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This time, Doc deems Stephenson worth risk

LOS ANGELES -- Does Doc Rivers the Clippers' president of basketball operations believe that Doc Rivers the Clippers' coach can handle Lance Stephenson?

That is presumably one of the many questions Rivers was forced to ask himself as he sat in his office on Monday mulling a trade that was on his table and essentially up to him to accept or veto. The Charlotte Hornets had already agreed to ship Stephenson to Los Angeles in exchange for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes. It was up to Rivers, both the president and coach, to decide if it was worth it.

Charlotte tried to pull off a similar trade with the Clippers last season, sources say, before Rivers backed out.

He didn't back out on Monday, signing off on the deal to ship Hawes and Barnes to Charlotte for Stephenson.

It is perhaps the riskiest move Rivers has made during his two years in Los Angeles, and it might also prove to be his best if Stephenson can reclaim the form that made him the runner-up for the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 2013-14, as well as the league leader in triple-doubles.

It's the kind of high-risk, high-reward move the Clippers knew they had to make this offseason to jump start a roster that has been good but not good enough to get past the second round of the playoffs.

The deal is actually low-risk financially because the final year of Stephenson's three-year, $27 million contract is a team option, meaning the Clippers can cut bait and turn down the option if he doesn't pan out. They would then have a clean slate in 2016-17 because they also get out from under the final three years of Hawes' four-year, $23 million contract.

But it is high-risk from the standpoint that Stephenson, who will be 25 in September, was not only a disaster in Charlotte on the court, but was a bad fit chemistry-wise in the locker room. It's the kind of move that could either help turn around the Clippers' fortunes or cause them to search for the eject button after a couple of weeks, like Charlotte did last season.

While Hawes, 27, was a train wreck this season and buried at the end of the bench during the playoffs, and Barnes, 35, was streaky and hot-headed, both were popular veterans in the locker room. Hawes went to Cabo with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan after the season. Barnes and Chris Paul got to be good friends after Barnes' twins and Paul's son became inseparable during and after games.

It is also potentially high-reward for the Clippers because they get the young, athletic swingman they have coveted for years in Stephenson but have never been able to land for a variety of reasons. They were on the verge of trading Barnes and Darren Collison for Iman Shumpert and Raymond Felton two years ago, but Shumpert was injured right before the trade deadline and the deal subsequently fell apart.

Stephenson, of course, is not without his faults, which is a big reason why the Hornets have been trying to unload him since last season. He came to Charlotte with plenty of baggage (memes of him blowing into the ear of LeBron James in the 2014 playoffs are still a thing) and never really panned out, as he averaged 8.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists while starting just 25 of the 61 games he played.

While Rivers is not ignoring last season, he's more interested in the player Stephenson can become with the Clippers. He's banking on that player being similar to the one who played for an Indiana Pacers team in 2013-14 that won 56 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Stephenson also averaged 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists during the postseason.

After the season, the Pacers put the full-court press on him to re-sign. They rented out a movie theater in Indianapolis in which they showed him a movie they had created about his life and why he needed to stay in Indiana. They offered him a five-year, $44 million deal. No one was a bigger fan of his than Larry Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations.

"I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be," Bird said then. "I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it."

At the end of the day, Bird and the Pacers couldn't help it and Stephenson ended up signing with Charlotte after meeting with Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

"One of the reasons why I admire his game is he takes on challenges," Jordan said after Stephenson signed with Charlotte. "For us to get any place in the East, we need someone to challenge LeBron. He challenged LeBron."

That Bird and Jordan admired Stephenson's game and were vying for his services last summer didn't go unnoticed by Rivers and his staff. They called around the league asking about Stephenson last week.

Stephenson signed for fewer guaranteed years in Charlotte, banking on his upside and cashing in during the summer of 2017.

Rivers and the Clippers are banking on Stephenson now, too, even if it's not as popular today as it was last summer. If it works out, the Clippers might have added a possible piece to their championship puzzle. If not, it's a one-year rental that gives them flexibility next offseason.