Examining the Lance Stephenson Saga

Love Indiana, Imma miss ‘em good days/ Charlotte Hornet, MJ, that’s the new wave.

That’s a lyric from Lance Stephenson’s rap song that he put out (with an music video shortly thereafter) a little more than a month after signing with the Charlotte Hornets this past summer. He spent the first four years of his career in Indy.

New wave?

Well, it was short-lived. Just 23 games in — the same number team owner Michael Jordan made famous — and the Hornets are willingly listening to trade offers for their offseason signee. They want to cut ties.

If you remember, the Hornets did not make Stephenson a priority early on. They sought out Brownsburg, Indiana native Gordon Hayward and signed him to a four-year offer sheet worth the max, $63 million. When the Utah Jazz did what they had to do, match the offer sheet to keep one their own, the Hornets were forced to look elsewhere.

The Pacers moved on, too, after Stephenson wasn’t satisfied with the five-year contract, $44 million offer coming from Larry Bird. That averaged out to $8.8 million per year.

“We knew Lance’s true value,” one team source told me. And that has become even more clear.

A couple weeks later, Stephenson signed with the Hornets for $27.4 million over three years. The third year is a very favorable team option. So essentially, the Hornets — or whichever team is willing to trade for him — owe him less than $18 million through the 2015-16 season. It’s a gamble for sure, but it’s a friendly contract.


When I walked into the Pacers locker room on Monday, the first thing a player said to me was, “What is all this about Lance? You think we’re going to get him back?”

Just like the fans, the players hear things from friends and they follow the news on social media.

George Hill and Lance Stephenson at a local basketball event in Indy last summer.

It wasn’t just them. Others from around the league reached out, also curious if the Pacers would consider bringing No. 1 back. And, the majority of fans I’ve heard from want him to don the Blue and Gold again.

While the core, sans Stephenson, is the same, there are four new faces in the locker room. Rodney Stuckey, who plays most like Stephenson but without the flash, obsessiveness with his stats, and a loud mouth, was the one to take over his locker in the right side of the locker room. Ian Mahinmi is two spots to his right, and there’s empty locker to either side.

Obviously, the concern is how the players would feel. One player did not think it would be a big deal. He called Lance “one of the funniest teammates I’ve ever had,” then joked that his rebounding numbers would surely dip. Stephenson, who was always well-aware of his stat line, had built a reputation for stealing rebounds.

Stephenson, a competitor and one that loves to create with the ball in his hands, led the Pacers in rebounds and assists during the 2013-14 campaign.

When Stephenson played his first game in a different uniform back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last month, he received a mix of cheers and boos during team introductions. Once the game started, however, it was all boos. Boos because fans hated to see one of their own go, hated to see him turn his back on the franchise.

He didn’t owe them anything, though. He played hard while under contract and then explored the market.

Hindsight is 20-20 of course, but it was the wrong decision.

The Stephenson’s aren’t oblivious to all the speculation as well. See the post below from Lance’s dad.

Poor Start

The year has not gone well for Stephenson. That’s easy for anyone to see.

First, he was injured and missed camp time and part of the preseason. As a new guy on a team that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference (43-39) under then first-year head coach Steve Clifford, training camp time is even more valuable. Teams are given about two weeks of practice time for the coaches to teach their system. Then, it is scarce.

When Stephenson signed his deal with the Hornets, he was wearing French Deal, a clothing company Pacers center Ian Mahinmi is a partner in.

Stephenson was supposed to help complete the Hornets’ lineup, and fit in with leader Al Jefferson, along with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and backcourt mate Kemba Walker. Walker, their starting point guard, is from the Bronx — so he has a history with Stephenson.

Me and Kemba in the backcourt, (guys) are dead meat.

Well, not quite. On the court, Kemba is a scoring point guard, averaging more than 16 points and 5.6 assists per game. He needs the ball to create, just like Stephenson does.

Through all of this, Lance ‘Born Ready’ Stephenson is missing one of his best traits.

“His confidence and swagger,” as one league observer noted, are noticeably absent.

Stephenson missed his first seven 3-point field goal tries of the season over six games. The first one he hit was from 33-feet out and was the first buzzer-beater of his career (a win over Atlanta). He celebrated as such, jumping on the scorer’s table.

Stephenson hasn’t been able to shake his shooting woes.

He is a dreadful 8-of-51 from deep, a putrid 15.7 percent. In the previous two seasons, he shot 33 and 35 percent, respectively, from beyond the arc. Never exceptional, but certainly acceptable.

He even had worked on improving that aspect of the game. Before the 2013-14 season on the suggestion of Pacers President Larry Bird. Then again last June, before the free agency period, Stephenson connected with renowned shooting coach Hal Wissel.

Coach Clifford is a no-nonsense guy. He hasn’t hesitated one bit in sitting Stephenson in the fourth quarter and at key moments in games. It appears from the outside as if he has no trust in the 24-year-old. Instead, Gary Neal has gotten those minutes.

“He has no place for Lance’s act and has no problem pulling him,” the observer said of Clifford.

Pacers Feelings

Pacers coach Frank Vogel has a soft spot for Stephenson. They understand one another.

