Lance Stephenson signed with the Charlotte Hornets.
You have to think the Pacers saw this coming. After offering Lance Stephenson a five-year, $44 million contract, the 23-year-old guard was more than willing to pursue greener pastures. The offer was reasonable but certainly didn’t scream true love.
Then, Indiana went on with its other plans. They signed C.J. Miles for a role that was clearly “we hope we will bring you off the bench but it wouldn’t kill us if you wind up being the starter.”
Also came other, smaller moves: signing a floor-spacing big man from Croatia (Damjan Rudez), re-committing to a deep reserve (Lavoy Allen), and taking a flier on an injured kid from Western Michigan (Shayne Whittington).
Together — as well as looking at the Pacers’ payroll — the message from Larry Bird to Lance was obvious: our offer is our offer, so take it or leave it.
He left it, preferring to take a shorter deal with a similar per-year salary in Charlotte.
I can only speculate at the reasons, and four stand out.
The first is money, specifically when it comes to looking at career earning potential.
If Lance signed with Indiana, he would be locked up until he was 28 with a guaranteed career earnings of less than $50 by that point (he made next to nothing in his first four years by NBA standards).
By signing a short deal, he will be a free agent at 26 and, in his eyes, perhaps be a max salary candidate who could re-sign with Charlotte for some huge sum, possibly north of $90 million, before the 2017-18 season starts. This presumes a few All-Star appearances and a few years averaging around 20 points, 8 boards and 7 assists per game. To outsiders this may seem possible if lofty, but Lance may feel it’s closer to his destiny.
And why not? He was the only Pacer last season to not slump or falter down the stretch and he hasn’t reached his prime. He may well think he’s better than Paul George — and he likely does have more raw talent.
Getting back to money, signing his second large deal at 26 would likely mean he could sign a third big deal as a 30- or 31-year-old. Though young, he didn’t play in his first two years — not to mention his mini-Lebron-style indestructible body — so he may well be a be to get a high paying three-year deal when he is 30.
The second reason Charlotte may have landed Lance is that he felt unwanted in Indiana. For a kid from Brooklyn to want to spend his 20s as a millionaire in Indianapolis while possibly missing All-Star games and sacrificing individual glory for the good of a team, he probably needs to feel like the franchise is committed.
As mentioned, the Pacers offer wasn’t insulting, but its main message was fiscal prudence and daring Lance to leave — not sending a wave of candy grams and valentines to a prized free agent. It’s cool they made a movie trying to convince him to stay but money talks is more than a bad cliche and/or Chris Tucker movie.
It’s altogether possible that Lance saw that offer and told Indiana to kick rocks on pure principle.
The third reason: Indiana’s locker room really does have issues and Lance wanted out unless the money was too good to turn down.
We do know that Lance and Evan Turner got into a bit of a scuffle on the eve of the playoffs and rumors floated around about other, larger personal issues.
And Roy Hibbert all but publicly called Stephenson a “selfish dude.” Even if nothing else happened, stuff like that might be enough for Lance to eject. I could see myself doing the same. “Wait, this 7’2″ stiff who has been playing like the tallest extra in The Walking Dead for two months — a center I outrebound — thinks that I, the guy who leads the team in assists and takes way fewer shots than I think I deserve, am selfish? Word? Later.”
Throughout the late-second collapse, the players reportedly held a series of problem-diagnosing/discussing meetings that, in different instances, included guys like David West, George Hill, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Rasual Butler. Lance wasn’t included in these by and large, reportedly. Again, it’s not hard to see him looking around and becoming sick of being treated like the little brother whose value wasn’t respected even while he was outplaying nearly everyone.
The last reason is the simplest: He thinks he can be the clear number-one in Charlotte.
For now, they have Al Jefferson, but Lance could immediately be the ball-dominant wing there, and his game could certainly captivate a fan base in a way that Al Jeff’s solid production and steady footwork likely never will.
In Charlotte, he can be the wing star whereas he may realize that that will never happen if he plays next to Paul George.
Naturally, there could be other reasons that Lance bounced. Maybe he was drawn in by the MJ allure or simply wants one of those cool North Carolina license plates.
But we know that the Pacers never made an overwhelming offer and that Lance wasn’t in love with Indiana enough to stay.
Now, if Indiana has no way to replace his on-court impact, losing such a talent will hurt the Pacers short-term chances significantly.
Sir Lancealot is gone.