Lance Stephenson became a lightning rod for criticism in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, as if it were his fault the Indiana Pacers didn’t space the floor, never upgraded their bench and were relying on big men who couldn’t compete on both sides of the ball. While some of his on-court antics were a little over the line, it was all in good fun. Far more important is what a special basketball player he is, the type of talent that is rarely available in free agency.
Still only 23 years old, Stephenson has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded shooting guards in the NBA. At 6’5 230 with a 6’10 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who can match up with all three perimeter positions. He can create his own shot off the dribble, stretch the floor out to the three-point line, create shots for his teammates and clean the glass at a high level. He averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1 steal a game on 45% shooting in this year’s playoffs.
The only thing holding him back from stardom is opportunity. In the regular season, he took only 11 shots a game and had a usage rating of 19.4, which was tied for third highest in the starting line-up with Roy Hibbert. Paul George and David West were the first two options in Indiana - Lance never really got to show what he could do in their system. It’s simple math. What’s going to happen when a guy who shoots 49% from the field at 11 shots gets 15-17?
Even if his field goal percentage went down with more responsibility, it would have to crater for him not to be at 20+ points a game as a primary option. George took 17 shots a game while shooting 42% from the field and people said Lance was the selfish player. The reality was that he was the far better decision-maker and playmaker of the two - he lead the Pacers in assists and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7, with George lagging far behind at 1.25.
Those are the things you have to look at when projecting a younger player into a bigger role. Two years ago, James Harden averaged 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists a game on 43% shooting in the playoffs for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just like Stephenson, Harden excelled in the role he was forced to play on the team that drafted him, but he was ready for a much bigger role. Don’t mistake opportunity for talent, especially not with a 23-year-old.
That’s what makes Stephenson such a fascinating player this summer - he’s an elite talent who is an unrestricted free agent at 23. Because he was a second-round pick, he doesn’t have the same type of restrictions on his contract as guys like Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe. To get one of those guys this off-season, a team would have to give up a king’s ransom in assets. The only thing Stephenson is going to cost you is money.
Adding an All-Star level talent in free agency, particularly one who can improve your team on both sides of the ball, is the quickest way to jump-start a franchise. For the most part, you have to get those types of players in trades, if you are going to get them at all. Since the vast majority of elite talent is taken in the first round, they don’t hit the market until their third contract in the NBA, when they have almost a decade’s worth of games on their legs.
That’s why free agency tends to be so dicey - only the best of the best can play at a high level well into their second decade in the NBA. Basketball is a young man’s game, so by the time a guy has reached his early 30’s, he’s well into the decline stage of his career. When a guy is declining from a peak as high as LeBron James, that’s no big deal. For just about everyone else, though, a third contract is paying them for what they were instead of what they will be.
As a rule, older players tend to do two things in the NBA - they get hurt and they get worse. The real gamble in free agency isn’t the young hot-head like Stephenson, it’s an older veteran like Luol Deng. Counting the playoffs, Deng has played over 26,000 minutes and 725 games in the NBA, most of those in Tom Thibodeau’s manic, high-intensity system. That’s an awful lot of miles already on his body and that’s before he loses a step as he moves into his 30’s.
Stephenson, in contrast, is only on his second contract in the league, so you are signing him for the prime of his career. If he doesn’t get any better, you are getting a two-way starter in his mid 20’s and a guy whose already proven he can be a key contributor on a 55+ win team. If he improves, you are getting the chance to buy low on one of the elite young players in the NBA. This is a guy who can match up physically with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
There’s only a small handful of players in the league you can say that about and none of them are going to be on the market anytime soon. Stephenson comes with a lot of baggage, but it’s easier to tone a guy down than to crank a guy up. And for all the talk of what he does off-the-court, he’s shown he will put the time in the gym to improve as a player. He shot 21% from three in college - not many guys turn themselves into good shooters once they are in the league.
There are some holier-than-thou folks in the media and around the league who would “never” take a chance on a rough around the edges guy like Lance Stephenson, as if they were perfect when they were 23 years old. Who knows what Stephenson will be when he is 27-28, but the odds are he will be more mature than what he is now. Just because you didn’t show any emotional growth when you were in your mid 20’s - don’t assume that holds true for everyone else.