Trade Ready: The Lance Stephenson Conundrum

The Charlotte Hornets appear to already be suffering from buyer’s remorse after signing Lance Stephenson to what looked like on the surface, at least, as a team-friendly deal worth $18 million over a span of two years (with Lance hitting the market again after the new TV deals kick in).

But as of this moment, no trade appears to be imminent for the former Indiana Pacer. In less than a year’s time, Lance Stephenson went from the offensive floor general for the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference to now being viewed around the league as a player team’s wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.  How did this happen, and what do the Hornets do?

It’s amazing how quickly the landscape in the NBA can change; the Hornets looked like a team on the rise under new head coach Steve Clifford. They were overachieving defensively, came very close to stealing away Gordon Hayward from Utah and it seemed feasible the club could see a Pacer-esque rise into the top half of the Eastern Conference even though they settled on Stephenson after the Jazz matched Charlotte’s offer sheet for Hayward. Charlotte is 8-19 when I’m writing this.

Losing 19 of your first 27 games is a death sentence in the West, but in the East the Hornets are still very much alive in the playoff chase with the Brooklyn Nets holding onto the 8th seed with an anemic 11-15 record and an aging roster needing Life Alert on speed dial. Point being, anything is possible in the Eastern Conference.

The Hornets didn’t go into the 2014-15 NBA season expecting to be a lottery team, nor should they have, but that’s where they’re going unless general manager Rich Cho does something drastic; like trading his big free-agent coup, Lance Stephenson, perhaps. The problem? This is now team No. 2 for Lance that’s more than happy to cut ties with the Brooklyn native. Desperate teams may have been willing to look past his character shortcomings before, but with the flashy triple-double numbers disappearing his trade value has never been lower.

It’s not really fair to criticize Cho for what’s happened to Charlotte this season; he nailed his last, big free-agent signing in Al Jefferson, appeared to have finally found the right coach and has drafted well for the most part. His vision made sense, and the Hornets rise seemed like a foregone conclusion, especially with Paul George out for the season and the state of the Eastern Conference as a whole in flux. Most analysts and writers bought the kool-aid, myself included, but things haven’t panned out. That happens in the NBA sometimes.

Cho came very close to being 2-for-2 in franchise-shifting free agency signings by signing Hayward to a max contract, but the Jazz smartly matched and Cho settled for Lance to what again looked like a team-friendly deal that Charlotte could move if things went south like they did in Indiana towards the end of the 2013-14 season. Somehow, a guy on a two-year, $18 million deal has become essentially unmovable.

A change of scenery for Lance made sense on paper. The guy was a triple-double monster that was one of the three best players on a contender. Instead, Lance’s new home in Charlotte has been more of the same of what we saw in his dying days in Indiana without the production to bail him out. Teams have always put up, traded for, or even signed headcases and potential locker room “cancers” to lucrative, insane deals and they probably always will — but what happens when that risk you brought aboard not only tanks in production, but the entire team is directly impacted as well? The answer is a pill Charlotte is going to have a tough time swallowing, and rightfully so. This probably won’t end well for any of the parties involved.

The Hornets thought their lottery days were behind them; that they’d be a perennial playoff team for the foreseeable future, that all of their patience and careful spending habits would pay off in the long-run, but Lance Stephenson has thrown a wrench into those once realistic expectations. Lance was a high-risk, high-reward player but the latter hasn’t happened and the former turned out to be higher than expected.

Statistically speaking, it’s been all bad for Lance Stephenson in 2014. Lance is shooting 38 percent from the floor, 15 percent from deep, 63 percent from the line and carries an ORtg of 88 and a DRtg of 109. The one constant in his game, however, has been his rebounding and assist rate; Lance is averaging more boards and assists per 36 minutes than he did in Indy last season.

Lance’s individual numbers don’t tell the entire story; you have to look at how the team is fairing with him on the floor as a unit to get a better sense as to why things are so bad in Charlotte. (Spoilers: it’s bad.) Not only is Lance shooting horribly in all areas, and playing below-average defense, but the team has fallen a cliff with him on the floor: the Hornets have a Net48 of -7.6 with Lance on the floor, per Lance has also played over 100 minutes with three different units and those units have a combined plus/minus of -93.

Nobody should have expected Lance to transform the Hornets into a top-1o offense – Clifford’s 2013-14 club was 24th in offensive efficiency a season ago – but now the club is 25th in offensive efficiency and the top-5 defense that got them into the playoffs last season has completely evaporated without the offense picking up the slack; the kind of thing that leads to an 8-19 start. The Hornets thought Lance would balance the team in that regard, but he’s only provided a chemical imbalance for Charlotte. The Lance signing was a risky experiment with many possible outcomes, no clear solution and a cantankerous test subject that could contaminate bystanders in the vicinity. So should the Hornets struggles really be all that surprising?

It’s clear Lance is the odd-man out, but how much damage has already been done to a core full of young, intriguing players now a part of a toxic situation? That remains a mystery, but the ambiguity doesn’t stop there with Lance’s trade prospects dwindling by the day. What is clear, however, is that Cho’s return for Lance won’t be pleasant with how the trade market has unfolded due to his poor play and reputation. Cho will have to hope that by just subtracting Lance from the equation, additional wins will follow.

Hope is what got Cho into this mess, in which he believed Lance could gel with Kemba and not be a huge drop-off from Hayward, but hope if a fickle beast and free-agent signings can always backfire. That’s what happened here, but Cho and the Hornets will need more than hope to climb out of the treacherous depths into which they’ve fallen. They need Brooklyn Nets’ general manager Billy King to come calling.

About Chase Thomas

I only have time for coffee. Associate editor at Crossover Chronicles, Bloguin's NBA blog. Proprietor of Host of the Cut to the Chase podcast. Contact: Follow: @CutToTheChaseT