Lance Stephenson decided to sign a three-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets last week, instead of accepting the long-term contract the Pacers were offering. The decision surprised Larry Bird, who is disappointed to lose his starting shooting guard, but also a player he personally helped develop into a borderline all-star.
Via Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star, Stephenson turned down a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers, choosing a shorter-term deal with Charlotte so he could re-enter the market in a few years when the salary cap is expected larger. The confusing part for the Pacers was the player option they offered Stephenson to test the market if he wanted:
It’s commonly believed that Stephenson accepted the shorter-term deal because in a few years time, the salary cap will increase quite dramatically, and he will be in line for the monster raise he so desperately believes he deserves.
Except that according to Bird, the Pacers were willing to offer a shorter-term contract that would have given Stephenson the chance to cash in should his game continue to grow the way both he and Bird believe it will. The Pacers were also willing, however grudgingly, to give Stephenson a player option midway through a five-year contract so that he could opt-out and test the market once the cap money increased.
Keep this in mind, too, that after next year, both David West and Roy Hibbert have player options, so if one or either decided to bolt and test the free-agent market, it would have opened up lots of cap money if Stephenson wanted to opt out. And after the third year of a Stephenson deal, the Pacers have just $26 million committed to players, leaving lots of cap space to take care of Stephenson.
This means Stephenson would have gotten the same flexibility he currently has with the Hornets, but also earned more guaranteed money over a longer period to protect against injuries or a decline in performance.
According to Kravitz, the Pacers met with Stephenson on the first night of free agency and presented several five-year options. Except, Bird could never get on the same page with Stephenson and his agent. Bird did not hide his disappointment at losing Stephenson:
“I really feel bad about losing him,” Bird said. “I hope it doesn’t interfere with our relationship. But I did what I could possibly do to keep him here. Even if he didn’t have any other offers, I was committed to giving him that $44 million because I believe in the kid. If you look at our roster, we have five or six guys in the last year of their deals, plus David (West) and Roy (Hibbert) can opt out, so don’t you think I wanted to keep Lance and Paul (George) locked into long-term deals?”
“It’s just disappointing,” Bird said. “When I’d go to practices, when he was on, he was by far our best player. And he worked. If you work as hard as he does, you’re going to get better. I’m going to miss the kid, no question. And he’s growing up. That stuff he pulled in the playoffs, that was out of the blue. But I knew how good Lance was and the value he brought to our team.’
You can understand why Bird feels let down, especially since the Pacers watched him develop over the years. Bird watched and nurtured Stephenson’s growth from the end of the bench to eventually becoming a key cog on a championship-contending team. Now, they have to watch Lance leave to another playoff team in the Eastern Conference just as he’s coming into his own.
Stephenson may have been a distraction at times, but the Pacers will miss his contributions on both ends of the floor. Judging by Bird’s reaction, the Hall of Fame forward’s personal stake in Stephenson’s development makes the loss doubly hard to stomach.
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