2013-14 Team and All Previous Teams: Indiana Pacers
Key Stats 2013/14: 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 49.1 FG%, 35.2 3PT%,
Estimated contract: 4 year for $48-52 million
Matters to No One But Me …
There was once a second round pick who in his early years in the league was evolving into a star well ahead of schedule. His averages were exploding across the board. He was desperate for more shot attempts as he wasn’t the leading scorer on the team. He missed the all-star game despite being deserving of the distinction and responded with erratic behavior. The year was 2003 and that player was Gilbert Arenas.
Lance Stephenson and Arenas were both second round picks that experienced unrestricted free agency very early in their careers. Their exuberant and unconventional personalities were obvious despite the small on-court sample size. Arenas blossomed into the most exciting player in the league with the Wizards and Stephenson possesses that same potential if he can remove himself from the shackles that is the Pacers organization.
There was a moment in the second to last regular season game this season versus the Heat when Stephenson wasn’t sitting on the bench. Instead he stood in the tunnel beside the seated Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard like a child being forced to do his work at the teacher’s desk because he couldn’t handle being with his peers.
Apparently, Stephenson needs this structure, support and culture in order to harness his behavior, at least that’s the narrative on him that sports columnists would have us believe. But is this what Stephenson really wants?
Structure is suffocating and it’s possible that Stephenson could thrive in the exact opposite environment where his antics are acknowledged but not scolded. Freedom to express himself transformed Arenas to Agent Zero and resulted in three of the most memorable seasons from a single performer. Rasheed Wallace was a keystone on an NBA Championship team only when his behavior was ignored as “Sheed being Sheed” rather than altered to fit some corporate structure. In the same way, Stephenson has another level in him that we have yet to witness but will certainly see in the next five years in the right situation.
Stephenson succeeded this season despite Indiana’s rudimentary and stagnant style of play. He tried to hasten the game by his lonesome versus the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals but his team wouldn’t cooperate. He tried to intimidate the Heat with mockery and ridiculousness but that only vilified him further. Stephenson became the enemy and not the rest of the Pacers team that failed to even show up to the dance. Get outta here.
The more Stephenson was antagonized during the playoffs, the more he accepted the role of the villain. He embraced his public image and was stubbornly defensive about his actions. He was being bullied by the media for not fitting some abstract athlete norm in the same way that he was accused of being a bully on the court. It was the very definition of hypocrisy blanketed by the blandly vague “sportsmanship.” It’s okay though. Stephenson will be the bad guy if that’s what America needs him to be. He can accept that role if it enhances the image of our heroes.
After all, there’s an old saying about bad guys …
Fits with the Pistons because …
What if an erratic Stephenson is the cultural shift the Pistons need? Far from unpredictability, the team has lacked a pulse in the past five years. Detroit is never going to be a place that lures the big names but it can attract underrated and maligned misfits like Stephenson.
The organization was once known for acquiring the underdogs – the players that nobody else would accept. Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and yes, even taking a chance on Allen Iverson late in his career. Overcoming odds and working hard was once an identity on the court and not just a brand they paid lip service to on billboards and promotional videos on the jumbotron. Show me, don’t tweet me.
Stephenson is undoubtedly relentless on both ends of the floor. You can question his decision-making but not his talent and hustle. The former can be taught via study but the latter is innate and special. Stephenson can be a franchise-altering talent with his play on the court and can establish a new identity and mentality with his antics off of it. While some may call it “immaturity,” I prefer “spontaneity.” Spontaneity is the antithesis of being in the NBA Draft Lottery year after year.
Doesn’t fit with the Pistons because …
He fits. A ball-handling combo guard that has gotten better in every statistical category in each of the past four seasons. He’s still working on how to best utilize bigs in pick-and-roll situations as he tends to call for screens that only enhance his own opportunity to score. He has a bad habit of icing his teammates when the ball in his hands by over-dribbling and dancing around the perimeter with wasted action but his teammates in Indiana didn’t help much with off-ball movement. Defensively, Stephenson is a ball-hawk but has a tendency to be complacent and lackadaisical when the action goes away from his man.
These are all habits that can be fixed. Mister Gores, please give Stephenson all your money. In exchange, he will save your franchise.
Free Agent is …
… looking to get paid. As a second round pick and despite his immense talent and unlimited potential, Lance has yet to comfortably become a millionaire. Tomorrow is his first opportunity at guaranteed money and we should expect him to take the highest offer.
Best known for …
Torching the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year with pull-up threes, attacks off the pick-and-roll, backdoor cuts and anything else he wanted.