For Indiana Pacers fans like me, the only remotely entertaining parts of the playoff run that ended in a blowout loss to the Miami Heat on May 30 were the on-court shenanigans and off-court sound bites of guard Lance Stephenson. He has the type of maddening talent and bulging ego that you hate when it’s on the other side of the court but try to embrace when it’s part of your team, even if his antics do conjure visions of 2004 for Pacers faithful. With unrestricted free agency looming for Stephenson this summer, speculation is high about where he will end up, but I can’t see how he lands anywhere but back in Indy. Here are five reasons why.
Larry Bird Loves Him
During his season-ending press conference on June 2, team president Larry Bird told the media that he wants to bring Stephenson back, which is no surprise to Pacers fans even in the face of a small spat between the two men during the playoffs. Bird took a chance on Stephenson in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft and has been the uneven guard’s biggest booster all along. If there is a way to keep Lance in Indy, Bird will find it .
Frank Vogel Can Tolerate Him
Pacers coach Frank Vogel has been a little less glowing in his appraisal of Stephenson over the years than has Bird, but Vogel keeps trotting Stephenson out night after night because he knows the volatile shooter generally gives the Blue and Gold their best shot at winning. Vogel is also known for his generally positive outlook and easygoing approach, making it comfortable for Stephenson to be an individual without too much scrutiny from his coach.
His Market Is Limited
It seems you can’t turn on the radio or browse to a sports page these days without stumbling across a discussion about Stephenson’s playoff antics and selfish play since he was snubbed for an All-Star berth in February. His name is being lumped in to conversations with “Ron Artest” and “Dennis Rodman,” a sure sign that teams are thinking about whether or not his upside is worth the considerable baggage that comes along for the ride. As a result, Stephenson may find the free agent pickings to be slimmer than he’d imagined a few months ago.
Really, center Roy Hibbert is the quintessential member of this rendition of the Pacers: he has the size and potential to develop into a world-beater, but never quite gets there. While we wait for Hibbert to become a shutdown big and for Paul George to develop his competitive fire, Stephenson continues to make genuine strides and was arguably more valuable in 2013-14 than Hibbert was. At the very least, Stephenson was more predictable, believe it or not, and showed some semblance of life throughout the playoffs. At 27, Hibbert is not going to get much better, but time is on Stephenson’s side. The Pacers need a talented young leader, and Stephenson is showing real signs he could be that guy.
He’s a Young 23
Not only is Stephenson just 23 years old, but he has played less than 5600 regular-season minutes over his four years in the NBA, which translates to less than 120 full games. He is a young and improving star, with fresh legs and designs on moving up the NBA hierarchy. These are the types of players that can come back to bite franchises who give up on them too early, and the Pacers can’t afford to let Stephenson defect to, say, the Detroit Pistons.
The decision on whether to re-sign Lance Stephenson in free agency will probably be one of the more important ones that Larry Bird makes during his tenure with the Indiana Pacers. It’s a complicated situation with solid arguments to be made either way, but, in the end, I believe that Stephenson will remain in a Blue and Gold uniform for the next several years.