When Lance Stephenson is on the floor, the house lights go down and the curtain goes up on a one-man show that captivates with the ever-present assurance that almost anything can happen.
A versatile showman, his playbill this season ran the gamut from slapstick to guitar solos to a Shakespearean death scene to slight-of-hand:
- Transforming into a human glitch while taking Frank Ntilikina to the dance
- Falling down unnecessarily while throwing a bullet pass to Domantas Sabonis
- Mesmerizing Frank Kaminsky with hypnotizing hand movements before finding T.J. Leaf with a bounce pass
- Engaging in some throwback pelvic thrusting after hitting a three
- Feigning chest pain before making a miraculous recovery
- Celebrating a chase down block too early and giving up a wide open dunk
- Staring into the camera with his tongue hanging out while doing a shoulder shimmy after completing a ridiculous circus shot
- Wrestling the ball away from LeBron and holding it up for the crowd like it was the spoils of war
- Dunking all over Jeff Green and headbutting the stanchion
Sometimes improvisation leads to stage gold, but on other occasions, without the right supporting cast, an actor’s solo performance can fall flat.
How did Lance Stephenson impress?
Unpredictability was the perfect complement for his floor vision out of the pick-and-roll.
Per Synergy, his passes to the roll-man created 1.086 points per possession, a mark which not only led the Pacers but also ranked 8th in the league among the 22 players with at least 185 possessions.
Beyond developing special chemistry with Domantas Sabonis, force-feeding pinpoint passes to the screener that led to scores was made easier because he was capable of throwing other — more difficult — passes.
Cheating the corners to tag the roller or collapse on the ball-handler was riskier when he was at the helm and could toss a one-handed whip pass to the furthest weak side shooter.
Or, make a quick bounce pass between defenders to a cutting off-ball guard when the nail defender couldn’t decide whether to stay home or cut off penetration.
In addition to the threat of his more diversified passing arsenal, another reason he was able to create open looks under the rim was because the Pacers ran specific actions around him which were designed to manufacture multiple options and counter the blatant disrespect opponents had for his jump shot.
For example, Cory Joseph would routinely set the initial ball screen so that Sabonis could snag the dropped defender with a secondary pick, thus allowing Lance to create a head full of steam.
At that point, with shooters stationed in both corners, Joseph drifting to the opposite slot, and Sabonis rolling hard to the rim with his defender forced to commit to the drive, all Lance had to do was put it in auto-pilot and make the easy overhead pass to his big for the wide open dunk.
The prodigal point wing had even more options with this nifty alignment. Again, Joseph screens the ball so Sabonis can pick the screener’s man; however, over on the weak side, Myles Turner simultaneously sets an off-ball screen for Bojan Bogdanovic and rolls to the basket (Psst...They need to do this sort of stuff more often when the twin towers are on the floor together.)
The end result of Marresse Speights attempting to stop the ball while Bismack Biyombo got stuck in a catch-22 with Indiana’s 22-and-under centers was another uncontested slam for Sabonis.
Outside of transforming into Bankers Life Fieldhouse’s gladiatorial champion during the fourth quarter against the Raptors, Pistons, and Sixers, Lance leveraging his brute strength to attack with purpose and focus off the pick while pursuing the glass is him living his best life.
How did Lance Stephenson disappoint?
Despite shooting a woeful 28.9 percent from long-distance, his percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range (.327) was higher than that of Darren Collison (.323), who led the league in three-point shooting percentage (46.8%).
Because the outlandish guard’s erratic style of play is prone to these as well as others sorts of excesses (i.e. monopolizing possessions) in combination with struggling to hit jump shots outside of open pull-up twos, gerrymandering lineup combinations that provide floor balance and restraint while maximizing the full-force of his dynamism can demand special attention.
Consider, for instance, that Indiana’s backup guard tandem had the worst cumulative plus-minus (minus-112) of any two-man combination on the team this season among those with at least 800 minutes played
In fact, minimum 55 minutes played, the only lineups which included both players and outscored opponents per 100 possessions were those involving three guards.
The only outliers to this trend is when Joseph, Oladipo, and Stephenson were tethered to the struggles of Turner and Sabonis to defend in space.
Several things can be inferred from why those two were more productive with a tertiary playmaker on the floor. Oladipo’s staggering impact numbers come to mind, as does the utility of their combined ability to pester opponents into taking tough shots while keeping an adequate amount of scoring on the floor.
It also seems telling that Lance’s usage percentage dropped from a team-high 25.5 percent when he was on the floor with Joseph without Oladipo or Collison to a more judicious 19.5 percent when he and his traditional backcourt partner shared ball-handling duties with at least one of the team’s starting guards.
Additionally, some of this should probably be attributed to Joseph and Stephenson playing most of their minutes with bench lineups that labored to get stops for the majority of the season, but it is nonetheless glaring — especially given that the former of the two has already decided to forego testing the financially crunched free agent market in favor of finishing his contract with the Pacers.
What’s next for Lance Stephenson?
Regardless of the potential need for rotation tinkering, unless Indiana’s brass sees an opportunity to go “big-game fishing” and needs to use his cap figure to create room, expect the full range of the fan-favorite’s show to continue to run on Pennsylvania Street next season with the Pacers.
“Can’t commit either way right now,” Kevin Pritchard said on ESPN 1070’s the Dan Dakich show with regard to Stephenson’s $4.3 million team option. “There is no doubt that he is important to us. He’s a Pacer.”