Dec 13, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) reacts after defeating the Charlotte Bobcats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana Pacers defeat Charlotte 99-94. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Hornets Roll The Dice On Mercurial Lance Stephenson

One of the most mercurial and polarizing players in the 2014 period of NBA free agency is shooting guard Lance Stephenson. He’s immensely talented with youth on his side, but his antics on the court have rubbed some the wrong way.

This ultimately led to Stephenson parting ways with his former club, the Indiana Pacers. As the Pacers paired a masterful first half of the 2013-14 regular season with a one-of-a-kind collapse, some of the blame shifted from the Pacers as a team to Stephenson individually.

Rather than re-signing for a chance at redemption in Indiana, the league-leader in triple-doubles decided to find a team that better caters to his talents and personality: the Charlotte Hornets.

It’s a three-year, $27 million contract with two years and $18 million guaranteed. There’s a team option for 2016-17.

The move has received equal parts criticism and praise.

Stephenson is a magnificent young player, but blowing in LeBron James‘ ear seems to garner more headlines than his contributions. Forgotten are his triple-doubles and remembered are the antics which have made him an icon in Internet memes.

For a move as polarizing as the player himself, the Hornets have made a wise gamble on Stephenson.

Mar 31, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats guard Kemba Walker (15) celebrates with center Al Jefferson (25) during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Time Warner Cable Arena. Bobcats defeated the Wizards 100-94. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Alleviating Pressure

Charlotte is a team that shocked the NBA when it made the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history in 2013-14. All-NBA center Al Jefferson and star point guard Kemba Walker were fantastic, but the supporting cast was quite underwhelming.

Stephenson immediately improves the team as an All-Star candidate with no shortage of skills.

He’s fresh off of a season in which he averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 35.3 minutes. By comparison, incumbent starter Gerald Henderson tallied 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32.0 minutes per contest.

There may not be a big gap in scoring, but Stephenson is far superior in almost all other facets of the game.

Stephenson’s most valuable abilities are as a facilitator and ball-handler. Walker is more than capable of shouldering that load, but adding a player who can alleviate some of that pressure was a top priority.

According to NBA.com, Walker received 100.3 touches per game in 2013-14. That was the highest mark in the entire league.

No other player averaged more than 95.

Walker will still need to play like a star, but Stephenson will help to prevent consistent double-teams up top. This will also benefit Jefferson, who needs a floor spacer to enable him to go to work out of the post.

Stephenson shot 35.2 percent from 3-point range and made 83 triples in 2013-14. Henderson has made 73 3-pointers over the past two seasons combined.

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Dominating the Glass

It’s an age-old testament that has stood the passage of time: when a team wins the battle on the boards, they’ll be in line to win the game. There are exceptions to every rule, but controlling the glass leads to controlling possessions, which leads to victories.

By adding Stephenson to complement an already big interior, the Hornets have an opportunity to be one of the best rebounding teams in the entire league.

Despite receiving 10.8 total rebounds and 2.1 offensive boards from Al Jefferson, Charlotte ranked No. 15 in team rebounds and No. 25 in team offensive rebounds in 2013-14. The addition of rookie Noah Vonleh should help, as should the development of Cody Zeller.

Having 7.2 rebounds per game from your starting shooting guard doesn’t hurt, either.

Despite standing at 6’5″, Stephenson ripped off 7.2 boards per contest in 2013-14. That led all shooting guards by a wide margin, with Gordon Hayward clocking in at No. 2 with 5.1 rebounds per appearance.

The only small forwards who had more rebounds per game than Stephenson: Carmelo Anthony, Nicolas Batum and Kevin Durant.

The gap between Stephenson and those players—all 6’8″ or taller—was less than one rebound per game.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Stephenson is the first player 6’5″ or shorter to average at least 7.0 rebounds since Jason Kidd in 2007-08.

That’s extraordinary value for a team that will be working from the inside out in 2014-15.

Dec 21, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan unveils the new Charlotte Hornets logo at halftime during the game against the Utah Jazz at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

MJ & Clifford’s Guidance

The Hornets are a blessed organization. For all of the turmoil that it’s had to escape, Charlotte has two of the best minds in the world of basketball at its disposal: owner Michael Jordan and head coach Steve Clifford.

MJ’s ownership has been criticized throughout his tenure. Nevertheless, if anyone can become a mentor to the fiery and passionate Stephenson, it’s the best shooting guard of all-time.

For all of his skills and athletic gifts, the single most heralded aspect of Jordan’s legacy is his work ethic and non-stop motor. While it’s hard to compare anyone to MJ in that capacity, Stephenson possesses a similar drive and passion, albeit in a less contained and focused manner.

If Jordan and Clifford can help keep Stephenson’s eye on the prize, he could become one of the best players in the league.

Jordan’s presence is well-documented and understood, but it’s Clifford who plays the most vital role. The 53-year-old did the unthinkable when he took an imbalanced roster and led the Bobcats to the playoffs in his first season as head coach in 2013-14.

Not only did Charlotte reach the postseason, but it more than doubled its win total by going from 21-61 in 2012-13 to 43-39 in 2013-14.

With Clifford’s top-of-the-line coaching ability and Jordan’s presence as a mentor, Stephenson is in a wonderful situation. He’ll be playing alongside a star big man in Al Jefferson, a rising star at point guard with Kemba Walker and an improved supporting cast with a respected head coach.

With his passion for the game being expressed in a more focused manner, Stephenson would become one of the elite of the elite.

May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) moves the ball around guarded by Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) and guard Norris Cole (30) in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 102-90. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Only 23

Stephenson has the prototypical body for a shooting guard at 6’5″ and 230 pounds. He’s a menace in transition, can explode at the rim and is a dynamic playmaker both as a facilitator and a shooter.

Put all of that aside and acknowledge the most important factor of all: Stephenson is still only 23 years old.

Stephenson will turn 24 this September and will only be 25 when Charlotte has the right to exercise its club option in 2016. At $9 million per season, the Hornets will be paying a reasonable price for top-of-the-line production.

The best-case scenario is that Stephenson continues to improve. He’s already the reigning league leader in triple-doubles and a threat to do anything at any time on the court at 23.

Still at least three years away from his prime, Stephenson has hardly scratched the surface of his potential, yet he’s already one of the most productive players in the league.

The worst-case scenario for Charlotte is that Stephenson disappoints and plays out two seasons before the organization turns down the team option. At $9 million per season and $18 million guaranteed over the span of his first two campaigns with the Hornets, a bust situation wouldn’t be too costly.

Charlotte would rightfully give Stephenson two seasons to prove himself. If he were to fail, it could let him walk. If he succeeds, it’d have him before his prime even arrives.

With untapped and unlimited potential, that alone makes this a wise gamble. The upside is far too extreme for the Bobcats to ignore, especially in a time in which Jefferson and Walker shoulder so much of the load offensively.

As a 23-year-old who’s already playing at an All-Star level, there isn’t much to do but marvel Stephenson’s upside. With the proper coaching and leadership, he could easily put it all together.

Charlotte took a gamble here, but Stephenson is entirely worth it.

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Tags: Charlotte Hornets Lance Stephenson NBA Free Agency

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