Unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson signed a 3 year/$27 million contract with the Hornets today, further altering and balancing the Eastern Conference power structure. Stephenson is a polarizing player often the scapegoat for the Pacer’s demise after the All Star Break last season, but he was also their most consistent player throughout the season. Not the best–that would be Paul George–but the most consistent. His antics likely hurt his value on the free agent market, and made the Pacers hesitant to offer him a lot of money. You never know how a player will react to getting a big payday, but Lance, more than other guys, seems like the type of player whose play and personality would be greatly influenced by a big contract. And not in a good way.
It’s rare to find a player as talented as Stephenson, at his young age, on the free agent market. Even rarer for that player to be an unrestricted free agent. Indiana wouldn’t have the chance to match any offer that Stephenson accepted. Stephenson is immensely talented and very young, but also a wildcard in the locker room. That’s why Indiana was left in a tough position, having to gage where Stephenson’s game might be in a few years versus the damage he inflicts to the team’s chemistry right now.
But having just seen LeBron return to Cleveland and Carmelo not go to the Bulls, the Pacers should’ve realized that the East was up for grabs. This was their chance, finally, to get out of the East, without having to go through the Heat. All the Pacers had to do was keep their head down, re-sign Stephenson, and bank on the team’s experience and continuity. Maybe they weren’t good enough to win a title, but they were certainly good enough to win the Eastern Conference.
Go through the East and find the team that dispatches last year’s Pacers squad. Without LeBron, the Heat aren’t doing it. Even with LeBron, the Cavs might be too inexperienced to do. The Bulls are a wildcard depending on Derrick Rose’s health. The Wizards and Raptors are good, but young. And the rest of the East wasn’t contending next season.
The Pacers did offer Stephenson what looked like a fair deal, but it makes sense for Stephenson to have declined it. A three-year deal will leave Stephenson on the free agent market at the age of 26, right in the middle of his prime, and possibly coming off of one or more All-Star appearances. Say he makes the All-Star game two of the next three years (after all, he was the biggest snub in the East last season), coming into free agency. That’s has max contract written all over it. But if Stephenson had signed a long-term deal with the Pacers now, this would have been the big payday of his career. Heading into free agency as a 29 year old whose entire career has been spent playing second fiddle to Paul George on underachieving Indiana teams would be decidedly less lucrative.
With Stephenson on the Hornets, things in the East are a lot murkier. Crazy as it sounds, the Cavs are probably the hands-down favorites now. The pecking order starts with LeBron. Then the Bulls, Wizards, and Raptors are probably contenders. The Heat and Pacers are damaged goods that should still do some damage. And the Hornets are now a wildcard in the East. They could easily win 45+ games next season and be the surprise of the league.
The Pacers lost their chance at Eastern Conference supremacy. And in the process, propped up one of the most intriguing young teams in the league.