As the Indiana Pacers were eliminated by the two-time defending world champion Miami Heat, the future of the erratic, but talented, swingman Lance Stephenson become the next topic to be addressed.
The Brooklyn native heads into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent with plans to cash in after his breakout season. Drafted in the second round (40th overall) in the 2010 NBA Draft, Stephenson has embraced his underdog status and progressively improved his production year-by-year.
Known more for his cheering and choking jabs on the bench earlier in his career, Stephenson has been able to carve out a prominent role as a starter in the Pacers' lineup. Coming off this past season where he led the league in triple doubles with five, Stephenson averaged a career high in almost every statistical category – minutes (35), points (13.8), assists (4.6), rebounds (7.2).
'Born Ready' is most dynamic with the ball in his hands. The Pacers run the pick-and-roll most effectively when Stephenson has the ball, as he is able to scout the floor with his lanky build. Outside of Paul George, the team heavily relies on Stephenson to create quality shots for himself and his teammates. Per Synergy Sports, Stephenson runs the pick and roll 23% of the time, while producing at a 0.8 PPP rate. While not elite, the Pacers do not have many other players that can create their own shots as effectively as Stephenson. When he runs isolation—13% of the time—he produces at a quality 0.95 PPP clip, good for 40th rank amongst all players.
The Pacers finished first in defensive efficiency with an astounding 96.7 points allowed per 100 possessions against today’s high octane run and gun offenses. Stephenson was a huge factor in this, as he was matched up against the opponents’ best swingman a great deal.
As great as Stephenson has been for the Pacers, he does come with his set of baggage. Perceived as one of the most volatile high risk and high reward player in the league, the All-American swingman has certainly hurt his market value, particularly after the All-Star Break.
According to a report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Mike Wells, Stephenson changed his team-first demeanor soon after the All-Star break.
“He [Lance] 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.”
Stephenson wanted to enhance his market value, because he felt his All-Star snub would cost him millions. Stephenson started to dominate the ball more—with the drop-off in his assists—and also developed a habit of stealing rebounds away from teammates—much to the annoyance of center Roy Hibbert.
Stephenson’s troll-like antics seem to have backfired and cost him more than he originally bargained for. On the eve of the playoffs versus the Hawks, Stephenson was reportedly involved in a brawl with Evan Turner during one of their practices. During the Conference Finals against the Heat, Stephenson was caught on multiple occasions taking cheap shots at Norris Cole and LeBron James—highlighted by the infamous blow in LeBron's ear. Moreover, he was fined $10,000 for his second obvious flop in the playoffs.
“Blowing in his face probably crosses the line,” Pacers coach Vogel tells reporters. “That’s not really who we are. We want to be a competitive team, but we don’t want to cross the line.”
For all the trouble and ‘lines-crossed’ that Stephenson brings to the table, it is easy to overlook that he is only 23 years old and still learning how to be a professional. In this day and age in the league, young talented swingmen don’t grow on trees, especially not one in the second round.
“I’ve been learning since I got to the league,” Stephenson says. “I’ve come a long way and I’m going to keep learning until I get to that point where I’m a real pro.”
It would make sense for teams to give him a shorter-term deal even at his young age, but his recent antics are sure to keep teams away. He ought to be compared to what J.R. Smith did in his breakout season with the Knicks last season. A three-year, $18 million contract would make perfect sense for Stephenson to return with the Pacers. This benefits both the Pacers and Stephenson as it doesn’t absolutely destroy the Pacers’ salary cap and also provides another level of motivation Lance needs in order to work a new contract—when he turns 26 years old.