It makes very little basketball sense Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons signed offer sheets worth $15 million dollars per season before Lance Stephenson reached an agreement on a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, especially considering Hayward and Parsons were restricted free agents who froze Dallas’ and Charlotte’s cap space for three days while Stephenson was unrestricted at age 23. Rich Cho even managed to negotiate the third year of that contract be a team option.
The likely explanation is teams really were afraid of Stephenson’s speculated reputation as a volatile figure who only Larry Bird could reach to, aside from his antics trying to annoy the crap out of the LeBron James, starting all the way back with the choke sign two years ago and then blowing on his ear last May.
A two-way bulldozer, Stephenson was the best shot creator on a team starved for playmaking off the bounce and a menace on-ball defender who drew the toughest perimeter assignments for what was arguably the best defense of all time, shooting 58.5% on 330 drives to the basket in the regular-season and holding opponents below 40% shooting in isolation.
Stephenson dribbles the ball too high attacking the basket, which can lead to the ball getting stripped and in part explains his high 18% turnover rate, but is a difficult body for guards and pure wings of average size to contain due to the combination of his 230-pound frame and speed. A jaw dropping 37% of his shots were in the restricted area, where he finished at an even more impressive 69.3% clip due to his abilities to finish through contact and play above the rim.
He was essentially Indiana’s point guard in the postseason, when it became more evident George Hill could no longer create good shots against that level of competition. The Pacers averaged almost 10 points per game off his assists in the postseason, which was a top 25 mark. He struggled with his turnovers on the pick-and-roll (giving it away on almost a quarter of his possessions off a ball-screen) and was a lousy pull-up shooter, hitting only 38% of his 202 attempts off the dribble, but his six-foot-six height helps him see over smaller defenders and he proved himself a very willing passer to open teammates.
Stephenson took significant steps forward on offense while remaining an impact player on the other end. He held opponents to 0.89 point per possession on 329 pick-and-rolls, which accounted for over a third of his defense, because he is a very difficult player to be screened. His strong base permits him to retain his balance if the opposing big only barely draws contact and his lateral quickness helps him keep pace with even the fastest of wings when he has to go around the pick.
His fit in Charlotte is a very interesting one. Stephenson is a match for the defensive culture Steve Clifford managed to install, when he took a team that had ranked 30th in scoring allowed per possession the season before to fifth in his first year at the helm. Clifford is said to be a demanding coach, as his background working for the Van Gundy brothers would have you assume, but Stephenson’s effort last season at no point could be questioned and though he will earn significantly more money than he did in his first four years as a pro, he has incentive to continue working hard for his next payday since it could be just around the corner.
Kemba Walker is a tiny point guard who has so far struggled to find the open man as a pro, so pairing him with a huge two-guard who is a very capable secondary ball handler fits nice on paper but it is unclear if they will be able to maximize their talents playing off each other, though. Stephenson did hit an impressive 49% of his corner three-point attempts but those accounted for less than a fifth of his total three-point attempts and he posted an average 48.8% effective field goal percentage on his 210 catch-and-shoots. Walker was also an average catch-and-shooter and Stephenson, like Walker, hasn’t quite been high end assisting teammates below the foul line area, as a chart on this post by Zach Lowe illustrates.
This is a catastrophe for Indiana, especially considering he opted for less money elsewhere. I wrote in their offseason preview that planning on outliving LeBron James was perhaps a waste of time but as it turned out, James stunningly did leave the Heat in the end and had Stephenson returned, the Pacers would start the season as the odds on favorites to come out of the East, assuming Cleveland’s management isn’t talking out of its ass when it says it won’t trade Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, which should be a deal breaker for Minnesota. Stephenson was essential for Indiana’s so-called offense, which averaged five fewer points per 100 possessions when he hit the bench. As of now, the Pacers’s contingency plan has been signing Rodney Stuckey for the veteran’s minimum. Stuckey had a bit of a resurgence on a ridiculously put together Pistons’ team last season but only brings to the table a fraction of what Stephenson did.
Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.