Did Lance Stephenson Sabotage His Market Value with Antics in Conference Finals?

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Did Lance Stephenson Sabotage His Market Value with Antics in Conference Finals?
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The Indiana Pacers are now out of the playoffs, but Lance Stephenson may be wondering whether he's out of a job. 

The 23-year-old got off to a hot start against the Miami Heat, but he never scored more than 12 points in any of the final four games of the Eastern Conference Finals. At a time when his team needed him most, the versatile guard was mediocre at best.

But the numbers—or lack thereof—don't even begin to tell the story of Lance Stephenson. His postseason was a crash course in how not to behave. 

To some, Stephenson's antics are nothing more than comical. At times, it looked like Stephenson was trying to do his best impersonation of a Kevin Hart routine. To a locker room that needed maximum cohesion against the two-time defending champions? Well, no one in Indiana is laughing at the moment.

Least of all team president Larry Bird. 

Bird indicated he was "bothered" by Stephenson's bizarre decision to blow in LeBron James' ear during Game 5. Prior to Game 6, Bird sent an even more unequivocal message, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:

Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird called a meeting with Lance Stephenson prior to Friday's Game 6, two days after Stephenson was caught blowing in the ear of Miami Heat star LeBron James and given his second flopping fine of the Eastern Conference finals.

"He said, 'Don't do it again,' so I'm not going to do it again," Stephenson said after the Pacers' shootaround. "He's kept me on the right path my whole career, and if he says something to me, I take it to heart."

When initially asked about messing with James, Stephenson told media, "Just playing ball," according to IndyStar's Zak Keefer.

There may not be another person on the planet who saw it that way, and that's par for the course for Stephenson. He lives in his own, absurdist universe where the things he does make some modicum of sense. 

That universe is not the NBA as we know it.

Even before the totally weird ear-blowing incident, Stephenson had already left an unfortunate mark on the series. He topped off his early trash-talking with the proclamation that James' decision to engage was a "sign of weakness," according to The Associated Press:

To me, I think it's a sign of weakness. He never used to say anything to me. I always used to be the one who said, 'I'm going to do something to get you mad.' 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 because I'm getting under his skin, but I've definitely got to keep stepping up to the plate and be more aggressive when he does that.

Stephenson's tone changed markedly prior to Game 6. Per Windhorst, he admitted, "I don't think I can get into LeBron's head. He's the best player in the league, he knows how to play through that kind of stuff. I don't think it bothered him at all. I have a lot of respect for him. He's going to find a way to play great."

Despite talking the talk, Stephenson continued to walk a bizarre path in Game 6.

He started off by palming LeBron's face in what can only be described as a completely unsolicited love tap.

He also swatted Norris Cole in the face during the second quarter, drawing an untimely flagrant foul in the process.

After Game 6, ESPN's Bill Simmons speculated that Stephenson might even have a chemical imbalance, ultimately concluding, "If I were them, I wouldn't go beyond a one-year contract."

Simmons' guess as to Stephenson's decision-making is as good as any. Despite his forward's significant talent, something is certainly awry. Most players just don't do these kinds of things, certainly not on a semi-regular basis.

And that contract question is a big one for the Pacers. The team could look elsewhere, namely to Evan Turner, who's owed a qualifying offer worth $8.7 million. Stephenson will almost certainly command a raise of some sort after making less than $1 million this season, but the question is who will be willing to pay him.

And how much.

The Pacers might not be willing to cough it up.

According to ESPN.com's Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst, "Sources said there are many in the organization who don't think it's a good decision to give him a rich, long-term contract, given the way he has acted during the season." 

Stephenson almost certainly isn't a maximum-contract player. Despite sizable potential, the liabilities here make take any kind of massive deal out of the equation. But he could certainly look to fetch something in the $8-10 million range.

That could be too rich for Indiana, especially over any long-term basis. It would be one thing if Stephenson had learned his lessons this season and changed his ways on the biggest of stages. Instead, he almost seemed more invested in populating memes than putting his head down and letting his play do the talking.

At the moment, Indiana's interest in retaining Stephenson seems somewhere between lukewarm and cautiously optimistic.

Per ESPN's coverage, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel told media after the game, "I'll take Lance Stephenson's competitive edge, but I don't think it's good to tug on [Superman's] cape."

David West was hopeful.

Paul George? More muted.

Per Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols, here are George's extended comments: "I mean, I don't know. That's for Larry, Kevin to decide. We came into this league together, it would be great for us to continue our journey together."

So far, we don't know what Larry Bird wants to do, and it's his opinion that will matter most.

Stephenson proved one of the league's most versatile guards this season. It was a classic breakout campaign by almost any numeric metric. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists this season. His postseason production was almost identical.

There are a lot of other positive intangible he brings to the game. He's aggressive. He can run the pick-and-roll. He's a solid defender. There's a lot to like about Stephenson, if you can momentarily forget the fact that he might wreck your locker-room vibe at any given moment.

Stephenson was a subject of consternation long before this series with the Heat.

According to ESPN.com's Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst, his selfish play took its toll throughout the season:

After Stephenson missed out on the All-Star team, he changed. He started a bit of a personal vendetta against East coaches, wanting to personally send a message in those games, which took him further out of the flow on some nights, sources said. Overall, the team noticed a shift in Stephenson from a more team-oriented approach to a more self-oriented focus... As a result, Stephenson started annoying his teammates at both ends. Not only did he start dominating the ball more -- his assist rate dropped dramatically in the second half of the season -- but he was robbing numbers from his teammates. 

Center Roy Hibbert even commented about "selfish dudes" in the locker room, and it was reportedly directed at Stephenson.

If Larry Bird cares about chemistry, you can bet these concerns weigh heavily on him. He'll also consider the reported clash between Stephenson and Evan Turner in practice on the brink of the postseason.

These aren't isolated incidents. They're a pattern of instability, a body of behavior that most teams wouldn't tolerate in a vacuum. The problem with Stephenson is that he's so frustratingly talented. You don't really want to lose him, not with his ability to change games and make impacts on both ends of the floor.

But you don't want to bank on him, either. This isn't the guy you mortgage your future for. He's too unpredictable. Too unsteady. Too likely to go the way of Gilbert Arenas.

Therein lies the dilemma.

Someone will be willing to pay Stephenson, even if it's not the Pacers. Someone will think they can get through to this guy. The question is who has the patience for him to grow up. The Pacers are trying to win a championship now, and the stage just might be too big for Stephenson at the moment. His decision-making can cost teams at this level.

A sign-and-trade would be ideal for Indiana. You don't really want to lose this kind of talent for nothing. But Stephenson belongs on a team where he can figure life out for a few years. That team isn't the Indiana Pacers.

As these playoffs made abundantly clear, the Pacers are oh-so close to great things. And yet still so far away. Parting ways with Stephenson may be the first painful step to realizing what this group is capable of when its collective head is finally screwed on straight.

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