What will the Pacers do with Lance Stephenson?

lance-stephenson-lebron-ear-blowGoing into the 2014 NBA Playoffs, Lance Stephenson was already getting questionable looks from Indiana Pacers management. After all, he did get into a fist fight with teammate Evan Turner. Now, after Stephenson’s antics in the Miami Heat series, Indiana is likely to wonder even more if they should think about bringing the pending free agent back for another season.

Anybody who paid minimal attention to the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals matchup saw headlines about Stephenson blowing in LeBron James’ ear during a play like they were long-lost lovers. He also touched LeBron’s face during an inbounds play and “inadvertently” smacked Norris Cole in the face. Referees didn’t see the latter as an accident, though, and called Stephenson for a flagrant foul.

Of course, the idea behind all of this – at least in the 23-year-old’s mind – was to get in James’ head. But all of these antics just served as the extra motivation that Miami needed to finish Indiana off in six games, with the final contest being a 117-92 blowout. And as for Stephenson’s effect, well, King James responded by scoring 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 – most of which came against his antagonist in just 31 minutes.

Following his aggravating maneuvers, Team President Larry Bird didn’t exactly approve of the ear-blowing. And Indiana’s leading scorer, Paul George, was less than enthusiastic about Stephenson’s future with the team. “I mean, I don’t know,” George said. “That’s for Larry (Bird), (GM) Kevin (Pritchard), for them to decide. You know, it’d be great. We came in this league together. It’d be great for us to continue our journey together.”

lance-stephenson-lebron-1One more thing worth mentioning here is that popular speculation and rumors pointed to Stephenson as a player who hurt the team’s chemistry during their terrible spring regular-season run. For instance, Roy Hibbert said “there’s some selfish dudes” in the locker room, with “dudes” thought to mean Stephenson.

From all of this talk, you’d think that there was no chance he’d be back in a Pacers uniform next year. But that might not necessarily be the case because there’s some definite upside to the four-year veteran.

Welcome Back

While Stephenson’s antics may be getting all of the attention right now, he’s certainly a very talented player. The 6’5″ shooting guard posted regular-season averages of 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 4.6 APG. He also led the NBA with six triple-doubles, something that many NBA fans may not realize.

Even with the intense pressure of the NBA Playoffs, Stephenson held steady by averaging 13.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 4.4 APG. So you can see why both Bird and coach Frank Vogel recently said that they’d like to have Stephenson back if they can afford the guard. Here’s a look at what AP writer Michael Marot wrote about the matter:

 lance-stephenson-lebron-2Larry Bird wants Lance Stephenson back with the Indiana Pacers at the right price. After spending the last week hearing Stephenson roundly criticized for his over-the-top antics with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals, Bird said Monday he hopes Stephenson stays with the team, headaches and all.

“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” said Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations. “I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”

[cont’d later] “Clearly, he’s a free agent, and I’m certainly hoping that he’s back,” Vogel said, later acknowledging he played the role of team psychologist more this year than any previous year.

Up in the Air

Despite Stephenson wearing thin on teammates and top brass at times, it appears that he’s wanted back. However, the murkiest part of this situation is how much Stephenson will command in the free agent market.

On the right team, Stephenson has the talent to average upwards of 20 PPG. He’s also an exceptional rebounder for his size and position – even if teammates sometimes see him as a rebound-stealer. With the Pacers expected to be $8 million to $12 million under the luxury tax threshold, it’s unclear how much money they can offer the former Cincinnati product. Assuming he commands a much larger contract from another team, it’s hard to see him coming back to Indiana.

But based on the way this season’s playoffs went, the Pacers won’t give up hope if they can’t bring Stephenson back.

Underdogs faring Well in First Round of 2014 NBA Playoffs

2014-nba-playoffs-underdogsHome court advantage is always nice in the NBA Playoffs. But it by no means guarantees a team of winning a series. Case in point, just look at the insanity that we’re witnessing in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs right now:

Eastern Conference

#1 Seed Indiana Pacers – 2 Wins
#8 Seed Atlanta Hawks – 3 Wins

#4 Seed Chicago Bulls – 1 Win
#5 Seed Washington Wizards – 4 Wins, advances to conference semifinals

#3 Seed Toronto Raptors – 2 Wins
#6 Seed Brooklyn Nets – 2 Wins

#2 Seed Miami Heat – 4 Wins, advances to conference semifinals
#7 Seed Charlotte Bobcats – 0 Wins

Western Conference

#1 Seed San Antonio Spurs – 2 Wins
#8 Seed Dallas Mavericks – 2 Wins

#4 Seed Houston Rockets – 1 Win
#5 Seed Portland Trailblazers – 3 Wins

#3 Seed L.A. Clippers – 3 Wins
#6 Seed Golden State Warriors – 2 Wins

#2 Seed Oklahoma City Thunder – 2 Wins
#7 Seed Memphis Grizzlies – 3 Wins

2014-nba-playoffs-underdogs-1As you can see, the only favorite to finish off their series so far is the Miami Heat. The underdog Wizards are the lone other team that’s advanced to the conference semifinals.

