The Hornets signed Lance Stephenson to a very team-friendly contract this offseason, locking up the free agent to two years of relatively low-priced employment, with the team getting an option to extend that contract for another season at the same pay rate. At the time, it was seen a positive move, but not one that came without its potential issues. That said, most at the time saw the 24-year-old Stephenson's presence as an asset; if not on the court, then at least in any potential trades.
Currently, we're in the worst case scenario. Stephenson himself may not be the problem, but his tenure in Charlotte has resulted in nothing less than chaos, disaster, and mass panic. (Rumors that Rich Cho wanders around Uptown Charlotte carrying a sign reading "The End Is Nigh" are unconfirmed.) Right now, Stephenson is at the forefront of seemingly every trade rumor, no matter the teams or sports being discussed, and it's no secret that the Hornets front office is listening to any offer that might come their way. Stephenson may or may not be "on the block" to be shipped out as soon as possible, but it would surprise absolutely nobody if he is swapped to another team within the coming weeks.
But would that really be a good move for the Hornets? While his play has been lackluster at best so far this season, he's still only slightly over a quarter of a season into what could be a three-year contract, one that doesn't eat up his team's cap space, and he doesn't turn 25 years old until next September. Does it really make sense to deal him away at the exact nadir of his trade value? Here are the best cases both for and against trading Lance Stephenson. (Note: While there's merits to both arguments, I agree with only one of these.)
Trade Stephenson: The current season is still salvageable; the Hornets have played the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team, they'll get more chemistry as the year goes on, and key injuries to players who are now healthy have really hampered their ability to play to their potential. The Hornets have a young roster with plenty of emerging talent, and they don't need another year of rebuilding, especially since there's no telling how much longer Al Jefferson will be a high-quality player. With such obvious weaknesses in their current roster construction, none of which Stephenson alleviates, he needs to be traded for relief as soon as a good offer comes along. Package him with another player who doesn't bring that much to the team, and get some outside shooting and a strong bench player. Maybe even offer a future draft pick. The Hornets are still only five games out of a playoff spot, and there's two-thirds of the season left to be played; with a healthier team, and a much easier schedule, it can definitely be done. But in order to make the playoffs this year, Stephenson needs to be traded for a player or two who benefit the Hornets more.
Don't trade Stephenson yet: Rich Cho has earned his reputation as a shrewd bargainer during trade discussions, and he didn't get that way by panicking when things go wrong. Stephenson's missing way more of his jump shots than he ever has before, and his current rate will regress to the mean as the season continues, restoring his reputation, and his trade value along with it. The potential return value for any Stephenson trade doesn't match the average projection for Stephenson next season (to say nothing of the current one), and getting rid of him, a roster asset, for a low-value return doesn't actually help the Hornets. While this season can still be salvaged, it is unlikely that the Hornets make the playoffs regardless of whether Stephenson is traded, so it makes little sense for the Hornets to make big roster moves for the sole purpose of going from 12th in the Eastern Conference to 10th. Besides, another year with a lottery pick won't hurt too much long-term, especially with many of the younger players (including Stephenson) getting another year of experience and progression under their belts. Worst comes to worst, the Hornets can always wait a few months for Stephenson to right himself somewhat and trade him for a better return then.
What do you think is the right move for the Hornets? Let us know in the comments.