In just a couple months, Lance Stephenson is going to hit free agency for the first time in his career. With a relatively uninspiring free agent class surrounding him, the Pacers’ shooting guard figures to get seriously paid by somebody, though as a “Bird Rights” player the hometown team can offer him a five-year contract where everyone else can only offer four.
If you look at his stats in a vacuum, then there’s no doubt that he deserves a monster payday. A lightly-regarded second round draft pick in 2010, Stephenson has dramatically improved every season and this year averaged a strong 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. He led the NBA in triple-doubles with five. He’s still very young (23 years old), so there’s no reason to think he won’t keep improving.
And yet, numbers alone have never told the whole story with Lance Stephenson.
He is, at times, an absolutely debilitating player to have on one’s team. His game can devolve into “hero ball,” taking shots away from his teammates and grinding the team’s offense down to a halt. He also has a tendency to bark at his teammates and lose control of himself, resulting in technical fouls and general emotional fatigue on the part of everyone who plays with and against him.
Stephenson himself knows this. He admitted as much here:
So, is Lance a dynamic young player who can carry an entire team on his back? Or is he a volatile, selfish player who does more harm than good? Yes to both.
As the Pacers gear up for a do-or-die Game 5 at home, we take a look at both the good and bad sides of Lance Stephenson that we’ve seen during this year’s playoffs.
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Bad Lance: Flopping himself to sleep
OK, Lance. We get it. You think you got fouled. You’re not happy about the way the refs capitulate to LeBron James’ flopping but ignore yours. But this kind of sophomoric behavior is exactly why teams are going to hesitate to offer you the huge dollars you desperately want.
Flopping is undoubtedly a scourge on the NBA as a whole, and Stephenson has had several brushes with it before. He earned two warnings during the regular season, getting hit with a $5000 fine for the second one. He also was fined during last year’s playoffs.
Hopefully, this fine will be his last.1 of 6
Bad Lance: Yapping about LeBron James
The trash talk between Lance Stephenson and LeBron James has been pretty one-sided. After their dustup in Game 3, Stephenson said of LeBron prior to Game 4 that James was showing “weakness” by engaging him. How did that work out? LeBron had his best game of the series (32 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), while Lance finished with a meager nine points, five rebounds and four assists on 3-of-7 shooting.
It seems like Lance’s teammates have had enough. Even Lance himself now seems to admit that it was a bad idea to go after the planet’s best player. His self-confidence has never been an issue, but his decision-making sure could use some work.2 of 6
Bad Lance: Yelling at Frank Vogel
Game 1 of the Wizards series was a disaster for the Pacers, who fell behind early and could never quite make it all the way back, dropping what at the time looked like a pivotal home game. Stephenson was at the center of it, playing poorly (4-for-13 shooting with four turnovers in 34 minutes) and exhibiting a less-than-stellar attitude.
While bad shooting nights can be forgiven, freaking out on your coach mid-game can’t. Lance did not react well to being taken out with a minute to go, and snapped at his coach on the way back to the bench. There’s a fine line between being a competitor and being insubordinate, and Lance crossed it right there.
At least it came from a good place. Stephenson said after the game that he was frustrated with himself, and that “I waited too late. Third quarter was too late to turn (it) up. I mean we need to come out first quarter and turn (it) up and get everybody going so the second half we could already have that pace.”3 of 6
Good Lance: Carrying the Pacers in Games 1 and 2 vs. Miami
Stephenson’s play in the Miami series’ first two games really helped the Pacers set a competitive tone for the rest of the series. In the second quarter of Game 1, he scored 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, doing much of his work with the second unit. We got to see how confident he can be, as Lance decided to play hero ball and (successfully) took LeBron one-on-one.
In Game 2 he was even better, scoring 25 points on 10-for-17 shooting and also dishing out seven assists. In a game where his team really struggled offensively (everyone else shot a combined .349 percentage from the field), Stephenson carried the offensive load for his team and demonstrated what a weapon he can be. Even Jeff Van Gundy said that he was “straight ballin’.” So there you have it.4 of 6
Good Lance: Picking up beleaguered Pacers’ second unit
The Pacers’ first five is one of the NBA’s best, a cohesive unit that plays well together and complements each other’s skills on the court exceptionally well. The Pacers’ second unit, on the other hand, has really struggled to find an identity. The arrival of Evan Turner was supposed to stabilize the group, but has in fact made them worse.
Stephenson, though, has basically single-handedly made the backups a functional on-court unit. Among non-starters in the playoffs, the team’s statistical leaders are Luis Scola (6.4 PPG), Ian Mahinmi (2.6 RPG), and Turner (1.6 APG). In other words, not there is basically nothing coming from this group.
Frank Vogel likes to leave Stephenson out on the floor with the reserves, assigning him the duty of primary scorer and general jack-of-all-trades. Lance’s success in this role is a huge reason why the Pacers are even still playing at this stage of the season.5 of 6
Good Lance: Three strong performances in closeout games
In the Pacers’ three closeout games of the playoffs, Lance has been at his best:
Game 6 vs. Atlanta: 7-for-13, 21 points, nine rebounds
Game 7 vs. Atlanta: 8-for-12, 19 points, 14 rebounds, five assists
Game 6 vs. Washington: 8-for-13, 17 points, five rebounds, eight assists
There’s a reason Lance has earned the nickname “Born Ready.” His unassailable self-confidence makes him a guy any team would love to have in a big moment. While it may sometimes be to his detriment, Lance believes he can get a bucket in any situation. As a coach, there’s value in knowing that you can always give Lance the ball in a key situation and expect him to at least attempt to make a play.6 of 6