The courtship of Lance Stephenson has certainly been an odd one. On one hand, he’s an incredibly gifted 23-year-old at the most shallow position in basketball. But he also likes to blow in people's ears and stir up drama.
On the TV show How I Met Your Mother, Barney created a hot-to-crazy scale for his girlfriends. In a nutshell, a line goes up through the graph and the goal is to stay above it. The crazier the girl is, the hotter she has to be to make up for it.
This is kind of how we view Lance Stephenson in the NBA. We could probably create a hypothetical 3D one where we have our x-axis as crazy, y-axis as talent, and the z-axis as contract. OK, I've talked myself into it. Let’s break them down.
The X Axis: Crazy
Here’s a thing we know about Lance: he isn’t afraid of LeBron James at all. He was very out of control at times in their recent playoff series against the Miami Heat, and everyone probably has wildly differing opinions of whether his antics were OK or intolerable. Not many other folks in the NBA, or in the world for that matter, would provoke a man like LeBron James the way Stephenson did. I’m not sure whether this is a positive or negative.
There is precedent that young guys who all of a sudden become multi-millionaires don’t suddenly lose their maturity problems overnight. Sometimes, the money can compound the problem. Hopefully this isn’t the case for Lance in Charlotte. But it still is a risk. At what point is that risk worth it?
The Y Axis: Talent
Stephenson had 7.4 win shares on the year, which would have easily been the second-best on Charlotte’s team. Al Jefferson led the team with 7.8 win shares, but next on the list for returning players is Kemba Walker, who added 5.1 win shares. In fact, Stephenson was the fourth-best shooting guard in terms of win shares according to basketball-reference.com, only behind James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, and Wesley Matthews.
Some other statistics don’t rate him quite as high. Our own statistic, nERD, gives him a 3.4 on the year, which means a team with Lance plus four league-average players would be about three to four games over .500. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has him at 5.71 wins above replacement (WAR), which was good for 11th among all shooting guards on the year.
Whatever statistic you want to look at, Stephenson is still a net positive. He made strides in his offensive game this past season, and was a big part of one of the best defenses we’ve ever seen historically in Indiana. He will fit very nicely into Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford’s defensive system, while also providing a nice third option on offense beside Walker and Jefferson.
The Z Axis: Contract
Signing Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million contract is a huge win for the Hornets. It's also a little odd, as he turned down a five-year, $44 million contract offer from the Pacers. So he got a per-year upgrade by signing with Charlotte, but it was only an additional $200,000 a year. And he got fewer guaranteed years.
The three-year contract also includes a team option on the final year, which is perfect for the Hornets. If we’re plotting our graph, the contract absolutely makes Stephenson worth it. At just two guaranteed years, it's a very low risk signing. If the crazy ends up outweighing the talent, the Hornets can move on in two years. They don’t have to put all their chips in the Lance basket.
Out of all the questionable contracts this offseason, this one is right on the money. Based on "salary by production," Stephenson performed like a $9 million per year player last year with the Pacers. The Hornets got a steal last night, and they now firmly put themselves in a position to not only get to the playoffs again next year, but possibly even advance to the second round.