Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson has been averaging 13.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game through Jan. 14.
Check that, it is their biggest priority.
Who would have thought?
To put things in proper perspective, Stephenson is in the last year of the rookie contract he signed in 2010 and will earn $1,005,000 in 2013-14, according to Spotrac.com.
Candace Buckner of USA Today also confirms Stephenson's status as a "Bird rights" player, someone who has spent at least three years with the same team.
The "Bird rights" exception will allow Indiana to re-sign Stephenson to a max deal even if the team exceeds the salary cap, per Buckner.
She also points out the Pacers can eventually offer him a five-year deal because of the "Bird rights." Furthermore, she says "The team has traditionally operated under the tax threshold and can continue the trend even if it offers Stephenson a lucrative deal."
That being said, making a case for the Indiana Pacers re-signing Lance Stephenson is the ultimate goal of this article.
A Little History About Stephenson
Four years ago, Stephenson was practically a nobody who was a fixture on Indiana's bench. He also got on his teammates' nerves with his attitude.
This was precisely what Bob Kravitz of USA Today and The Indianapolis Star said in his Nov. 13, 2013 article:
Early in his career, he was a train wreck on and off the court. He was immature, head-strong, a guy with too much street ball and too little NBA ball in his game.
He seemed more interested in making an 'And 1' than he did in making the simple play. Several of his teammates couldn't stand him and his often disrespectful attitude.
And yet, Kravitz himself wrote nobody "has come further for the Pacers than Stephenson" in his piece.
For his part, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported on May 19, 2013 that people labeled Stephenson "a lost cause" who has transformed himself into someone Pacers president Larry Bird calls "the most gifted player in the franchise."
I see Lance standing back there. Next year, Lance, this will be your turn. You'll be right up here by your daddy and everything will be fine.
With Stephenson's performance on the court, the Indiana Pacers have every reason to offer him the extension that he so richly deserves.
Stephenson Has Elevated His Game to New Heights
Nobody would have predicted Lance Stephenson to record three triple-doubles in 2013-14.
But he has—and we're not even halfway through the season.
We know George, Indy's franchise player, is versatile, but Stephenson has become even more well-rounded this year.
In 2012-13, he proved he was a fearless player who could draw contact and finish with the best of them. He can also make three-pointers if you dare him.
On the other end of the floor, Stephenson showed he was a physical defender who can wear down opposing shooting guards with his strength. He could also rebound exceptionally well at the 2-spot.
However, there were loopholes.
For one, his free-throw shooting percentage last season (.652) was nothing to crow about. His mid-range game was also virtually nonexistent.
This season? His free-throw sniping isn't exceptional (.684), but he has improved his mid-range shooting and has made himself a legitimate threat from 12 to 15 feet.
For the season, he's averaging 13.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
Stephenson's Playmaking Skills Make the Pacers A Deadlier Team
|Date||Opponent||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Margin of Victory|
Last season, Lance Stephenson could snag 10 rebounds or even more on any given night.
And he's a shooting guard.
This season, he has been a revelation as a playmaker. It's as if he already knows where a teammate will be before he even passes the ball to him.
Watching Stephenson do his thing is reminiscent of Mark Jackson's days as Indy's point guard. Realistically speaking, the former still has a tendency to make some boneheaded plays, but for the most part, it's been all good this year.
Referring to the above table, the Pacers are simply a juggernaut with Stephenson dishing out at least 10 assists—their average margin of victory in those four games is 19.5.
While the opponents the Pacers destroyed in those four games are not very formidable ones (the Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards), Stephenson's much-improved passing skills are a very good sign for Indy's future.
As for the issue of Stephenson switching over to point guard while George Hill slides back to his natural shooting guard position, Pacers.com's Mark Montieth answered it best on Jan. 6:
I'm on record, mostly in radio and television interviews, saying that Hill and Stephenson need to be viewed as a tandem. Between the two of them, they cover all the backcourt bases.
Both are hybrids and they mesh well, so who cares who's the designated point guard and shooting guard?
While Stephenson leads the team in assists (5.2), he also leads the Pacers in turnovers with an average of 2.6 per game.
He is still young (23), so he has a lot to learn. He may be turnover-prone due to his daredevil style of play, but count on him to reduce this tendency as the years go by and his game matures.
"Born Ready" Has Been Indy's Most Consistent Player
Nonetheless, it's still his lowest scoring output since his sophomore year in the NBA.
One can also make a case for veteran Luis Scola, who's been putting up nice numbers in his first year off the bench.
However, it's Lance Stephenson who's been Indy's most consistent player over the course of the last two months.
He has been averaging 13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists in December and January on almost 53 percent shooting.
He's not a slouch on defense, either.
Stephenson is currently ninth in the entire league with a 97.0 defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com.
His numbers aren't eye-popping, but his versatility and consistency should help him get some All-Star votes and a possible berth in New Orleans on Feb. 16.
Lance Stephenson is the Indiana Pacers' Energizing Presence
Herein lies the value of a Lance Stephenson beyond the stat sheet.
He's simply this bundle of energy which just rubs off on the rest of the Indiana Pacers.
This is what backup and veteran shooting guard Rasual Butler said when he spoke with Pacers.com's Scott Agness on Jan. 5:
In the starting lineup, I just felt like he was the one that could lift us a little bit. He energizes us when he plays well because some of the plays he makes gets the crowd into the game, gets other guys into the game.
I felt like there was another level that we could get to and he's one of those guys, along with Paul (George), who can do that for us.
He's been playing well all year. He's been doing that to everybody, from what I've been seeing. He's having an all-around great year. He's hitting shots, he's pushing the ball he's making plays and he's making passes.
Paul George is the main guy on the team, but (Stephenson) is the guy that really gets them going. If he has a great game, they're tough to beat.
In that New York game, Stephenson scored a career-high 28 points.
The Pacers simply feed off of his energy on both ends of the court. They definitely would not be the force they are without him.
The Parting Shot
Why should the Indiana Pacers re-sign Lance Stephenson?
On a different note, is there any reason for Indy not to re-sign Lance Stephenson?
With the way the Pacers have been dominating a weak Eastern Conference this year, there simply isn't.
His most glaring weaknesses at the moment are his free-throw shooting and turnovers—two things that can be kept in check with hard work.
Stephenson has every reason to stay in Indiana. He has elevated his game to new heights, improved his playmaking skills, been consistent and made it a habit to energize his teammates' play.
Plus, he also loves it in Indy, per Buckner:
I wouldn't want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back. I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we're a young group and I think we should stick together.
Once he signs his contract extension, this 2014 NBA Most Improved Player candidate should help make the Indiana Pacers title contenders for years to come.
It all starts with Larry Bird.
Please show Lance Stephenson the money.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, stats in this article are current as of Jan. 14, 2014 and are courtesy of ESPN.