Trade Candidate: Lance Stephenson

When they signed Lance Stephenson as a free agent last summer, the Hornets never envisioned unloading him a few months later. But Stephenson’s erratic play and the team’s disappointing season have put the fifth-year guard on the trading block.

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Charlotte HornetsCharlotte gave Stephenson a three-year, $27.4MM contract to leave the Pacers in July, hoping he would help the Hornets improve on last year’s 43-39 record. Instead, both the player and the team got off to rough starts. Stephenson struggled with his shot in November, connecting at just 38% from the field and a paltry 19% from three-point range. Not coincidentally, the Hornets sank to the bottom of the Southeast Division, sitting at 3-15 after a 10-game losing streak that stretched over November and December.

Stephenson’s luck got even worse in mid-December when he suffered a strained pelvis that sidelined him for 14 games. Charlotte won its first four games in Stephenson’s absence and gradually crept back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Hornets reached the All-Star break tied for seventh place in the conference at 22-30, a game ahead of the Nets and a game and a half better than the Celtics.
But Stephenson has played only a small role in this resurgence. Since returning to the court January 14th, he has logged more than 30 minutes in just one game and has often played 20 minutes or less. He was held scoreless in the team’s final pre-break game, a 28-point loss to the Pistons, and had just three rebounds and four assists — far short of the flashy numbers he put up last season in Indiana.

Stephenson has continued to have problems with his shot since returning. He shot 32% from the field in January and made just 1 of 10 three-point attempts. His February numbers are little better — 34% from the field and 19% from long distance.

With Stephenson struggling on the court and faced with a diminished role, it may be a case where both sides could benefit from a deal. Stephenson, who was born in Brooklyn, has been linked to the Nets in recent trade talks, including a rumored three-way deal last month that also involved the Thunder. More recent discussions have focused on a one-on-one deal between the Nets and Hornets, with Joe Johnson possibly being sent to Charlotte in return. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported January 25th that Gerald Henderson and Marvin Williams could also be part of the trade package.

Conflicting reports had the Hornets so close to dealing Stephenson and Cody Zeller to Brooklyn last month that they were ready to call the league office. Even though that trade didn’t get finalized, some version of it could reappear before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Charlotte has already shown a willingness to shake things up. On Tuesday, the Hornets sent Gary Neal and Miami’s second-round draft pick in 2019 to Minnesota in exchange for Mo Williams, Troy Daniels and cash considerations.

Despite Stephenson’s recent problems, he remains an intriguing gamble for any team seeking help for a postseason run. The 24-year-old broke through as a star for the Pacers in 2013/14, putting up 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game and helping Indiana secure the best record in the Eastern Conference. His numbers were almost identical in the playoffs —13.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 4.2 APG — as the Pacers reached the conference finals before losing to the Heat.

However, Stephenson’s on-court production has been mixed with erratic behavior, such as the much-publicized incident when he blew in LeBron James‘ ear during last year’s playoffs. Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, sent a text message to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today expressing his displeasure with the James incident at the time, and that undoubtedly played a role in the decision not to retain Stephenson.

In addition, Stephenson was third in the NBA last season with 17 technical fouls and reportedly had a scuffle during practice with teammate Evan Turner. Stephenson also gained a reputation for being moody and having his mind wander during games.

The question for any team considering a Stephenson trade is whether he can get beyond his recent physical and behavioral issues and recapture the on-court brilliance he displayed with the Pacers. He would have to find a team that is willing to absorb a contract that pays him $9MM next season and $9.4MM in 2016/17, but he could be the type of player who benefits greatly from a change of scenery.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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