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.

Indiana gets past Atlanta – Now What?

indiana-paul-georgeDown 3-2 in their first-round series, Indiana stormed back to win their final two games against the Atlanta Hawks and avoid an upset of catastrophic proportions.

Looking at the statistics, you could say that the Hawks beat themselves more than the Pacers did anything to stop them. Relying on a heavy long-range attack to beat the East’s top seed, this strategy worked well for Atlanta in the first five games. However, it also became their undoing as they shot just 20-of-79 from the three-point line (25.3%) over the final two games.

Indiana’s 92-80 Game 7 victory was especially crazy since the Hawks hoisted a playoff record-breaking 44 three-pointers – hitting just 11 of those attempts. Basically, the Pacers dodged a bullet when a team that won only 38 regular season games shot terribly from the field over a two-game stretch.

So what did coach Frank Vogel have to say in the aftermath of this narrow series win? “It’s not easy,” he said, “guarding a team that takes 44 three’s, especially when 18 of those three’s came from their big guys.” Okay, fair enough, the Hawks did spread Indiana out and seek to minimize the Pacers’ inside defensive presence. But again, this was a team that finished six games under .500. So the question becomes, can we expect Indiana to get past the more talented and rising Washington Wizards in the conference semifinals?

The answer to this question will heavily depend on Roy Hibbert, who just hasn’t been himself over the past two months. He especially looked out of place against Atlanta’s jump-shooting barrage. However, he also earned some redemption in Game 7 by scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking five shots.

indiana-roy-hibbertEverything points to Hibbert having a better overall series against Washington, which sports more traditional frontcourt size and offensive sets. We highly doubt that the Wizards will be attempting 40-plus three’s in the next round, so Hibbert should be a strong defensive presence. But then again, it’s been hard to predict when the 7’2″ big man will show up based on the latter half of the season. So we won’t truly know Hibbert’s impact until the Washington series is over with.

Team chemistry will be another issue. This is especially the case since Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner got into a fistfight before Game 1 of the Hawks series. Luckily, there was no word on any more incidents that were this dramatic. But it wasn’t long ago when Hibbert was publicly questioning the team’s offensive philosophy and complaining about not getting the ball enough. Championship teams don’t whine about who gets the ball, so this can’t resurface against the Wizards, and definitely not against Miami, should these two teams meet in the conference finals.

David West and Stephenson will also be question marks going into the Washington series. The latter is especially iffy from game to game and sometimes takes terrible shots. But the 6’5″ Stephenson did show up big on the glass in Game 7, grabbing 14 rebounds, including five on the offensive end. As for West, he brings a nice veteran presence to Indiana’s lineup, but he was off and on against Atlanta. Thankfully for the Pacers, he finished on a high note, scoring 13 points and blocking an incredible six shots.

About the lone guy that Indiana doesn’t need to worry about is Paul George. The star swingman put up 30 points and 11 rebounds in the winning Game 7 effort. “I got a chance to go to my mid-range,” George said after the victory. “It opened the game up. I felt confident coming off of screens and shooting the ball tonight.” For the entire series, he averaged 23.8 points and 10.7 rebounds, which are star numbers for sure.

This team boasts a championship-caliber roster. But they need to overcome inconsistent play and locker room problems if they are to reach their full potential.