Lance Stephenson joining LeBron, Lakers on one-year deal

Pacers, LeBron James, Lance Stephenson

While there was constant communication with the Pacers on a potential new deal, Lance Stephenson decided to go west to Los Angeles and team up with LeBron James on the Lakers. Stephenson reached agreement with the Lakers late Sunday, the first day of free agency, on a one-year deal worth $4.5 million, a league source told

Stephenson, who has spent the offseason in Indianapolis training at the St. Vincent Center, issued a statement grateful for his time with the Pacers.

“While I couldn’t be more excited to join the Los Angeles Lakers, I first need to thank Pacer Nation for all of the love and support over the years. Specifically, I cannot show enough appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Simon, Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard, Coach McMillan, and all of my teammates. The entire organization stood by me through all of the ups and downs of my career and have played a crucial role in molding me into the man and player that I am today. I will forever be indebted for that unwavering belief in me. Indiana will always be my home, and the Pacers organization will always be my family.”

Just one week ago, the Pacers elected to decline the option in Stephenson’s three-year deal that he signed on March 30, 2017. The move, an unpopular one with Pacers fans everywhere, was done to preserve cap space to go big hunting in free agency, especially had Thad Young not exercised his player option.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers, Victory Field, Charity Softball

Lance Stephenson was in high demand at the 2018 Caroline Symmes Celebrity Softball Challenge.

In the days and weeks leading up to the option trigger date, Stephenson had not received any assurances from the Pacers front office about his $4.3 million option, sources said. We’ve all been through the job-interview process. You know when a company wants you.

That Monday, Stephenson was at the Pacers’ facility to lift weights and get shots up. He left about 30 minutes before word got out, according to a source, that they weren’t guaranteeing his contract for the 2018-19 season and he would soon become an unrestricted free agent.

The Pacers did not know for certain what Young, their starting power forward, would decide until days later. Thad ultimately made up his mind one day before the June 29th deadline. Had Young opted to become a free agent, the Pacers would have had more than $30 million in cap space.

“This was a very difficult decision, but as free agency begins on July 1, we want to have flexibility so that we can prepare for all of our available options,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said in a statement.

Stephenson, 27, received interest on day one of free agency and like his peers, he wanted to act quickly because of the lack of cap space around the league. The salary cap for the 2018-19 season was set on Sunday, June 30th at $101.869 million and the luxury tax threshold is $123.733 million. The league expects the salary cap to rise to around $109 million in one year.

The Pacers came back to Stephenson with an offer Sunday, a league source said, but the 27-year-old guard chose Los Angeles, the bigger stage, and the chance to play in the spotlight beside three-time NBA Champion LeBron James in Hollywood.

Earlier Sunday, LeBron’s agency, Klutch Sports, released a statement that LeBron would sign a four-year, $154 million deal with the Lakers, ending his second stint back home in Cleveland.

This move by Stephenson ends his second stint with the Pacers, who drafted him 40th overall in 2010.

After his rookie deal expired in 2014, coming off a season where he believed he deserved to be an All-Star, the Pacers produced a film for Stephenson and his family that was shown on July 1, the first day of free agency. They offered all they felt they could: $44 million over five years, an average of $8.8 million per year. That, however, did not interest those around Stephenson who pumped him up and believed he was worth far more.

See more: Examining the Lance Stephenson Saga

Instead, Lance signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets with … get this … a team option in year three. (Not wise!) Charlotte didn’t pan out; it just wasn’t a good fit. He was dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers and then finished the year in Memphis, which decided to decline the option. Yeah, that team option. So Stephenson earned $18 million of a possible $27 million.

After that poor business decision, he broke ties with a New York lawyer who served as his agent and hired the Mark Bartelstein-led Priority Sports, which is based in Chicago.

Stephenson then began the 2016-17 season in New Orleans on a one-year, partially guaranteed deal. That didn’t last long because of a groin injury that required surgery. Months later, in February, Minnesota signed him to not one, but two 10-day contracts. But then he suffered a grade II left ankle sprain.

That’s when he felt like he hit rock bottom, he admitted later. Injured, in bed, without an NBA contract, and with stuff in storage units across the country.

Get this: The Cavaliers brought Lance in for a tryout but they felt the ankle was too limiting so they decided against signing him. (He later estimated that he was 75 percent healthy.) Otherwise, he could have been teammates with LeBron in Cleveland — and would have faced the Pacers in round one.

The Pacers, who know Lance better than anyone, agreed to bring him back in March for $12 million over three years, with the final year being a team option. At his first game back inside The Fieldhouse, the crowd welcomed him home with a standing ovation. Night after night, he received the second-loudest applause from fans after Victor Oladipo, the Pacers’ new star.

When the Pacers introduced new uniforms before the 2017-18 season, who did they trot out to model them? None other than Lance Stephenson, who arguably was the face of the new, post-Paul George era.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

As Lance says, “The fans love Born Ready.”

Center Myles Turner was the longest-tenured Pacer still with the team, but Stephenson was on his second stint and nobody gets the crowd out of their seats and keeps them entertained quite like Born Ready. He loves to put on a show.

Before the 2017-18 season, the Pacers made numerous upgrades throughout Bankers Life Fieldhouse. One of the most obvious was to the on-court lighting system, which was 19 years old and first installed with the building in 1999. They debuted the new LED lights and experimented with theater lighting similar to setup used for Lakers or Nets games, where the focus is on the court.

