Lance Stephenson’s future with the Indiana Pacers is up in the air as he gets set to enter unrestricted free agency. Two major personas within the organization that want him to return, though, include head coach Frank Vogel and president of basketball operations Larry Bird.
Per Pacers.com's Scott Agness via Twitter:
The NBA legend in the front office and the man patrolling Indy’s sideline have made it clear they want the fiery 2-guard back next season. Of course, it would be hard to blame either for holding the opposite stance stemming from Stephenson’s antics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal provided a complete breakdown of the Game 6 “clown act,” but the major takeaways occurred when “Born Ready” took it upon himself to touch LeBron James’ face:
And again when he smacked Norris Cole in the beak—a flagrant foul that Fromal claims warranted an ejection (I concur):
Of course, that fails to include Stephenson’s boneheaded decision to blow in LBJ’s ear—a tactic Bird openly condemned, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
In truth, there are two ways to look at Stephenson’s attention-grabbing actions.
The first is that this is simply Lance being Lance. In order to utilize the guy who accumulated a league-leading five triple-doubles during the regular season, you must also accept his quirky competitive nature.
He was trying to get under LeBron’s skin, playground style. Immature? Yes. Part of Stephenson’s repertoire? That's also true.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the behavior can be seen as completely unacceptable and reason to part ways with the talented 23-year-old. As ESPN.com’s Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst reported, “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.”
That’s certainly a fair point. ESPN analyst Bill Simmons likened this situation to that between the New York Knicks and J.R. Smith during the broadcast after Game 6. There were red flags, but Smith’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign netted him a three-year, $17.95 million deal (originally reported as four years, $24.5 million).
Smith wasn’t the same player after getting the money. Could Stephenson head down that same path?
It's certainly possible, but the support from higher ups seems to echo that of Stephenson’s teammates.
When asked if he wanted to see Lance by his side next season, Paul George said, “I mean, I don’t know. That’s for (Larry Bird), (Kevin Pritchard) to decide. We came into this league together, it would be great for us to continue our journey together.”
The Twitterverse originally took the first part of that quote out of context, but it seemed as if George was merely being honest by explaining it’s not up to him to decide if Stephenson returns.
Veteran power forward David West was more blunt with the subject.
“I think his future is with us,” he said, per Windhorst. “He’s a huge part of the progress that we made. He’s a great young talent, and he fits with this group. Hopefully, we get him back.”
Stephenson has continued to establish himself as a controversial figure at the worst possible time for his career.
His eccentric personality during the ECF likely dented his free-agent stock, but Indiana seems to be his No. 1 choice regardless.
"I wouldn't want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back," Stephenson said in November, per USA Today's Candace Buckner. "I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we're a young group and I think we should stick together."
Unless his stance has changed over the course of the season and playoffs, it’s hard to see him suiting up in a different uniform. As Bird said, "You don’t let a talent like that walk away if you can help it."
Stephenson's talent, youth and upside should trump foolhardy decisions he made during postseason play. Nonetheless, there’s always the risk he could distract from the ultimate goal—winning a title.
Stephenson is an enigma, but support from Bird, Vogel, West and others helps his case. Backing from within the organization, at least for the time being, makes his future significantly less murky.
The Pacers family wants him back.