As for the rest, the top seeds in both conferences are struggling to win, with Indiana actually on the ropes as they head to Atlanta for Game 6. Oklahoma City, the West’s number-two seed, is in a similar situation to Indiana as they face elimination in Memphis.

The number-three seeds are also locked in struggles. Toronto is tied up with Brooklyn while the Clippers lead Golden State by one game. As for the latter, L.A. has actually hung tough when you consider the terrible ordeal they’ve gone through regarding Donald Sterling’s racist comments.

Finally, we come to the Houston Rockets – everybody’s dark horse to win the NBA Championship at the start of the season. You have to feel for Houston because they’ve lost three games by a combined 12 points. And their inability to win three close contests has them now needing to win three straight games. Only eight teams have rallied from a 3-1 deficit, so the Rockets will have to join historic company if they want to advance to the semifinals.

All in all, the 2014 NBA Playoffs have already offered plenty of excitement and upsets. Both the Hawks and Grizzlies are on the verge of HUGE upsets, while a few other underdogs are also within striking distance. That said, there’s never been a better time to go with the underdogs when betting on the NBA Playoffs. So if you have a good feeling about one of the series that we’ve covered so far, then put down a little money on it.

Are the Pacers headed for a First-Round Loss?

atlanta-indiana-game-2One of the big NBA storylines over the past few weeks has been the continued struggles of the Indiana Pacers. After rushing out to a sizable lead in the Eastern Conference, Indiana dropped behind Miami at one point, before finally rallying to re-take the number-one seed.

However, even with the way that Indiana limped down the stretch, not many people seriously expected the Atlanta Hawks to challenge them in the first round. This is, after all, the same Hawks team that lost their star center, Al Horford, to a torn pectoral muscle early in the season, and barely held off the disastrous Knicks for the East’s eighth seed.

But you can throw out everything that’s happened up to this point because a 38-win Atlanta squad holds a 1-0 lead in this series. So the question now becomes, are the Pacers headed for a downfall of epic proportions in the first round?

The obvious takeaway from Game 1 is that the Hawks’ big players, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, really showed up when it counted. Teague scored 28 points and dished out five assists while Millsap provided 25 points and eight rebounds. Aside from their stars playing well, the Hawks shot pretty well from the outside, hitting 11 out of a franchise-record 30 three-point attempts (36.7%). And this is exactly where Atlanta’s advantage lies in the series – outside shooting.

Indiana knew well in advance that their opponent is a perimeter-oriented team. David West said as much before Game 1 when he called the Hawks a “jump shooting team.” But the Pacers didn’t do a great job of forcing Atlanta out of their comfort zone. This isn’t a team that’s going to take many shots over Roy Hibbert and West in the paint. They’re going to put the ball in Teague’s hands in isolation sets and let him create opportunities with his quickness.

atlanta-indiana-game-1Closing out on Atlanta’s shooters wasn’t Indiana’s only problem. Their go-to swingman, Paul George, scored 24 points, but hit just 6-of-18 shots. West wasn’t much better as he made 4-of-10 attempts in a quiet, 8-point effort. Hibbert’s 4-of-9 shooting didn’t look so bad, until you consider that he made two garbage-time layups near the end. Then there was Louis Scola, who was the opposite of firepower off the bench with his 0-for-6 shooting effort. Coupled with the loss, it’s no wonder why Scola was later seen staring at the locker room floor.

Finally, there was the third quarter, where Atlanta went on a game-defining 14-0 run that put them ahead by a score of 74-58. From here, it was all about protecting their lead for Atlanta, which they did fairly well en route to a 101-93 victory.

Indiana is of course trying to remain optimistic about their outlook. “It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating, but it’s a long series,” George said following the disappointing loss. “It’s just one game and that’s the way we have to look at it.”

However, this one game was on the home floor of the NBA’s best home team. Now they face the prospect of having to win four out of six games, with three of these contests being in Atlanta. It’s not an impossible task for a talented team that looked so good to open the season. But the Pacers have to find a way to keep the Hawks from continually spreading the floor and getting open looks from beyond the arc.