Lance Stephenson was a man without a country for much of last season. Despite leading the NBA in triple doubles last year, he was an outcast by the end of the season. His antics in the playoffs earned him a reputation as flippant and immature, even as he played in earnest against the eventual victor Miami Heat. Now in Charlotte, Stephenson will have the opportunity to finally call a place his own and define the new era for a team still looking for distinction after inking a three-year, $27 million contract on Wednesday.
The task will not be easy. The Hornets appear to be a team mashed together, and while Kemba Walker has pleasantly developed into a fun, young point guard, the rest of the roster lacks any real passion. Al Jefferson can score like nobody's business down low, but hasn't ever been regarded as a particularly effective defender. Cody Zeller is developing, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's shot has the wrong kind of character and Gerald Henderson is a dogged worker and not much else.
For the Hornets, finding a team identity is the natural next step after last year's campaign. Head coach Steve Clifford turned Charlotte into a defensive squad last season, but outside of Walker they lacked any kind of firepower from the wing. With the loss of Josh McRoberts to Miami, much of their three-point acumen is now gone, furthering the need for additional offensive talent.
Adding Stephenson, a bold personality and dynamic playmaker, should help Charlotte find what they need. And, it could help change what went wrong for Stephenson after four years in Indianapolis.
A relative unknown when he was drafted in 2010, by 2013-14 Stephenson was a star. Heading into last season, not only had Paul George rather effortlessly usurped the Pacers' throne in the wake of Danny Granger's career-turned-tragedy, but they had a homegrown star in Stephenson making just $1 million on a second-round deal and producing at a much higher level than anyone had expected.
When the Pacers collapsed and eventually fell to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson took to considering just what career path he would have if he played second fiddle to George at reduced pay. A budding star, the simple act of getting out and into the spotlight appears to be what motivated Stephenson the most. From Ricky O'Donnell at SB Nation:
It's a story the NBA has seen many times before. Joe Johnson was a critical cog on the 2004 Phoenix Suns, but he didn't really start to shine until he became the man in Atlanta. James Harden couldn't crack the starting lineup over Thabo Sefolosha in Oklahoma City, but he quickly became one of the league's 15 best players once he got to Houston. Stephenson wants that same opportunity, and he thinks he'll get it in Charlotte. Johnson and Harden, after all, each have max contracts in their bank accounts.
The Hornets are a team entirely devoid of a defining characteristic. Yes, coach Steve Clifford had the Hornets playing great defense statistically last season, but their scheme was easily broken apart by the game's greatest scorers. Carmelo Anthony went for 62 points against them. LeBron James dropped 61. Kyrie Irving poured in 44 and Steph Curry racked up 43.
Stephenson represents a natural upgrade in the personnel department. A tough defender, Stephenson will likely draw the assignment of guarding the best opposing players every night. With a better point guard at the helm and a reliable scorer down low, Stephenson should find playing as the No. 1 wing scorer for Charlotte suits him quite well.
Whether the Hornets will be able to pull themselves out of the middle of the Eastern Conference with Stephenson alone isn't entirely clear. On paper, the East appears to have watered itself down quite a bit at the top, which could open up an opportunity for Michael Jordan's team. Stephenson's arrival could be the start of a new era for both team and player.