Leave it to Lance Stephenson to shake up the NBA landscape and reignite an old rivalry all with one simple spin move.
In choosing to align himself with Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets, the 23-year-old Stephenson essentially turned his back on Larry Bird, the man who discovered and cultivated him as a diamond-in-the rough swingman out of Cincinnati most front office types then considered hardly worth the risk given his questionable attitude and apparent lack of maturity.
Fast-forward some three years now, and the questions about Stephenson’s demeanor still remain plentiful, perhaps explaining why he would still be on the open-market for Jordan and company to swoop in and, following one all-night negotiating session, secure his services with a relatively meager three-year, $27 million contract.
The overall worth of Charlotte deal is far less than the reported $44 million over five seasons Bird and Pacers offered just weeks ago but, with all the free-agent money and the best of opportunities quickly drying up, the flamboyant Stephenson felt compelled to now take a leap of faith.
Meanwhile, the six-time champion Jordan felt it essential that he himself look Stephenson in the eyes before allowing his team of front office execs to sign off on any deal with the dynamic though often just as dysfunctional now-former Pacer. And if that doesn’t tell you how keen Jordan and his crew were in doing all their homework, by the time they flew to Vegas still pondering if they should take a gamble on the hot-headed Stephenson, he also had associate head coach and longtime Knicks star center Patrick Ewing by his side in assessing the NYC playground legend’s mindset.
Yes, the word was out on Lance Stephenson, who can be so volatile that he instantly rejected Bird’s much larger offer as “lowball” and reportedly had little more contact with him before bouncing for Charlotte.
“Lance is forever grateful for all the love he’s received from Pacers fans,” agent Alberto Ebanks said in a statement. “He is especially grateful to his teammates, Pacers coach Frank Vogel, owner Herb Simon and most of all, Larry Bird. Lance will miss the city, the team and the mentor who helped transform him into the dynamic player he has become.”
Ebanks insists the deal or Stephenson’s decision wasn’t about money, and given he ultimately signed for at least $17 million less than what he was originally offered, you hope for their sake it wasn’t. In Charlotte, certainly Stephenson stands to have opportunities he probably could only dream of in Indiana playing in a lineup that also featured All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert and grizzled veteran David West.
The Hornets were in the bottom third of all 30-teams last season in scoring, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and 3-point percentage, allowing teams to boldly sag their defenses on star center Al Jefferson. With Stephenson, who led the league in triple-doubles while averaging 14 points, seven rebounds, and five assists on 49 percent shooting and 35 percent from the 3-point range, that strategy could become a lot more problematic next season.
But hey, life can be like a box of chocolates with Lance Stephenson. You never quite know what you’re going to get.