Shortly after being eliminated by the Miami Heat for the third consecutive year, Paul George was asked about the prospect of Lance Stephenson returning.
“I don’t know. That’s for Larry [Bird], Kevin Pritchard, for them to decide.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. George did go on to say that it would be great for the two of them to continue their journey together.
The two came into the league together in 2010. Playing 20 minutes a night, George averaged 7.8 points and 3.7 rebounds, during his rookie season. Stephenson’s rookie campaign was a far different story. The Coney Island product played in just 12 games, averaging less than 10 minutes per contest and scoring just 3.1 points per game.
After that season, George began his ascent towards becoming an All-Star. He started all 66 games in the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12 and the next year averaged 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s most noteworthy moment of the 2011-12 season was when he infamously gave the choke sign to none other than LeBron James.
However, the next season, Stephenson emerged as a part of the Pacers core, starting in all 19 of the Pacers postseason games and contributing 9.4 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.
This year, his defense improved, at 13.8 points per game, he averaged double-digit scoring for the first time in his career and did so while improving from shooting 46 percent from the field to 49 percent and improving his three-point shooting from 33 percent to 35 percent. He also became a better facilitator for others.
However, after being snubbed from the all star game, Stephenson played as big a role as anyone in the Pacers downward spiral. He wanted to embarrass all the coaches in the Eastern Conference and prove to them that not picking him was a huge mistake. He also wanted to make sure that come this offseason, he would get the contract that he felt he deserved.
He began ball-hogging, taking more shots, taking bad gambles on defense and while he already had a reputation for stealing rebounds away from his teammates, the problem grew. This led to a team chemistry that was once so strong, dissolving.
Roy Hibbert, who had grown frustrated with not getting as many touches as he had grown accustomed to, attempted to send a message to Stephenson by calling him out to the media. However, this violation of the code and not handling this internally, created a divide between Hibbert and his teammates.
Stephenson’s emergence and his playmaking abilities have also led to the Pacers coaching staff putting the ball in his hands more, relegating point guard George Hill to someone who largely stands in the corner, spreading the floor and waiting for kick-outs. This frustration boiled over during a late-season blowout at home, where Stephenson and Hill got into a verbal altercation on the Indiana bench.
With Stephenson having a negative impact on two of his fellow starters, in addition to his decline in play, as he tried to “stick it” to the coaches who he felt wronged him, Indiana imploded. While at times amusing, his childish tactics and flopping, earned him multiple fines during the Eastern Conference Finals.
While he is clearly a very talented player, it is that baggage that may be what ultimately keeps Born Ready in a Pacers uniform. There simply isn’t much of an appetite for a player who can create such friction in the locker room. His market is drying up and it’s not even June yet.
According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, the Dallas Mavericks have no intention of pursuing Stephenson this offseason. You have to figure that there are number of teams who feel this way, something that will help make him more affordable for a Pacers team that does not project to have much cap room this offseason.
If Stephenson is brought back into the fold, it is not just his game that he will have to work on, as his play was only part of what sunk a once promising season for Indiana.