Stephenson signing pushes Hornets toward East’s upper echelon

The Charlotte Hornets signed unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson to a three-year deal early Wednesday morning..

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Having Michael Jordan for an owner finally paid dividends for the Charlotte Hornets, as it was his personal face-to-face meeting late Tuesday that enabled his team to land one of the top free agents on the market: shooting guard Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson and the Hornets reached a deal that will pay him $27 million over three years. His former team, the Indiana Pacers, had offered five years and $44 million.

This is a big move for Charlotte, which has been one of the worst outside-shooting teams in the NBA for several seasons. The 6-foot-5 Stephenson brings a versatile game, having averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game last season. He also shot a robust 49 percent from the field, including 35 percent from 3-point range, which the Hornets desperately need.

It had been rumored for several weeks that Charlotte, along with Dallas and of course Indiana, was interested in Stephenson. But when the Mavericks landed Chandler Parsons, it became a two-team battle for Stephenson’s services. However, nearly every insider figured Stephenson would re-sign with the Pacers. That didn’t happen.

By taking Charlotte’s three-year deal, Stephenson is gambling on himself in that when the contract expires he apparently hopes he will be offered a maximum contract. It’s a bold move, though there are few risks involved.

"While we tried our best to come to the best possible terms for both sides, there was not sufficient flexibility in the terms of the contract, particularly the length of the contract," Stephenson’s representative, Alberto Ebanks, said in a statement. "Lance will miss the city, the team and the mentor (Larry Bird) who helped transform him into the dynamic player he has become. He looks forward to making a strong contribution and beginning a new chapter with the Charlotte Hornets."

Indiana owner Herb Simon said there’s nothing more his team could do in order to keep Stephenson.

"We made him a wonderful offer and they didn’t think it was enough, so it’s a simple situation," he told the Star.

Jordan, Hornets general manager Rich Cho and head coach Steve Clifford met with Stephenson and his representatives in Las Vegas, which is where Charlotte is participating in the NBA’s Summer League. It’s one of the very few times Jordan has been able to land a significant free agent. When Jordan bought the team, fans had hoped his name alone would help lure big-time free agents to the small-market team.

While the quality of play by Stephenson has never really been in doubt, his antics on and off the court are a concern. Stephenson gained notoriety in the playoffs last season when he was caught blowing in the ear of LeBron James, and he also publicly called out James during that same series, which didn’t make his many of teammates happy.

He logged the fourth-most technical fouls called in 2013-14 with 14 and also reportedly got into a fight with teammate Evan Turner in practice during the team’s first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks.

But it’s clear that the Hornets liked what they heard from Stephenson in the meeting Tuesday night and have hitched their wagon to him.

By making the move, Charlotte instantly becomes a team that should challenge for the Southeast Division title and a playoff seed in the upper half.