As reported by everybody and confirmed by the Clippers, along with the Hornets they completed the rarest of things tonight: a consequential trade during the NBA Finals. Charlotte will send Lance Stephenson to Los Angeles, and will receive Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes in return. This is interesting on a few different levels, so let’s work through the logic for both teams.
Stephenson presumably replaces Barnes as the starting small forward, and assuming he can be more Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson and less Charlotte Hornets Lance Stephenson, he is a clear upgrade. Importantly, Stephenson can handle the ball and is a good passer, so he will presumably play a lot with the second unit when Chris Paul is out of the game, helping out whatever garbage point guard the Clippers inevitably sign.
Hawes was signed to a disastrous four-year, $23 million deal just last year. Expected to space the floor as the first big man off the bench, he shot poorly from three and was just downright terrible. He lost minutes to players like Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu, and didn’t get off the pine for six of the Clippers’s 14 playoff games (and only averaged seven minutes in the eight he did play). DeAndre Jordan is an unrestricted free agent, and in theory Hawes is (not very good) insurance in case he leaves. The Clippers are either certain Jordan won’t leave, or think Hawes is so bad that it doesn’t matter.
The Clippers also save a big chunk of change with the deal. They were on the hook to pay Barnes $3.5 million this season, and Hawes $17.3 million over the next three, for a total of $20.8 million. Stephenson is under contract for $18.4 million for two seasons, but the second season is a team option. So, even if Stephenson is terrible, they can decline to exercise the team option and save $12 million.
Basically, the Hornets want zero, zip, nada, nothing to do with Lance Stephenson. You can talk yourself into a world where Barnes is more reliable small forward option and a better player than Stephenson next season—after all, he was this season. Except, Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that the Hornets are likely to waive Barnes sooner rather than later, as only $1 million of his $3.5 million contract is guaranteed if they do so before July 1. Even if they ultimately decline to waive Barnes, they clearly aren’t acquiring him under the assumption that he will be useful.
And maaaaaybe the Hornets think Hawes can be a decent big man off the bench, but c’mon. Al Jefferson is holding down the center position, and they have a grab bag of stretchy guy—Marvin Williams, 2013 no. 4 draft pick Cody Zeller, 2014 no. 11 pick Noah Vonleh—at power forward. So maybe Hawes will be counted upon for a dozen minutes a night as Jefferson’s backup, but last year showed he isn’t even good enough to play that. Even if he doesn’t play terribly next season, he clearly isn’t worth his contract.
Assuming the Hornets waive Barnes, they are still paying $9.5 million extra in guaranteed money for the privilege of trading away the most talented player in the deal. That leaves only two possible conclusions. The less likely, though still undoubtedly true in general, conclusion is that Michael “Even at 52 I Could Still Beat The Craptastic Players I Drafted” Jordan remains a terrible evaluator of talent. The other is that Lance Stephenson was such a toxic teammate last season that the Hornets are willing to do just about anything to get rid of him.
Here’s the craziest thing to me, however. Even though the trade seems to be a pretty clear win for the Clippers, a lot of smart people aren’t so sure!
This uncertainly reflects two things, I think. One of them is that Lance Stephenson is truly peerless as a destructive, team-killing force. Remember, he was arrested in 2010 for allegedly shoving his girlfriend down a flight of stairs, and a few years before that his reality show was cancelled after he was arrested for groping a girl at school. So there is the ever-present risk that he does something truly reprehensible, and misses a large chunk of time.
But even assuming nothing like that happens, whether it is getting into fights with teammates, blowing on LeBron’s ear, or doing incredibly dumb things that fire up the opposition, it’s always something with Stephenson. Remember how Paul George answered when he was asked whether he wanted the then-free agent Stephenson back?
The other is that nobody trusts Doc Rivers’s judgment, especially as a general manager. Every move he makes is an attempt to rectify a terrible move he previously made, including this one. Matt Barnes also wasn’t The Problem for the Clippers last year; it was their absolute lack of depth, which this trade doesn’t solve (and, if anything, weakens).
Rivers still preaches ubuntu, and in theory a veteran team led by Chris Paul and Doc Rivers is a more stable environment for Stephenson to succeed in. I just can’t tell whether the heavy skepticism that this seemingly good trade will actually work says more about Lance Stephenson or Doc Rivers.