There were a few players who were outspoken about the change, and Lance was one of them.

“I like the bright lights,” Stephenson said, referring to the customary look. “I like feeling like everybody’s involved. I feel like [now] it’s just on us.”

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

One thing you could count on from Lance Stephenson: He brought it every single night. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

His statistics back up the premise that he thrives in front of the home crowd.

In 41 home games, he shot 45.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from the arc, and averaged 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. But on the road, he shot 40.1 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from the arc, and averaged 7.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.

Also when the season opened: Stephenson had his own fan section at home games, replacing what had been Paul George and George Hill’s G2 Zone. Upon returning to Indy last spring, Lance Stephenson merchandise outsold everything other than Paul George apparel.

Stephenson, one of two Pacers (Cory Joseph) to play in all 82 games, averaged 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game last season. He shot 42.7 percent from the floor and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc.

[Lance Stephenson explains what leads up to one of his moments]

The Pacers, who return their top six scorers from last year’s 48-34 team, worked quickly to get a deal in place with small forward Doug McDermott at the start of free agency. They’re giving him $22 million over three years, fully guaranteed, according to a league source.

Later on Sunday, Glenn Robinson III moved on and agreed to a two-year contract with the Detroit Pistons.

Had the Pacers offered even more money or a multi-year deal, my sense is that Stephenson would have stayed.

Lebron James, Lance Stephenson, Born Ready, Cleveland Cavaliers, Pacers

Lance Stephenson defends LeBron James. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

And so, Lance and LeBron — together at last.

We all remember that first encounter back in 2012, when Stephenson wasn’t even in the rotation. He flashed the choke sign from the bench. During the series, a reporter asked LeBron about Lance.

“Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.”

And Lance blowing in LeBron’s ear remains one of the most hilarious moments during in-game action.

“I know that moment right there is history,” Stephenson said last season. “It’s always going to stick with me.”

As much as Stephenson gets under his skin, there appears to be mutual respect. As annoying as he can be, like mosquitos on a nice summer night, you know he’s going to show up and compete. Every. Single. Night.

But we don’t know for sure because, according to Lance, LeBron doesn’t talk to him.

“We don’t talk at all. I really don’t care,” Stephenson said last season. “… It could frustrate you because he won’t say nothing to you. He’s just playing. … Never had a discussion. Never.

“I’m not trying to be the other team’s friend. I’m trying to be my teammates’ friend. When I’m playing against guys that are on the other team, I’m not talking to you. I have nothing to say to you. I want to kick your butt.”

Stephenson, along with perhaps Dion Waiters, are the only other two NBA players who believe they are best players on the court every night. It’s that belief, that fearlessness, that fuels them. And with experience, Lance shares how you can’t treat LeBron like any other superstar.

“He’s a great player,” Stephenson said of LeBron after a win over the Cavaliers in January. “You just can’t play regular defense on him, you have to get into him. It’s hard to get into his head but tonight I guess was the night that we did it. … I try to channel it because you know they watching us and LeBron is probably looking for me to do something.”

Lance Stephenson, Brian Shaw, Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers

Lance Stephenson working with Lance Stephenson prior to a game in 2013.

What the Lakers must do is take the time to truly understand Stephenson. To maximize his skills, they must give him the freedom to create. They must allow him to bring the ball up and be accepting of two bad plays for eight other good ones. He’s a creative player who thrives off snatching rebounds and passing his teammates open. Stephenson respects LeBron, but he won’t back down.

The number one asset going for the Lakers in this new relationship will be associate head coach Brian Shaw, who understands him. He served on Frank Vogel’s staff for two seasons before getting a chance to head up the Denver Nuggets and worked with Lance, George, and George Hill daily.

Shaw understands how Stephenson operates and what motivates him. That’s a good pairing.

Los Angeles will be a test for Lance, however. He’s producing more music, loves playing video games, and likes to be social. He played without a shoe deal last season and the footwear enthusiast would like one. In Los Angeles, you’re always being watched and in many cases, recorded. Hollywood is a much different scene than downtown Indianapolis and runs at a different pace than Zionsville, where he has lived.

So this is a risk for him. He remembers quite well what happened last time he left Indy, which he often refers to as his second home. Larry Bird, who drafted him, has always been in his corner. Lance still has many of their texts saved from over the years. This past season was much different, though, in that Bird is now a Snowbird, choosing to spend the winter in Florida. No longer the team president, he’s now in an advisor role to President Kevin Pritchard.

Here’s Stephenson in his own words on why he has played his best basketball with the Pacers:

“One is the fans and one is the coaches are letting me play, letting me be me, letting me make mistake and letting me play through those mistakes. It’s all about letting me play. I’m not going to hard the team, I’m not going to mess up the game. I’m just playing hard, playing defense, trying to get my teammates involved, trying to get rebounds, and also trying to get the fans involved. I don’t think I can harm a team when I play like that.”

Lance is headed west, but so is LeBron — opening the door for a new team to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals since 2010. James’ teams had remarkably made the finals eight straight years, and they had knocked the Pacers out of the playoffs five times over the last seven years, including the last two postseasons.

This deal — and all others — cannot be signed until the conclusion of the NBA’s moratorium on July 6.

I get love and I get hate
Back home in Indiana
I do bad and I do great
Back home in Indiana
Got my swag and I got my taste
Back home in Indiana
Not to brag, but that’s my state
Back home in Indiana

[Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

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