Vogel would call Stephenson out for his behavior, but he was also sure to highlight the things he did well. Stephenson trusted and liked his coach. He even bought him a Burberry tie a few years back to be more stylish on the sidelines.

Stephenson with Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones.

Bird appreciated Stephenson’s talent going back to the 2010 draft. He saw the athleticism and skills, and believed in him, as did scout Kevin Mackey. Lance and Bird, however, have not talked since early July, Stephenson told me almost a month ago when the Pacers faced the Hornets.

Bird was loyal to Stephenson over the years. He stuck by him. But he is known for holding grudges, and it seems like Stephenson crossed the line when he did not take Bird’s advice during the playoffs, in regards to toning down the antics, and then in looking elsewhere last July.

It’s unclear how Bird currently feels about Stephenson. (One thing was odd at Monday night’s game. Bird was not in his usual seat in the second row by the Pacers’ bench. I didn’t see him all game, and those I asked weren’t sure where he was.)

Bird said after last season that he regretted his handling of Stephenson.

“I think one of the problems this year is I didn’t spend enough time with Lance,” Bird said in June. “I was gone a year. I came back. He had a good year. I just told him that I wasn’t going to bother him all year. I texted him a few times and we talked about the game but I left him alone, and I think that’s a mistake on my part.”

Talking to team officials, the feeling is that they would be willing to take Stephenson back — only if a compelling enough deal can be agreed upon. They can be patient, sit back and listen to what Charlotte is willing to ante up in exchange for getting him out of their hair.

The Hornets are seeing that the market is slim and don’t have the advantage of trading both under the radar or while his stock is up. It’s not even average right now. They’ll have to give more than they take back; that’s just the way it is as their cards are in plain sight.

“He’s not in a good state of mind right now,” the team source said of Stephenson.

(It was owner Michael Jordan that made the winning pitch to Stephenson in a Las Vegas hotel room. “We need someone that can compete against LeBron,” Jordan told him. Just imagine how fired up that got Stephenson, especially coming from M.J.)

Support System

Stephenson said last month that he had removed most of his ties from Indianapolis. He and his parents sold their house in Wanamaker. He received a shipment of his leftover AND-1 shoes and gear from the Pacers. And his parents and younger brother, Lantz, join him in the move to Charlotte.

The only thing he left behind is one of his AAU teams, Born Ready Elite.

He treated the team, which is 52-7 and coached by Adrian Redd (since Lance’s dad is in Charlotte), to the Pacers game when he was in town a few weeks ago and gave them passes to see him after the game in section 18.

For the Pacers, what matters most is those that would deal with him every day. The coaches, players, and support staff.

Vogel, who he doesn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body for anyone, likes Stephenson. He challenged him to the Ice Bucket Challenge over the summer. When the team was in Charlotte in the preseason, he talked with Stephenson for about 10 minutes, and then invited him into the locker room to catch up with everyone else.

The dinner party in Charlotte, paid for by Stephenson.

When I asked Stephenson what he missed most last month, he said the training staff. He had a good time with the trio of veterans.

Monday, I talked with a handful of players who were on the team last year. None of them objected, and they were interested in the validity of the report.

The basketball side of the organization has great leadership, from owner Herb Simon to Bird, Vogel, and down to the players. They could make it work. Players agreed that too much was made of Hibbert not getting along with Stephenson.

The players, too, know Stephenson’s personality and his act, if you will. Realistically, he’s probably not understood in the Hornets locker room. Meanwhile, the Pacers get him.

What has changed with the Pacers is the support system off the court.

Clark Kellogg, the former VP of Player Relations, left the organization after 32 years at the end of June. He listened in to many of Stephenson’s postgame interviews and then they’d discuss his handling of the media, among other things.

Heather Denton, who was beloved in the locker room, and her player relations assistant Drew Franklin, both left for very good opportunities with the Milwaukee Bucks in mid-November. When Denton was in Charlotte in the preseason, she joined Lance for dinner (and so did Roy Hibbert…). When Stephenson returned to Indy, they went out to lunch.

She did so much for the players; she found them a place to live, took care of their close friends and family, handled tickets, organized and was there for their appearances, and much more.

That department, which was consistently ranked in the top three by the NBA, is still getting its feet wet. New VP Carl Daniels is fresh onto the job from adidas and already has two positions to fill.


This appears to be the classic case of the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. Stephenson was comfortable in Indy and with the Pacers. He had a great support system, Bird in his corner, and a fan base that liked Born Ready.

His confidence, which he’s never lacked, is evidently shaken. He’s Born Ready. He had t-shirts printed last season with his nickname on it. He was Sir Lancelot, his creative character to help promote himself for the 2014 NBA All-Star game.

It didn’t work. The Eastern Conference coaches didn’t vote him on the team, and that hurt Lance a lot. He was having a great season, a breakout season, and he felt slighted. Over the final months of the season, he set out to prove the coaches wrong, and that’s where he ran into trouble.

He sacrificed togetherness and moved it down the pecking order.

Then, after not liking the Pacers’ offer, he thought he found greener pastures elsewhere where he would have be given the key to the team and eventually been the face of MJ’s team.

Turns out, the Pacers were the best fit for him. And the Hornets are just now finding that out.

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