May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) wipes his face during a game against the Miami Heat in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
In a reprisal of the classic 1990s McDonald’s commercial that pitted them against each other in a game of horse, Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird and Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan recently took their best shots at landing guard Lance Stephenson on the 2014 NBA free agent market. On Wednesday morning, we finally learned after more than 20 years that Michael apparently has the better touch, as Stephenson signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Hornets, leaving Bird and the Pacers in the rearview mirror, according to Fox Sports.
In making this move, Stephenson leaves a Pacers team that appeared to be on the brink of great things last season but nearly self-destructed in the second half before regrouping enough to lose the Eastern Conference Finals, once again, to LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Stephenson joins a Charlotte team that made the playoffs for the first time in four years and features rising youngsters Kemba Walker and Noah Vonleh, giving Lance the chance to help build a green team into an Eastern power.
For Bird and the Pacers, Stephenson’s decision is something of a slap in the face, since Indiana reportedly made a five-year, $44-million offer to their guard at the beginning of free agency, only to be rebuffed. Bird in particular has shown consistent faith in the volatile player who has so much potential, drafting him out of the University of Cincinnati in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft and keeping him on the roster even in the face of growing questions about Stephenson’s maturity. Bird and Stephenson have both benefited from their relationship, as Stephenson became arguably Indiana’s most consistent player in last year’s playoffs and then hit the free agent market to fairly strong demand.
By taking a shorter deal than the one offered by the Pacers, Stephenson sets himself up for another free-agent run in the summer of 2017, when he will still be just 26 years old. If he can help lift the Hornets and shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few years, he could potentially land a league-maximum contract as a franchise cornerstone entering his prime.
For now, Indiana fans are left to assume that Jordan’s fancy stylings held more sway over Stephenson than did Bird’s plodding, three-pointer approach. “Off Larry’s forehead, over Lucas Oil, head-fake past LeBron, around Independence Square … nothing but net!”