At the midpoint of the 2013-14 NBA season, Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson was playing terrific ball for the league's most dominant team and appeared headed for a hefty payoff as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
A lot has changed since then.
The Pacers put together a startlingly poor second half and bowed out against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals after an up-and-down postseason effort. Stephenson remained in the headlines—but for all the wrong reasons.
As a result, his free-agent prospects aren't looking so hot anymore.
Per ESPN's Marc Stein:
But here's the thing: Stephenson has turned off potential free-agent suitors with his unreliability—ever since being snubbed for the Eastern Conference All-Star team—as much or more than he's annoyed fellow Pacers. His free-agent market, according to the latest rumbles on the personnel grapevine, is already drying up. And it's not even June 1 yet.
The memories of Stephenson talking trash, generally irritating and, famously, blowing in LeBron James' ear all contribute to the overall picture of a player who might do more harm than good. Clearly, Stephenson's antics didn't have the desired effect on James, who impressively ignored the constant harassment and led Miami like an actual professional.
Worse still for the guard-turned-irritant, his extracurricular activities caught the attention of his bosses and peers.
Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today asked Pacers president Larry Bird if he was bothered by Lance's ear-blowing, and the Legend responded with a curt "Yes I am" via text.
Frank Vogel was similarly unimpressed, per Zillgitt: "Blowing in his face probably crosses the line. That's not really who we are. We want to be a competitive team, but we don't want to cross the line."
And however you want to spin Paul George's post-series comments on Stephenson, they don't come across as anything close to a full endorsement.
The point is, Stephenson let some of his poorer qualities and decisions overshadow his game. He's an effective player when under control, and there's even some value in his unpredictability.
The Pacers needed (and may still need) him to function as a wild card, a pace-pusher and an unfailingly intense competitor. But teams across the league—including the Pacers—will look at his recent behavior and wonder if it's somehow tied to the chemistry issues that nearly killed Indy in the second half.
For the Pacers, the decision on Stephenson is particularly complicated, per Kurt Helin of NBC Sports:
The conundrum for the Pacers is this: With Stephenson Indiana will be pushing up close to the luxury tax line to keep this core together—the one with chemistry issues the second half of the season, the one that clearly is not better than Miami. However, let Stephenson walk and you lose one of the better shot creators on the team—the shortcomings of George Hill and the inability of Roy Hibbert to create shots for himself will be that much more glaring.
Everything seemed so simple before the All-Star break. The Pacers were rolling, and Stephenson was a breakout star on a sure path to cashing in.
Now, it's not even clear where he'll be next season. And his own team could conceivably decide he's not worth the headache at any price.
If teams could expect Stephenson to use this difficult period as motivation to mature and improve, perhaps his value wouldn't be so diminished. But his exclusion from the All-Star game was the catalyst for his behavior devolution. After that snub, he started hunting stats, hogging the ball and making the game about himself.
With that as an example of his response to adversity, why should teams considering him as a free agent expect a more positive one in the aftermath of his latest stumble?
Stephenson has made himself a risky proposition, and it's going to take a team with plenty of tolerance for risk to sign him—let alone pay him big money.