Lance Stephenson presented one of the more interesting conundrums for NBA coaches and general managers this offseason. His case was more interesting than unique because the notion of wanting to separate the player and his basketball proficiency from the periodical circus they embody on court or on the bench no longer is seen as a new puzzle.
J.R. Smith’s volume chucking was the least of Phil Jackson’s worries a season ago, and Ricky Davis wasn’t exactly Sportsman of the Year in Cleveland. There are myriad examples of athletes refusing to temper their behavior on field or court, but Stephenson’s circumstance carries an additional baggage that for some was too heavy to shoulder.
For as much entertainment as Stephenson provides, there are events dotting his past that are in no way funny. He groped a 17-year-old his senior year of high school and pled guilty to disorderly conduct. His first year in the league—2008—he was charged with felony assault for pushing the mother of his daughter down a flight of stairs, though the case was ultimately dismissed.
Indiana’s ‘Born Ready’ firecracker routinely verged on the precipice of absurdity a season ago, his on-court foolery dwarfing what was a career year with the Pacers. This offseason, his league-best five triple-doubles weren’t remembered nearly as much as the air he blew into LeBron James’ ear in the conference finals. Career highs in shooting percentage (.491), scoring (13.8), 3-point shooting percentage (.352), rebounds (7.2), assists (4.6), and player efficiency rating (14.7), took a back seat to the man pelvic thrusting in the direction of Courtney Lee, taunting Tony Allen, and other numerous on-court antics that gave Pacers president Larry Bird migraines.
Give Stephenson a candle and he’ll set it on fire. Give him another one and he’ll burn your house down. You can only pour so much of his vinegar into a franchise’s baking soda before science takes its course.
Still, the Charlotte Hornets bit—signing Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million contract. The 23-year-old combo guard is bringing the show to North Carolina.
Few in the league have more dangerous lack of self-control issues than Stephenson. There are moments where he doesn’t at all resemble the player that has steadily improved in each of his four seasons in the league. Then there are moments where the 6-foot-5 New York native breaks the press, splits two more defenders, and nets an off-balance jumper. It would be far easier to write him off if he didn’t have the chops to back up his nonsensical persona. But he does.
The Hornets need Stephenson as much as he needs them. Gerald Henderson, Charlotte’s starting shooting guard a season ago, posted decent numbers: 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Lance’s box scores were better in virtually every metric, and the two should play well off each other next season—each bringing completely different skillsets to the team. Stephenson will also inherit Steve Clifford’s proven defensive system that ranked No. 4 in the NBA a season ago in points allowed per game (97.1). With the addition of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, Charlotte has taken strides to add athleticism, size, and length to their roster in 2014-15. However, there’s no doubt that Stephenson was the biggest addition to the roster.
“They keep saying the East is wide open, you never know,” Patrick Ewing told NBC Sports this week. We feel that we have a pretty good team. Lance definitely is a great addition to our ball club, he’s a guy that can shoot the basketball, he can handle the basketball, distribute the basketball, and he can get in there and play defense and rebound. He’s a great addition. We had one of the top 10 defenses in the league and with his addition it’s going to be even better.”
Lance Stephenson isn’t the first budding NBA star who tightropes the line between entertainment and immaturity on his way to superstardom. He may never be an elite player in the league, not that he would ever admit the possibility, but Charlotte provides a unique opportunity for Stephenson to find his bearings on a team just now getting acquainted with relevancy, clean his slate of the hedonistic tendencies that pepper his resume with the media, and most importantly, grow up.
What more could he or we really want?