Going 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.”
One 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.
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:
Larry 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.