For a minute there during the 2014 playoffs, Lance Stephenson seemed to be doing everything he could to make the Indiana Pacers second-guess their willingness to retain his services. Now a free agent, the Pacers are in position to decide whether Stephenson's talent outweighs his maturity.
Apparently, that decision had already been made.
Getting those terms right may be a different story altogether, but Bird has at least indicated that the Pacers are interested in keeping Stephenson around.
Indeed, one of the reasons the Pacers ultimately traded away their second-round pick (No. 57 overall) was to retain flexibility under the luxury tax during a summer in which several free-agent decisions are to be made. Bird explained, per Vigilant Sports' Scott Agness:
The only reason we didn’t pick a player is because we don’t know what is going to happen in free agency. And this is one year we are tight on money. If our guy wasn’t there, we weren’t going to take a stab at it because we got Lance [Stephenson], we got Lavoy [Allen], we got some other guys we’re looking at. In free agency, you never know where we’re going to be. Our owner (Herb Simon) said we can spend up to the tax. That’s what we’re looking forward to do.
Much as the organization may be interested in keeping Stephenson around, the price has to be right, and it's unclear just how much the Pacers are willing to spend. Complicating matters even more, Indiana will have competition. Grantland's Zach Lowe explains:
Any team with cap room and some guts could try to persuade Stephenson to be a fixture on the wing for the next half-decade. Rebuilding teams can’t even use the excuse about not wanting to splurge in free agency ahead of schedule; Stephenson’s age makes him a natural fit on any team at the start of its upswing. Nabbing Stephenson comes with the bonus of snatching a crucial piece from an Eastern Conference heavyweight, leaving Indiana capped out and without any means to sign an equal talent.
Though Indiana may be willing to outbid the competition in a vacuum, questions persist about Stephenson's readiness to avoid distraction while contributing to a team that's more than ready to contend.
Those questions began to emerge in earnest when Stephenson found himself in a practice dust-up with teammate Evan Turner when the postseason was just around the corner. Given the club's late-season struggles, the timing and threat to chemistry couldn't have been appreciated.
Nor was Stephenson's ill-fated attempt to get inside LeBron James' head during the two teams' conference finals matchup. That started after Game 3, when Stephenson labeled James' trash-talking "a sign of weakness."
Then things got even worse in Game 5 when Stephenson infamously blew in James' ear.
For all of his mistakes, however, Stephenson remains one of the league's most promising young two-way players. The 23-year-old could certainly continue to evolve—both on and off the court—into a capable sidekick for emerging superstar Paul George.
As long as he doesn't derail this Pacers operation via antics or attitude, the franchise would be far better off with Stephenson than without him—especially given the prospect of losing him for nothing in free agency.