Lance Stephenson couldn't get a rise out of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, but as the Indiana Pacers' 23-year-old shooting guard prepares to hit free agency this summer, expect him to elevate the blood pressure of plenty of curious, but cautious, suitors.
Though Stephenson's free agency is a forward-looking affair, we have to reach back into the past to provide a little context. The complicated process of evaluating him must begin with that unsuccessful series against the Miami Heat, which is a shame because much of what worries other teams about him was on show.
Stephenson was erratic, got too caught up in extracurriculars and generally operated with an unpredictability that did more harm than good to the Pacers' cause.
We all remember the escalating incidents in which Stephenson sought to goad James into...well, it's hard to say what Stephenson was hoping for.
That's where we have to start with Stephenson because so much of what makes him scary—his competitiveness, his immunity to fear and his off-the-charts confidence—as a potential signee also makes him attractive. Sure, a more even-keeled demeanor would be nice. But an aggressive, often wild style has a lot to do with Stephenson's on-court success.
And you probably can't have one without the other.
There's no doubt Stephenson made the Pacers better when he was on the floor. This past season, Indiana's net rating cratered without its starting shooting guard, plummeting from plus-6.1 to plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Part of any discussion regarding Indy's plus-minus figure has to at least mention the atrocious bench that dragged that number (and many others) down. But Stephenson's mixture of ball-handling, transition skill and facilitation was hugely responsible for the Pacers' offensive success. And while Indiana's offense was generally substandard across the board, it was functional when Stephenson played.
Without him, it was a complete disaster.
Players at Stephenson's age, with his undeniable skill, don't hit free agency often. Under normal circumstances, there would be a bidding war on the horizon, with every team looking to fit him into their future plans.
But it's not that simple, according to Grantland's Zach Lowe:
Executives on some teams with the requisite cap room recoil in horror at the very mention of his name. Teams with minor burbling locker-room discontent are hesitant to toss in another volatile personality. Stephenson’s embarrassing antics in the Eastern Conference finals inflamed the perception of him as a rogue loon whose “personality” will nearly cancel out all the good he might do on the floor. And the question lying just underneath those (legitimate) concerns: What happens when a guy who should be on his best behavior in pursuit of his first giant NBA paycheck actually gets that paycheck?
If rival organizations are frightened off by Stephenson's reputation, perhaps the Pacers will have an advantage in keeping him. Also favoring the Pacers is a CBA that allows them to exceed the salary cap to retain their own free agents, an advantage that means they can essentially spend whatever it takes to keep Stephenson.
But Indiana's ugly breakdown in the second half of the 2013-14 season—both on the court and in the locker room—could make the Pacers think twice about the wisdom of returning Stephenson to the fold.
Because while it's not totally fair to pin all (or even most) of what went wrong with the Pacers on Stephenson, a report from ESPN.com's Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst revealed that he was responsible for more than his fair share of dysfunction:
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, where he started obsessing about his statistics. People within the team believed his upcoming free agency was also a motivating factor for Stephenson, who wanted to enhance his value, something he believed suffered when he didn't get an All-Star nod.
Regardless of the price, is the guy described above really someone the Pacers want around anymore? Rest assured, there will be a discussion about the concept of addition by subtraction among the Pacers' higher-ups at some point in the near future.
At the very least, it's not hard to see the Pacers quietly backing out of the race if Stephenson's price becomes too high.
Here's where the Stephenson situation gets even more complicated.
The Pacers know they can't get what Stephenson provided from anybody else on the current roster. Worse still, their cap situation won't allow them to replace him with another free agent of comparable talent. Remember, they're already projected to be about $1 million over next year's cap without re-signing Stephenson.
That means Indiana can't sign anybody for more than the mid-level exception, and players with Stephenson's skills (even ones with potential character issues) don't come that cheap.
Layer No. 38 of the Stephenson issue (or at least it feels like there are that many) pertains to the difficulty of figuring out exactly how valuable Stephenson is.
See, it's impossible to divorce what he did this past season from the situation in which he did it, which makes it difficult for other teams to know what kind of player they might be getting.
On the one hand, Stephenson looks like a guy who could fit into any team's system as a combo guard. But are we sure he'll play the same way in a more functional offensive system?
Stephenson got to freelance a ton last year because Indiana's sets broke down so easily. It's difficult to know if he can be a more reliable piece in a consistent scheme that actually incorporates ball movement, effective pick-and-rolls and other staples of a good offense.
What if he needed chaos to thrive?
On the other hand, perhaps an offense that actually makes sense and has capable surrounding talent would unlock a heretofore unseen level of productivity in Stephenson. He might be an even more dangerous offensive player than we previously thought.
The point is, other teams simply can't be sure what kind of player and person they'll get in the event they make the bold move to offer Stephenson a contract this summer. And that's partially his own fault, but the Pacers' broken offense and complex locker room are also to blame.
As we get some distance from the silliness of the Conference Finals and Indiana's second-half dip, many teams will become less concerned with Stephenson's warts. Instead, they'll focus more directly on a young, talented player who could continue to improve in the coming years.
With James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony potentially hitting free agency, there probably won't be a shortage of talent in this year's class. But we can't pretend those guys will really be free agents. They'll either stick with their original teams or look to sign with one of a small handful of destinations that can afford them.
Stephenson is different. His expected price, though difficult to forecast, won't be nearly as high as the max-level players who might join him on the market. And plenty of clubs out there could use a player with his mix of talent and youth.
But he's a gamble. There's no getting around it.
Ultimately, expect the Pacers to bite the bullet and retain him—partly because they can't get someone to replace him, and partly because the man in the organization who, theoretically, would be most disdainful of Stephenson's flaws is still a believer.
Team president Larry Bird explained his feelings on Stephenson after Indy's postseason exit, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star: ""I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it."
Question the wisdom of Bird's recent personnel decisions all you want, but never forget one thing: Nothing clears up a ridiculously complicated situation like an icon with total organizational control.
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