When the Indiana Pacers were at their best, a reasonable case could've been made that Lance Stephenson was a top-five NBA shooting guard. So enticing was his impossible package of power and speed, vision and savvy, tenacity and tantalizing talent.
But when the stakes hit their highest, Stephenson suddenly regressed into what every Pacers fan feared most: a hotheaded sideshow more concerned with bluster and bombast than actual basketball.
With Stephenson slated to hit the open market this summer, the Pacers have a decision to make. Double-down on Lance’s undeniable talent? Or cut their losses while they still can?
To answer that question, it’s important to appreciate just how delicate the Stephenson situation has become.
In their stellar postmortem for ESPN, Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst had this to say about the chemistry conundrum Indiana faces this offseason:
Stephenson has become one of the most polarizing players in the league and certainly on his own team. The Pacers have nurtured him for four years and constructed an entire support system aimed at nourishing him and controlling him, from hands-on daily encouragement and review from president Larry Bird all the way to the public relations staff trying their best to keep him from putting his foot in his mouth.
In the past two seasons, Stephenson has blossomed as a player, but he's also more comfortable taking liberties and risks. This has pushed the bounds with the players and coaches.
Following Stephenson’s embarrassing display in the Eastern Conference Finals—highlighted by a cartoonish catalogue of ill-advised psychological gambits directed at LeBron James—it’s worth wondering whether the fourth-year shooting guard actually regrets the resulting distraction.
Even if he does, what assurances do the Pacers have they won’t resurface at some equally inopportune time?
Indeed, not even Larry Bird, Pacers president and Stephenson’s most ardent defender within the organization—not to mention a legendary trash-talker in his own right—could conjure a coherent defense, telling USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt that he too was upset by Lance’s conference-finals antics.
There’s even concern that Stephenson’s teammates have grown weary of his wayward ways. Following Indiana’s Game 6 defeat at the hands of the Heat, Paul George wasn’t exactly in a hurry to sing Stephenson’s praises.
Predictably, there were some who seized on George’s comments absent the appropriate context, prompting Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal to offer up some much-needed clarity.
Even though Twitter irresponsibly decided to look only at the first part of his statement, there was more to it than that. Here's the full opening part of his answer, just in case you don't want to watch the video: '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.'
George didn't just say he doesn't know if he wants him back. He said that he doesn't know what the management will do. Context is important.
Fromal’s piece is the perfect primer for those looking to parse Indy’s impossibly complex locker room dynamics, some of which can certainly be attributed to Stephenson’s occasionally curious behavior.
The most noxious nugget remains center Roy Hibbert’s “some selfish dudes” comment, made following a particularly embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers back in March. Not surprisingly, the barb's target was thought to be Stephenson.
Still, judging by David West’s remarks, it’s difficult to believe Stephenson has become a complete pariah:
As if his ancillary qualities weren’t complicated enough, Stephenson’s free-agent status is sure to pose its own problems and pitfalls for the Pacers.
Given Stephenson’s unique brand of baggage, what he fetches on the open market remains a colossal question. Is he still worth the $8-$10 million per year many predicted back in February, before Indiana’s much-publicized plummet?
Might there be some team willing to roll the dice on an even bigger tender in hopes that Stephenson reaches or at least approaches his on-court potential? Or will his theatrics drive teams away in droves?
Whether or not Indiana makes a concerted effort to resign the mercurial shooting guard will likely depend on how high Bird and the Pacers brass see this team’s ceiling—particularly given such a disappointing end to the season.
If the Pacers decide to double down on this year’s core, bringing back Stephenson would seem a no-brainer. Especially considering the team has almost no real alternatives currently on its roster—unless you count the team’s other wild card free agent, Evan Turner.
Indiana’s best outcome, at this point, would be for Stephenson to return at a discount (something in the four-year, $20-$24 million neighborhood).
Not only because it would help ease the financial strain for a famously frugal franchise, but also because it would be the clearest sign yet that Stephenson recognizes the Pacers provide the best possible chance of his developing into an All-Star talent.
At the same time, Indiana has a vested interest in protecting its identity as a model franchise, an image it's worked hard to hone in the 10 years since the infamous Malice at the Palace.
Fans may be willing to look past a player's personal flaws, but only to a point. Whether or not Stephenson has crossed that Rubicon, it's up to Bird and his denizens to decide.
When all's said and sorted, you simply cannot answer the question “Are the Pacers better off without Lance Stephenson?” without first tackling another more pressing query: Which Lance Stephenson?
If it’s the caustic court jester prone to poor judgment and a jaded sense of hardwood showmanship, the Pacers should hop off the crazy train while they still can.
If, however, it’s the basketball prodigy they call “Born Ready”—the fantastically talented and ferociously competitive force of nature—Indiana would be wise to sit back and enjoy the ride.