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The Indiana Pacers' 2013-14 season ended Friday night in devastating fashion, on the receiving end of a 117-92 beatdown from the Miami Heat that sends them into the summer with a number of questions to answer as they search for the right formula to finally topple LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company. Perhaps the biggest question: whether to bring back starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who's set to hit unrestricted free agency on July 1, or to let the mercurial and increasingly volatile swingman walk.
A reporter asked Paul George after Game 6 whether he'd like to see the Pacers bring Stephenson, who entered the league alongside George as members of the 2010 draft class, back into the fold for next season. The answer from Indiana's All-Star forward raised a few eyebrows:
"I mean, I don't know," George said. "That's for [team president] Larry [Bird], [general manager] Kevin [Pritchard], for them to decide. You know, it'd be great. We came in this league together. It'd be great for us to continue our journey together. But he's played a huge year this whole season and in this postseason, so it's definitely put pressure on us to make decisions going forward with Lance."
They might not be easy decisions.
The 23-year-old Brooklyn native had a breakout campaign for the Pacers in his fourth year out of Cincinnati. He averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists and minutes per game, while shooting a career-best 49.1 percent from the floor and 35.2 percent from 3-point land. He led the NBA with five triple-doubles during the regular season, and was again an integral part of a Pacers starting five that played more minutes together than any other lineup in the NBA this season (after finishing second to the Oklahoma City Thunder's starters last year) and outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions, allowing a microscopic 94.9 points-per-100, pacing Indiana to the stingiest defense in the NBA for the second straight year. He's a versatile ball-handler and pick-and-roll facilitator, he's Indiana's most dangerous player in transition, and he's a big, strong, long-armed wing defender capable of guarding multiple positions; the Pacers don't get as far as they've gotten over the last two years without him playing a major role for them.
On the other hand, as the season wore on, the rumblings that Stephenson was becoming a toxic element in the Pacers' increasingly disharmonious locker room grew louder and louder. From ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Mike Wells:
[Roy] Hibbert didn't come out and identify the player directly to NBA.com's David Aldridge, but he was talking about Lance Stephenson on March 28 after a loss in Washington, when he said "there's some selfish dudes" in the locker room. [...]
After Stephenson missed out on the All-Star team, he changed. He started a bit of a personal vendetta against East coaches, wanting to personally send a message in those games, which took him further out of the flow on some nights, sources said. Overall, the team noticed a shift in Stephenson from a more team-oriented approach to a more self-oriented focus, where he started obsessing about his statistics. People within the team believed his upcoming free agency was also a motivating factor for Stephenson, who wanted to enhance his value, something he believed suffered when he didn't get an All-Star nod.
As a result, Stephenson started annoying his teammates at both ends. Not only did he start dominating the ball more — his assist rate dropped dramatically in the second half of the season — but he was robbing numbers from his teammates. He has always had a habit of so-called "stealing rebounds," jumping in front of or over a teammate who had an uncontested rebound to get it for himself. This phenomenon reached a new level in the back half of the regular season. Hibbert, who had his rebound totals heavily analyzed by the media and fans, was often a victim in these friendly-fire rebounds.
Stephenson's act had long worn thin by late March. When the players had meetings to address issues with the sudden struggles, Stephenson sometimes wasn't involved. Occasionally he appeared to be unaware they were even happening. Most players on the team, now that they were losing, shared similar feelings about Stephenson, but did not vocalize their problems publicly.
In one instance, those problems sped from internal past vocal and into the realm of the physical, when midseason acquisition Evan Turner scrapped with Stephenson prior to the start of the Pacers' first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacers sweated their way through that matchup, ousting the 38-44 eighth-seeded Hawks in seven games, with Stephenson averaging 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and three assists per game in the victory. His scoring tailed off (11.2 points per game) but his facilitating increased (4.8 assists per game) and he did a strong job defensively on Bradley Beal as the Pacers outlasted the Washington Wizards in six games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year.
