New Charlotte Hornet Lance Stephenson hopes not to be defined by one foolish gesture.
“I bring more to the table than blowing in someone’s ear,” Stephenson said Friday of the incident with LeBron James that brought him so much notoriety.
Stephenson, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, brings scoring, defense, playmaking and an edge. The Hornets like his edginess, and believe it can help them win games. But only to a point.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan attended the meeting in Las Vegas on Tuesday night that resulted in Stephenson signing a 3-year, $27.4 million contract. Jordan spoke very directly with Stephenson before signing off on this contract.
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“He told me what he likes about me, he told me what I need to calm down on,” Stephenson told the Observer after the news conference. “He told me how I can contribute to the team. And he told me he believed in my talent. He likes my competitive edge.”
There is plenty to like. The Hornets desperately need scoring and shooting from the wing positions. Last season Stephenson averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists and shot 49 percent from the field. The Hornets needed a player of his wide skill set and playoff experience.
What they don’t need is some of the disruptive things that have come with Stephenson’s history. He committed 14 technical fouls last season, fourth-most in the NBA. He had two legal issues in the past, first when he was accused of groping a teenage girl and later an accusation he pushed a girlfriend down a flight of stairs.
The $9 million-a-season salary (the third season at $9.4 million is a team option) is a bargain for a player of Stephenson’s talent. The Hornets got that deal because of the ways Stephenson undermined his reputation entering free-agency.
The Hornets’ first choice was Gordon Hayward, but the Utah Jazz matched a four-year, $63 million offer sheet. Chandler Parsons got similar compensation to sign with the Dallas Mavericks.
Stephenson’s market was considerably lower. He says he grasps what he has to do to repair that before reaching free agency again.
His talent “definitely got overshadowed by blowing in LeBron’s ear,” Stephenson said. “He’s one of the greatest players in the game. So by me doing that to him, it became real big. It overshadowed what I can do on the court. I’m a playmaker, a defender and a leader on and off the court.
“I’ve just got to change that around and learn from it.”
Coach Steve Clifford sounds OK with the prospect of managing this tradeoff – what Indianapolis media labeled “good Lance” and “bad Lance.”
“I think those things are a by-product of the fact that he badly wants to win,” Clifford said in a conference call from Las Vegas, where the Hornets continue in summer league.
“Our owner talked to him specifically about the fact that those are things that we can work on. He knows that. He knows that sometimes he has crossed the line a little bit. I think he does that out of competitiveness.”
While Stephenson acknowledges he must comport himself better, he sees his attitude as one of the things that got him this far.
“When I’m on the court I don’t have friends,” Stephenson said. “I’m all about business and all about winning. I’m definitely going to try to be a leader on this squad, and bring winning habits here.”
The Hornets needed to do something after the Jazz matched on Hayward and starting power forward Josh McRoberts chose the Miami Heat over returning to Charlotte. The then-Bobcats got just 21.2 points per game last season combined from starters Gerald Henderson at shooting guard and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward.
There was no contact between the Hornets and Stephenson’s representatives early in free agency. Things accelerated dramatically Tuesday night, leading to an agreement around 6 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
Stephenson’s advisors preferred a shorter deal than the five seasons the Pacers offered, which was also the Hornets’ preference.
“We did not want to see a long-term deal unless the overall deal was extremely attractive,” said Stephenson’s agent, Alberto Ebanks.
“Like most of us, he’s a work-in-progress. If you watch a tape of his entire season, he did some things he didn’t need to do. But he did so many great things, too. You don’t want the real message to be lost: This is a man capable of a triple-double every night. A person who takes great joy in helping his team win.”
The Hornets now have a glut of shooting guards in Stephenson, Henderson, Gary Neal and rookie P.J. Hairston. Clifford was asked Friday what becomes of Henderson.
“The NBA is a competitive place, and there’s nothing wrong with competition,” Clifford said. “As of right now, I don’t even know who is going to be the starters, who is going to be coming off the bench or what the minutes will look like.
“I know that our team is stronger today.”