Lance Stephenson / Shooting Guard / Age 23
78 GS, 35.3 MPG, .491 FG%, .352 3P%, .711 FT%, 7.2 TRB, 4.6 AST, 2.7 TO, 13.8 PPG
19 GS, 37.1 MPG, .455 FG%, .358 3P%, .714 FT%, 6.7 TRB, 4.1 AST, 2.4 TO, 13.6 PPG
2014-15 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
In his second year in a starting role, Lance Stephenson had a breakout season of sorts for the Indiana Pacers, posting career highs across the board, placing him among the league's top Most Improved Player contenders, an All-Star snub, and champion meme generator. Stephenson showcases a unique skill set to a Pacers team lacking in ball control and movement with fantastic court vision and a knack for breaking down defenses.
In the fast break, Stephenson was a wrecking ball. It didn't always result in two points or a trip to the line, but he caught the attention of defenders with his breaks. Stephenson was a solid 63.6% around the rim, where he took over half of his attempts from the floor. Despite a strong court vision, Stephenson still left far too many plays on the floor in search of highlight plays or highlight dimes.
Stephenson's play pre All-Star break was worthy of an All-Star bid with he and the Pacers as a runaway freight train through the season's first 54 games. But after being left off the ballot by the coach's, Stephenson's season took a downward turn as did the rest of his Pacers team. His more inconsistent play continued well into the postseason. He'd rarely piece solid back-to-back efforts and the team often went as he went as a playmaker.
It may have been a career year, but it was hardly a benchmark one in terms of what he should be able to accomplish moving forward.
How did Lance Stephenson impress?
Stephenson led the league with five triple doubles on the season. He was also the top guard at rebounding the ball with 7.2 boards a night and was one of only three players in the NBA to post a rounded 14/7/5 average, along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Stephenson vastly improved this season not only in overall play, but in being a key contributor. His success led to Indiana's success, especially in his ball movement. When he brought in five assists, Indiana went 29-4 in the regular season and 8-2 in the playoffs.
Feel free to needlessly pine on Stephenson's antics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but heading into the series deciding Game 6, Stephenson had been a key part of the series to that point. Stephenson outplayed James for two and a half games in the ECF. The two full games resulted in wins, and his performance in Game 2, where he scored a playoff career best 25 on 10-17 shooting, allowed Indiana the opportunity to make it a 2-0 series before he (and the Pacers) fell to James when the game ultimately mattered.
Part of that success against James and the Heat was due to intangible features in gamesmanship and fearlessness, with Stephenson receiving praise for being a little "crazy." Maybe that gamesmanship made James play better (though, what advantage is there to suggesting a great player like James needs motivation that deep in the playoffs?), but it also helped Stephenson play better on the nights he didn't completely take himself out of games.
Stephenson also showcased plenty of raw potential in a breakout year with efficient shooting and solid defense. Stephenson could certainly become a lethal scorer if he continues to work on his shot. He was a 49% player from the field and a 37% three point shooter, showing plenty of strong defensive flashes as well. These are the kinds of things that are easy to fall in love with with Stephenson's game, and at his age, there's no reason to expect he won't be able to build on them.
How did Lance Stephenson disappoint?
Underneath it all, it's probably not a particularly good sign to want to make a big free agency splash on someone who's often summed up as "Good Lance, Bad Lance." When accepting someone's faults on the court because of their upside, it's imperative that those faults don't cancel out their strengths. Especially late in the season, when Stephenson fell, he fell hard and the team had no reliable way of matching his positive production elsewhere.
While Stephenson was hardly alone in a woeful post All-Star break display, he did little to shift the trend, as one of four starters who posted a negative plus/minus across the season's final stretch run. Whether or not Stephenson played a part in Indiana's post All-Star break swoon directly is its own issue, one that isn't worth discussing without better understanding of what might've actually happened, but something that's worth a footnote.
Also, despite his strong averages, Stephenson was a bit of a stat watcher this past season. In games he inched towards a triple double, he wasn't avert to chasing stat lines. He also hawked towards rebounds, at times stealing them from teammates and risking needless turnovers for the sake of an extra rebound or assist. Stephenson wasn't immune to some poor on the court mannerisms. He appeared visibly upset with lack of involvement and when he wasn't in sync with the game, he was a big negative for the Pacers with missed defensive assignments and poor shot selection.
What's next for Lance Stephenson?
Lance Stephenson will be the most enticing free agent on the market this summer. While stars like James and Carmelo Anthony are expected to opt out of their deals to become free agents themselves, they're nowhere near as "available" as Stephenson is expected to be. The primary focus of players like Anthony and James will be positioning themselves for championship level success, but Stephenson may have other factors at play.
Stephenson's rookie deal net him just $3.4 million over four years, and despite his intentions to remain with the Pacers, there's no guarantee the lure of a potentially larger contract elsewhere won't play into his decision. Despite insinuations of his actions in the Eastern Conference Finals costing him in free agency, Stephenson will still fetch a high price and it will still be a risky one for any team looking to make a play for him.
It's a risk/reward that is especially immense for Indiana, who has very little in way of direct, easy options to improving the talent of their roster this summer without Stephenson. Stephenson as a fourth option capable of playing a bigger role is a huge win for the Pacers, but it becomes decidedly less such an advantage if Stephenson believes himself to be a second option while remaining a fourth level talent. When thinking of Stephenson as a member of the Pacers, I can't help but think of Donnie Walsh's 1993 trade of Detlef Schrempf to Seattle for Derrick McKey. While Schrempf was a better individual player than McKey, McKey was a better fit for the Pacers. The Pacers may be the best fit for Stephenson, but is Stephenson the best fit for the Pacers?
Ultimately, it's Stephenson who will decide if he's the best fit for the Pacers. It's not only his decision whether or not to re-sign, but it's his decision whether or not to put in the necessary work to improve his play to the level Indiana needs to move forward in 2014-15. He's still four months younger than Paul George and has shown impressive growth over his first four seasons. In fact, with a competent close to Indiana's season, Stephenson could've landed Most Improved Player honors and legitimate All-NBA considerations among the NBA's historically weak guard class this season.
But there's still a reason he didn't. Stephenson wasn't an irreplaceable player last season by any stretch (, he had by far the worst on/off split of Indiana's starters), so it's paramount that Bird doesn't waver from a contract that is fair to his risks and rewards. The last thing Indiana can afford it to Tinsley themselves financially with Stephenson joining albatross contracts from Roy Hibbert and George Hill.
What grade does Lance Stephenson deserve for his 2013-14 campaign? How do you judge Stephenson's breakout campaign? What's a reasonable dollar figure for his contract? Is it enough to make him stay or does he leave the Pacers with a glaring hole at the starting two?