Stephenson's famously high motor ran into the red throughout the rematch with the Heat, as he began a punching-above-his-weight-class war of words with LeBron James during and after Game 3, for which he paid dearly as LeBron went off in Game 4. Not only did Stephenson not back down; he redoubled his efforts in a full trolling onslaught that saw him blow in LeBron's ear, interrupt a Heat huddle and attempt a laughable flop that made him the first player in league history to receive a $10,000 fine for flopping.
After Game 5, neither team president Bird nor Stephenson's teammates seemed to find Lance's chosen method of "just playing ball, man, having fun" to be particularly amusing. That didn't stop him from getting right back to it in Friday's Game 6, though, as he picked up right where he left off, touching James' face — “I have no idea how I restrained," James said after the game — and smacking Heat point guard Norris Cole on a play that was called a flagrant foul.
Stephenson's agitations didn't have the intended effect. James turned in a phenomenal game, scoring 25 points on 8 for 12 shooting to go with six assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block in 31 1/2 minutes, doing a lot of his damage while defending by Stephenson in the early going. Lance, however, failed to score a point after his flagrant, finishing with 11 points on 4 for 9 shooting with four rebounds and just one assist in 36 1/2 minutes.
After the loss, Stephenson congratulated the Heat via Instagram:
"I have much respect for LeBron and the heat," Stephenson wrote in the caption of his Instagram post. "This was a great series they deserve it all love to Heat. Want to say that I'm so proud of my teammates we work so hard all year to get to point, Everything is a learning experience and getting better every year love u guys Pacer nation and thanks to all of our Pacer fans love y'all too."
Kind words and handshakes aside, though, Stephenson's non-basketball performance was still the topic of much discussion after the game.
"It's tough to say [whether the antics hurt more than they helped]," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said after the game. "I don't think it's ever good — what's everybody call it? Tug on Superman's cape? I don't think that's ever good. But I'll take Lance Stephenson's competitive edge. Like I said, I just don't think it's good to tug on the cape."
Vogel's counterpart was a bit, shall we say, brisker in his assessment of Stephenson's behavior.
"To even point out, to make a comment about that, then you're just highlighting that guy," Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "So he had nothing to do with our series, our success in this series, how LeBron showed up tonight. We're playing for something much bigger than that guy."
The Pacers aren't — at least, not this season. Whether they'll be able to next season — to play at the "championship level" that Vogel said Miami was able to reach and that Indiana couldn't match this year — figures to depend on whether they're able to augment their roster with additional complementary pieces while already paying nearly $49 million to the core of George, Hibbert, West and George Hill next season. That's what makes Stephenson's contract situation such a major issue moving forward. From Rob Mahoney of The Point Forward:
Because the 2010 second-round pick is neither a rookie-scale player nor one with three or fewer years of experience, Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Indiana, then, can’t retain Stephenson simply by matching an outside offer. Other suitors will be free to entice him with overtures of pay or opportunity, though the Pacers can tender a five-year contract with higher annual raises while rival teams are limited to four. Depending on the 2014-15 salary cap, a max offer for Stephenson could approach $15 million in the first season. That would be a ridiculous overpay for the live-wire guard, but not out of the question during an offseason in which a number of teams are poised to have significant cap room and limited options for using it.
Indiana has a critical choice to make as far as where the Stephenson bright line should be. Is a starting salary of $10 million too much for a tantalizing player who can be erratic both between the lines and between his temples? Is $9 million too much to give Stephenson when the Pacers’ roster is so clearly flawed in other ways?
And in the aftermath of yet another loss to the Heat in which Stephenson didn't exactly cover himself in glory, and given the way the Pacers fell apart after the All-Star break and the role it seems that Stephenson played in that deterioration, should Indiana even want to be in the Lance Stephenson business for the next few years?
Those questions won't get answered for several weeks now, but for what it's worth, both Lance and the Pacers' most venerable veteran struck positive notes on that score:
Soon to be free agent Lance Stephenson says he "definitely" wants to be back with #Pacers next season.
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) May 31, 2014
Does Lance return? "I think so. I hope so," said David West.
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) May 31, 2014
Whether their hopes come to fruition figures to be one of the more fascinating subplots of a pivotal summer in Indianapolis.
Video via @cjzero.
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