pacers interested in Pistons free agent Rodney Stuckey, who brings some of what Stephenson brought to the table, but is an inferior talent.
Financially speaking, the Pacers may have dodged a bullet, as reports had them offering Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal earlier in free agency, a deal Stephenson turned down. If he's the ticking time bomb many think he is, the Pacers averted being stuck long term with a headache.
Lance, Lance, Lance ... on "SportsCenter" last week, I said that Stephenson should have jumped on the Pacers' offer as he likely wouldn't find anything close to that on the market. While he landed almost the same average annual value (AAV), the terms of the deal just don't work in his favor. If he outperforms his AAV, the Hornets will assuredly pick up the team option, making him wait another year before cashing out. At the same time, he doesn't have long-term security: if he continues to act as a "slappy," the Hornets decline his team option and then he's forced to fend for himself in a free-agent market with the scarlet letter of having been a headache in two locations. He neither got long-term security nor flexibility to strike if the iron were hot.
Extras: Jason Smith to New York
The New York Knicks made great use of their taxpayer's midlevel exception by signing Jason Smith to a one-year deal worth the full amount (approximately $3.3 million). Smith was featured in my bargain buys piece from the start of free agency, as a sweet shooting big who hadn't yet uncovered his calling as a stretch shooter. He'll be a nice fit in the triangle as a talented, multi-skilled big who can pass and shoot, although his rebounding and defense leave something to be desired.
Extras: Anthony Tolliver to Phoenix
The Suns tried to fill the void left by Channing Frye with another stretch big in Tolliver, who had a career year shooting the ball last season. He's really more of a 3/4 while Frye was a 4/5, so it gives the Suns a different sort of look defensively. He's not the pure shooter that Frye is, and he's an atrocious rebounder, but on short notice for relatively little financial downside (two years, $6 million, only $400,000 guaranteed next season).