Officially the fair-haired boy with a defensive edge of the NBA, Indy is off to a torrid start. Right now, no one's beating the Pacers. Not even the Miami Heat. They remain undefeated and have shown no signs of slowing.
Chaperoning their early season onslaught is Paul George. The league's reigning MIP is playing like an MVP, averaging 24.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 47.9 percent shooting. Though the ink on his max-contract extension has barely dried, there's already no denying he's a star and the engine that keeps Indiana's car running.
Not far behind George is Stephenson, who the Pacers turned to last season out of dire necessity. In Danny Granger's absence, he emerged as a diamond in the rough, giving the Pacers a serviceable two-way wing to start alongside George.
In Granger's continued absence, he's played even better, making the Pacers even better.
More dangerous than ever before.
Making a Statement
Small sample sizes aren't always our enemy.
Isolated outings can make a profound statement; They can mean something more than what they actually are. And against the Memphis Grizzlies, Stephenson had one of those performances.
Statistically speaking, the Grizz no longer have an impregnable defense. Through their first seven games, they rank 21st in points allowed per 100 possessions. Still, remnants of last year's team—which ranked second in defensive efficiency—remain; Memphis isn't yet a defensive relic.
Stephenson torched that defense for a triple-double, going for 13 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists in 34 minutes, leading the Pacers to an easy win over the once-defensive juggernaut. For Stephenson, though, it was more than just a victory—it was validation.
Drafted 40th overall in 2010 by the Pacers, Stephenson wasn't supposed to be here, starting on a legitimate championship contender. Athletically inclined, but fundamentally raw, Stephenson was a project at best. More than three years later, he's not only a rotation staple, he's developing into the sidekick Indiana needed for George. The partner the Pacers thought Granger was.
Stephenson joins Stephen Curry, Ricky Rubio and Nicolas Batum as the first four players to register a triple-double this season. Since last year, 27 other players have recorded at least one triple-double, 17 of which have been selected to at least one All-Star game in their career.
This is the company Stephenson has put himself in. While his triple-double isn't necessarily a precursor to a future All-Star appearance, it's one of the many signs of how far he's come.
And how far he can ultimately help the Pacers go.
In the interest of catering to traditional hatred toward small sample sizes, Stephenson has been kind enough to step up his game over a longer period of time.
During his rookie season, in 2010-11, he appeared in just 12 games at 9.6 minutes a pop. Three years later, he's a starter receiving more than 35 minutes of burn every night.
The differences from year-to-year have been staggering. Using 2010-11 as Year 0, look at how his production has increased percentage wise over the last three seasons:
(Note: a "plus" defensive rating actually represents a decline in the number of points allowed per 100 possessions.)
Above, you can see that Stephenson underwent his initial spike in production last season (in red). But what's more important is this season (blue). The improvement hasn't been as distinguished because he's building off the best season of his career, but his output is still trending up in every area displayed.
Following up a career year, even this early into a player's tenure, is difficult. If Stephenson continues at this rate, however, he'll have no problem surpassing his play from last season.
Steadily, Stephenson has transformed into a valuable asset on both ends of the floor. His defensive rating has been on the up-and-up since his rookie season and this year, he's developed into more of a playmaker and three-point gunner.
Assimilating into a situational distributor has been especially helpful for the Pacers, who lack a true point guard. George Hill and George can each run the offense, and there is C.J Watson to consider, but they don't have that preordained point guard. In a floor general-heavy Association, running without an established facilitator isn't often condoned. In Indiana's case it's worked, thanks to the efforts of Stephenson and George, who double as point gods when called upon.
This improvement shows. In every area of the game, it just shows. The Pacers are already minus-eight points per-48 minutes with Stephenson on the bench, according to NBA.com (subscription required). With him in the game, they're a plus-11.2, nearly a 20-point swing.
By comparison, the Pacers are a minus-5.8 without George and a plus-15.4 with him, a 21.2-point differential. And for further reference, look at how Stephenson's marks stack up to the rest of Indy's starting five:
For the most part, they're all on even footing, which says a lot about Stephenson's impact. But Indiana's minus-eight points per-48 minutes without Stephenson is the second-highest deficit of the starting lineup. That's how much the Pacers need him.
That's how much he means to them.
Bring It, Miami... And Everybody Else
The starting five still means everything to the Pacers.
Increasing their bench depth over the offseason has done little to resolve their second-unit quandary. Indiana's bench ranks 29th in points scored so far, dictating they field an opening five nearly devoid of weak links.
Entering 2013-14, who would you have said was the weakest of the Pacers' starting lineup? Hibbert? Of course not. George? That's not funny. West? Good one. Hill? Perhaps.
Many, like myself, would have been inclined to say Stephenson. Not because he was inept, but because we hadn't seen enough. He had a solid 2012-13, so what?
Once again, though, he's answered the call to arms, this year in a bigger and better way.
West, Hibbert and Hill are all scoring less than last season right now, yet the Pacers remain undefeated. Credit George for making an abrupt leap from rising stud to unflappable superstar, but without Stephenson, who is currently the team's second-leading scorer, this Pacers team isn't as good as they are now. Or even close to it.
Where does Lance Stephenson rank among the Pacers' most-important players right now?
Players capable of making a two-way impact are something of a rarity. So many are lauded for their abilities in one area of the game. Scoring, defense, distributing—oftentimes it's one and none of the others.
Stephenson doesn't do any one thing that puts him at George's level—though he is incredibly athletic—but he has the mental and physical fortitude to do almost everything right. If you're one of 29 other teams in the NBA, that's frightening.
Not long ago, Stephenson was the fourth- or fifth-most important starter Indy housed. Now, just like that, he's helped an already-handicapped Pacers offense overcome the struggles of three key players.
Just like that, he's become one of the most well-rounded and gritty players on a team priding itself on both.
On a team that's as dangerous as it is because of both.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed and are accurate as of Nov. 11, 2013.