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Is Lance Stephenson the Common Denominator in Indiana Pacers' Problems?

Apr 19, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) plays defense against the Atlanta Hawks in game one during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports
Jim CavanContributor IApril 23, 2014

Thirty-nine times an NBA team passed on Lance Stephenson—the Brooklyn basketball prodigy with a checkered name to match the street-sharp game—in the 2010 NBA draft.

One of those teams was the New York Knicks, who used a pair of picks prior to No. 40 on two players from the seeming opposite end of the safety spectrum: Andy Rautins, the sweet-shooting Syracuse product and son of respected Toronto Raptors announcer Leo Rautins, and Landry Fields, a standout at Stanford.

The man waiting at 40? No less an NBA luminary than Larry Bird, president of the Indiana Pacers, who saw in Stephenson a statue where all others read a rock slide.

Bird and the Pacers have chipped away further than anyone expected, but if recent reports are to be believed, they’re a long ways away from the basketball David believed to be beneath.

It began with a March 31 story by NBA.com’s David Aldridge, in which Pacers center Roy Hibbert, following a particularly embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, attributed Indiana’s struggles, at least in part, to “some selfish dudes in here.”

Naturally, speculation as to the target began in earnest. And while Stephenson was bandied about as a possible culprit—on a 14-player roster with only a handful of regular starters, a clear eventuality—no specifics were ever given, and the episode was eventually subsumed by Indiana’s increasingly public self-destruction.

Then, on Tuesday, a bombshell, courtesy of Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:

On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson. Turner hadnt been the first Pacer to lose his temper with Stephenson these tumultuous several weeks, and Stephensons relentlessly irritable nature suggests Turner wont be the last.

The Pacers would go on to lose Game 1 of their best-of-seven showdown with the Atlanta Hawks before drawing even with a vintage 101-85 performance Tuesday night.

Still, the Stephenson stigma has clearly reached a new crescendo—and at the worst possible time, if you’re Indiana’s mercurial shooting guard.

On the heels of his most productive season to date, Stephenson’s forthcoming restricted free agency was seen an opportunity for the nearly anointed All-Star to exact some real market leverage: Either sign a reasonable tender with the understanding the Pacers would match or—should the pot be too sweet to pass by—move on to become an unquestioned cornerstone somewhere else.

Steven Senne

Needless to say, the events of recent weeks aren’t quite the public-relations portfolio you want when facing perhaps the most important summer of your career.

Bird and the rest of the Indy brass, on the other hand, while clearly cognizant of the fires in need of quelling, must see this as a bizarre kind of boon—a bargain, even, should they play their cards right.

In the here and now, however, Stephenson’s antics spell seismic trouble for a once-ferocious team suddenly flirting with all-out implosion.

Case in point: a report from ESPN’s Marc Stein suggesting head coach Frank Vogel might well end up being the one to pay for his team’s fractious failings:

The decision on whether to retain Vogel at seasons end ultimately rests with Pacers president Larry Bird, sources said, but frustration throughout the organization has been mounting thanks to a nose dive that began in February with a loss in Orlando just before the All-Star break and has shown few signs of abating.

As if that weren’t bad news enough, Stein posited yet another incident involving Stephenson, this time with veteran point guard—and Indianapolis native—George Hill:

Sources said that Stephenson and guard George Hill had to be separated on the bench during a 26-point home loss to San Antonio on March 31. And when Roy Hibbert made his well-chronicled complaints to NBA.com in late March about ‘some selfish dudes in here,sources say he was essentially referring to Stephenson.

Short of winning out en route to the NBA Finals, the Pacers—and Stephenson in particular—are about to endure a spotlight thatd make the midsummer Indiana sun feel like a flickering light.

Vogel’s role, though, might be the most telling of all, particularly as it concerns Bird’s grand designs. Indeed, as the Pacers president himself told The Indianapolis Star back in March, the quality we’ve long tallied as a Vogel strength has, in recent weeks, seemingly become a weakness (via Stein):

Im sort of going to Franks side because hes had so much success by staying positive. We do have to stay the course. But I also think hes got to start going after guys when theyre not doing what theyre supposed to do. And stay on them, whether youve got to take them out of the game when theyre not doing what theyre supposed to do, or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasnt done that enough.

It’s impossible to read that quote and not think immediately of Stephenson—that mound of malcontent marble Bird believed he’d master.

Were Vogel to get the ax, might we see Bird’s return to the bench? It was Larry Legend, after all, who led the Pacers to their one and only Finals appearance in 2000, the somber swan song of a three-season tenure in which Bird amassed a winning percentage of .687 before bowing out for the boardroom.

Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel (left) talks with shooting guard Lance Stephenson (right) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA T
USA TODAY Sports

If Bird really does see Stephenson as a perennial All-Star in waiting, trumpeting tough love makes every bit of basketball sense—even better if Bird himself is the one swinging the stage hook.

Much has been made of Stephenson’s impressive growth, both in the head and on the hardwood. For that, and in light of a helter-skelter, hardscrabble youth, everyone in the Pacers organization—from Bird to Vogel, teammates to trainers—deserves ample credit.

For Indiana to truly regroup, however, requires more than songs of praise and pats on the back—a humble recognition that, for all the basketball beauty imbued in the final form, there are still plenty of faults and flaws to chip away.

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