Facing the consequences of a wildly unsuccessful attempt to psyche out LeBron James, Stephenson isn't in terrific standing with many of his teammates these days.
Paul George: "Lance is young. That's a teaching point... Sometimes, you've just to watch what you say."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 27, 2014
All this stems, of course, from what Stephenson said about James in the aftermath of a particularly chippy Game 3. LBJ clearly made it a point to get into Stephenson's personal space in that contest, and the Pacers guard seemed to think that was because he'd made it into James' head.
Per B/R's Ethan Skolnick, Stephenson said:
To me, it's a sign of weakness. Because he never used to say nothing to me. I always used to be the one that would say, 'I'm gonna get under you. I'm gonna do something to get you mad.' And now he's trying to do it to me. So I feel like it's a weakness. I feel like I'm doing something right, and I'm getting under his skin.
All James did in Game 4 was completely dominate Stephenson and the Pacers, piling up 32 points 10 rebounds and five assists in a 102-90 victory that pushed Indy to the brink of elimination. Stephenson, individually, didn't quite match up.
He finished with nine points, five rebounds and four assists on 3-of-7 shooting.
In the aftermath, Stephenson seemed eager to prove his confidence remained unshaken. But all he really did was affirm that he'd learned nothing.
"I have no regrets," Stephenson said, per Windhorst. "I tried to play ball, I tried to get inside his head and I guess he stepped up and got the win. I can take the heat, I can take the fire."
That sound you just heard was the entire state of Indiana collectively face-palming.
I'd like to say that I believe Lance Stephenson learned a lesson today. But I am not sure he did -- or will.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) May 27, 2014
In a vacuum, Stephenson's attempt to poke the bear was obviously a mistake. Poking bears usually is.
James hasn't seen a worthy challenger throughout this year's playoffs (he still hasn't, by the way), and Indiana's best and only hope of defeating the Miami Heat was to catch them unawares, perhaps with LBJ coasting.
In honour of Lance Stephenson, make sure to tell the best person in your chosen profession about his/her "weakness" today.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) May 27, 2014
Given the focus these two teams have paid each other all year, that was a small hope from the start, but it was the only one Indy had. It's clear now that the Pacers don't have the firepower or maturity to beat the Heat with James engaged.
And Stephenson engaged him.
A Mixed Bag
In viewing the events of this series alongside Stephenson's overall profile, it's hard to deny that this is really all just part of a bigger problem.
Stephenson reportedly got into a fistfight with teammate Evan Turner earlier this year, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The Pacers probably didn't need any more controversy in a season already riddled with rumors of bad chemistry and infighting.
On the court, Stephenson's game presents similarly mixed results. He's a ball-stopper who often takes terrible shots and pounds the dribble far too often. He's not necessarily a selfish player, but he doesn't seem to take much of a calculated, macro view of offensive basketball.
So when he looks off open teammates in the interest of taking the rock into trouble, as he did when George Hill was open in the corner in one particularly egregious incident in Game 4, he does further damage to an offense that is already broken.
Still, Stephenson is a productive player.
Indiana needs somebody who can create a shot, and though his aren't often pretty, Stephenson's raw aggression and attacking style are the only real offense-generator for a team that simply doesn't have anyone else capable of doing the job.
On the season, he averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists, figures that match up almost perfectly with his playoff averages of 13.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Although Stephenson shrank from the moment in Game 4, he hasn't wilted in the playoffs as a whole.
That can't be said of many of his teammates.
And over the balance of the 2013-14 season, it's only fair to point out that Stephenson had a massively positive impact on Indiana's statistical performance. When he was on the court, the Pacers posted a net rating of plus-6.1 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, that figure dipped to plus-1.8, per NBA.com.
Of course, as we point this out, we do so while waving a giant flag that says: "Indiana's reserves are horrible; most inanimate objects would have made a positive impact when the players replacing them were Donald Sloan, Evan Turner and whatever other sorry soul came off the bench to relieve Stephenson."
It's a big flag, and the font would have to be small. But you get the idea.
In all, Stephenson is a highly skilled—if sometimes frustrating—player. He's complicated, a mixed bag not unlike Russell Westbrook, known to take as much off the table as he puts onto it. But he's been more trouble than he's worth in these conference finals, and his words off the court have done obvious damage.
Still, Indiana needs what he brings. And if there's any chance of him maturing in the future, Stephenson should remain a valuable piece of the Pacers' long-term plans.
Follow the Money
In the end, though, it's not attitude or erratic style that will most likely lead to the end of Stephenson's days in Indiana. It's not even the fatal mistake of calling out James and failing to admit the error in the face of obvious evidence, though all of the aforesaid qualities will inform the Pacers' decision this summer.
It's the cold financial reality of the NBA's salary cap.
The Pacers are projected to be about $2 million over that cap next season, per ShamSports.com, though they can get underneath it by declining qualifying offers on Turner and Lavoy Allen. Letting those two walk would free up about $12.5 million, much of which could go to Stephenson, who'll be an unrestricted free agent.
Indiana has other roster spots to fill out, and it will have to anticipate Stephenson getting offers in the $7-9 million-per-year range (at least) from some other suitor.
Will the Pacers want to commit nearly all of their future flexibility to one guy? Especially after a rough season typified by his abrasive, hot-and-cold game and personality?
Stephenson is just 23, functions as an intriguing combo guard and has a chance to keep getting better. Locking him up for the long haul will be tempting.
But Indiana clearly has a lot of holes. It probably needs three or four more serviceable players to fill out the bench and bolster the rotation if it wants to legitimately compete for a championship. Bringing Stephenson back at market value would make improving the rest of the roster nearly impossible.
And with West aging and Roy Hibbert looking like a huge wild card going forward, it might not be worth it to give up any chance of shoring up weaknesses just to bring back the same core—while, of course, paying Stephenson a salary that could be nine times greater than the $1 million he collected this year.
Talking smack to LeBron, failing to show up for Game 4 and all of the other on- and off-court unpredictability this year are factors that will complicate Indiana's decision on Stephenson's future with the team. But basic payroll concerns will probably be the reason his days as a Pacer are coming to a close.
If he's going out, at least he's going out with a characteristic bang.