After a breakout season that was equal parts mesmerizing and stupefying, this much we know about Lance Stephenson:
He’s going to get paid.
Whether he’s cashing the Pacers’ checks next season remains to be seen, because the decision is hardly automatic. That’s because there are (at least) two Stephensons: the one who can play, and the one who can’t stop playing around.
If you look strictly at the prime numbers, Stephenson is borderline irreplaceable. He was third in the team in scoring (13.8), first in rebounds (7.2, most among NBA guards), assists (4.6) and field goal percentage (.491). He had five triple-doubles, leading the league and setting a franchise single-season record in the process.
Keep digging, however, and you unearth some less-sparkling realities.
Among shooting guards, Stephenson ranked 20th in scoring, 33rd in 3-point percentage (.352), 24th in free-throw attempts (2.5) and 36th in turnovers (2.7).
“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” said Larry Bird. “As a basketball player, you can’t find much more talent than what he has. And when he’s dedicated to working out, he works out very hard. He loves to play. Lance can get himself in jams at times for other things he does, sort of immaturity, but once he matures as a person and his game matures more, his ceiling’s unlimited.”
Therein lies the heart of the conundrum: his seemingly limitless combination of potential and immaturity, two traits at cross-purposes. Stephenson tends to dominate the ball, chase statistics rather than make the right play, and try for the spectacular when the routine would be more effective. How many times in NBA history has a player with obvious on-court discipline and behavior issues been able to dial back his personality and become a fully functioning team player?
At various points in the season, Stephenson incurred the wrath of Roy Hibbert, whose “selfish dudes” quotes was aimed directly at the shooting guard; George Hill, who had an animated, angry dispute with him during a regular-season game; Evan Turner, who fought with him at practice; and Paul George, who answered “I don’t know” when asked after the Game 6 loss to Miami if he thought the Pacers should re-sign Stephenson.
It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Stephenson’s behavior became such a distraction both on the court and in the locker room that it was a major contributor to the team’s second-half slump. How much might that mitigate the importance of his on-court contributions?
It certainly played a major role in the conference finals loss to Miami. Start with his pre-series quote about trying to make Dwyane Wade’s balky knee flare up; fast forward to his “sign of weakness” comment about LeBron James’ trash-talking after the Pacers lost Game 3; continuing with his blowing in James’ ear during the Pacers’ 93-90 win in Game 5, drawing attention from George’s 37-point outing; and then, after no less than Bird had told him to stop the antics, Stephenson was at it again in Game 6, cupping James’ chin and unleashing a forearm shiver to Norris Cole that could’ve led to an early ejection.
Even more importantly, Stephenson’s performance dropped off drastically after a fast start. In the final 17 quarters of the series against Miami, he totaled 44 points on 38 percent shooting and the Pacers were outscored by 51.
Complicating the Stephenson decision is a lack of alternatives. The free agent market for shooting guards is thin, which could sharpen the double-edged sword of inflating Stephenson’s market value while deflating the Pacers’ options.
Evan Turner also is a free agent but after his experience here, the Trent Richardson of the Pacers is likely to run to daylight anywhere but in Indianapolis.
“I’m a firm believer, I love his game because he can do a little bit of everything,” Bird said of Turner. “Whatever happens, where he’s at next year, if he plays 30-35 minutes he’s going to average 17 points.”
“He’s a good player, capable of doing more than he did here,” Frank Vogel said. “One thing you can look at is some guys are used to playing heavy minutes struggle to find the same level of production coming off the bench in shorter minutes. Certainly, he’s capable of doing more than he did for us and contributing more than he did for us. Just one of those things.”
THE FINAL GRADE: C+
The first step is to wipe away the behavioral clutter and analyze Stephenson strictly in basketball terms relative to his position. In John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Ratings, Stephenson is 21st among shooting guards, behind such luminaries as Jodie Meeks, Marco Belinelli, Tony Allen, Wesley Matthews, C.J. Miles, Arron Afflalo and, of course, Gerald Green.
Having established where he is, you must then project where he will be in 3-5 years, and if his immaturity will stunt his – and his team’s – growth. Stephenson must figure out being a good player matters much, much less when you are a bad teammate.
As far as Stephenson has come the past two years, he has much more road left to travel before he can begin to earn the money that is about to come his way.