Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets are expected to make the playoffs after signing Lance Stephenson for three years, $US27 million in the offseason.
The Hornets made a huge leap last year, and this year that trend should continue.
In an interview with ESPN’s Darren Rovell, Jordan talked about the reason he signed Stephenson, and his explanation is pretty telling.
Jordan said that to win a title you have to beat LeBron James, and he wanted to sign Stephenson because he has a history of playing LeBron tough.
Here’s what he told ESPN about why he signed Stephenson:
“We need someone that can compete against LeBron, simple as that. I don’t know if the antics were one of those things. But the thing was, I love the way you compete against LeBron. To me that’s a plus, because if you want to get out of the East, if you want to get past Cleveland — at the time it was Miami — you’ve got to beat LeBron. So we were willing to take a gamble on you if you’re willing to take a gamble on us. Next thing you know he’s with us.”
Stephenson and LeBron have a history. They have met in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. Stephenson’s Pacers lost all three of those series, but he played LeBron with a fearlessness you don’t often see from young players.
The “antics” Jordan was referring to came in Game 5 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals when Lance blew (yes, blew) in LeBron’s ear (via @cjzero):
After the game, which the Pacers won 93-90, Heat player Ray Allen called it “buffoonery.”
LeBron downplayed the strange incident (via IndyStar):
“We put ourselves in a position to win tonight, and as competitors, as professionals, that’s what we are. We need one more game to get to the Finals. All the extra, whatever Lance wants to deal with, I don’t really care about that.”
Earlier this summer Stephenson said he ultimately regretted the ear-blowing thing, saying, “I feel like it overshadowed my play on the court. I bring more to the table than just blowing in someone’s ear. I’m a great player.”
Stephenson is right. LeBron only scored seven points in that game, but all anyone remembers is the blow.
Two years before this, when Lance was still a bench player during the 2012 playoffs, he first ignited the feud with LeBron by making a choking gesture toward him after he missed a free throw:
In 2014, Stephenson said that he had successfully gotten in LeBron’s head because LeBron was talking trash all of a sudden:
”To me, I think it’s a sign of weakness. He never used to say anything to me. I always used to be the one who said, ‘I’m going to do something to get you mad.’ Now he’s trying to do it to me. So I feel like it’s a weakness. I feel like I’m doing something right because I’m getting under his skin, but I’ve definitely got to keep stepping up to the plate and be more aggressive when he does that.”
LeBron is a well-liked, congenial figure within the league. He doesn’t really have hated rivals … except Stephenson, who has spent the better part of three years annoying him on and off the court.
Even if Stephenson didn’t have this reputation as a LeBron agitator, the signing makes sense. Stephenson had a breakout year in 2013-14, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game while also playing solid defence. He should bring some offensive creativity to a Hornets team that was 24th in offensive efficiency last year.
LeBron is the best player the league has seen since Jordan, but the two have an oddly non-existent relationship. In last year’s playoffs, LeBron seemingly stared down Jordan after a dunk. In 2013, Jordan said LeBron’s game still had flaws because he never drives left. Most recently, Jordan implied that LeBron doesn’t love the game as much as he did because he wants to shorten the season.
Jordan was always enamoured with being the best player in the world. Now he’s enamoured with beating the best player in the world.
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