Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel (left) talks with shooting guard Lance Stephenson (right) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: The Lance Stephenson Quandary

The amount of commotion surrounding the league has been wild, and there’s a commonality compared to prior years.  Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Since LeBron’s homecoming and the media love fest that’s taken us by the neck, the Eastern Conference has been the spotlight of all discussions.  How will Miami respond?  Does luring Luol Deng and launching catapults of money at Chris Bosh help them compete without rebuilding?  Will Pau Gasol solve the league’s worst offense and make Chicago fans quit crying?

Everything is still up in the air.

Stephenson

May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) is pressured by Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Above all, though, is still the fate of Naptown’s contenders.

Early signings of Damjan Rudez, C.J. Miles, and Shayne Whittington came at the very beginning of free agency, and they’ve been nothing to throw a party over.

Very rarely do you find a three or four star free agent linger into the later days of July, especially after the larger assets fall.  LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony have all found their storybook endings, and figured out where they want to spend the rest of their careers.  Opposed to what we believed back in May and even June, it’s three separate cities.

If you had to ask whether or not the Pacers’ free agent, Lance Stephenson, is a three or four star talent in today’s market … go with four.  The energy he brings to the game is exactly the type of fit the league has pushed for.  In Los Angeles — not the prominent Lakers — “energy” is exactly what Lob City has supplied the NBA’s newest fans with.

Take it with a grain of salt, or actually put stock into it:  We live in a generation where nobody wants to see slow, inept, and pedestrian offense.  San Antonio may get the false reputation of having the “boring” offensive sets and the “over the hill” athletes, but Popovich will tell you that it’s whatever gets the motor running.  Their offense creates Finals runs, and eventually five gold trophies.

Indiana’s offense is exactly the opposite.

It comes with the same general manner;  unpopular, excludes lobs, dunks and superstar athletes.

Although the Pacers will never be able to act with amplified intelligence and become as efficient as the Spurs, they do have another commonality in one respect.  They have their own energy provider.  They both have an unexpected starting piece that can ramp up their vitality to the next level, and get them back into games.

Ironically, Indiana once had control of both  of them.  Kawhi Leonard and Lance Stephenson.  On one end, you have a born uncommunicative Finals MVP.  On the other, you have a guy labeled as “Born Ready” and psychotic for turning down his latest free agency offer.

For Leonard, it’s about keeping to himself, striving to be the best listener possible, and learning techniques from the best coaching staff on the planet.  Stephenson’s approach has been drastically different.  From growing up in the streets of Brooklyn and adapting his basketball skills from his father, Stephenson wasn’t ever the one favored to become a professional.  He didn’t always have the right body type, the strength, or the correct attitude.

Both of them live in different worlds, come from different sides of the country, and had opposite trails into the NBA.  However, their roles are identical;  Change the tempo of your team, run the floor as much as possible, get in the jersey of the best offensive forces every night, learn to become a knockdown shooter.  That even escalates to them learning how to create their own shots, and most importantly …. be the guy that makes the game-altering plays during the Playoffs.  From those standpoints, there really isn’t a better role comparison.

Stephenson

Jun 18, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) hoists the trophy for the fans during the NBA championship parade at San Antonio River Walk. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Stephenson, however, strays away from the juxtaposition in one glaring way.

From his play style to his recent actions off the court, Stephenson gets the nod for being more of a selfish character.

Look around the league, scavenge through rosters and depth charts, and you’ll find no player more unselfish than Leonard.  He couldn’t care less if he’s the one with the ball, putting points on the board.  As of right now, he isn’t the one that’s going to feel lowballed by any free agency offer.  I’m sure, when the time comes, he’ll want to cash out.  But, he’s not the type of individual to ruin a title contending team because he wants a deeper wallet.

Do we recall back in the gloomy regular season days for the Pacers, when Roy Hibbert let it all loose and said “There’s some selfish dudes in here,” referring to the locker room?

In no way was it directed to Paul George, as Hibbert immediately referred to George as one that he gives a full green light to when it comes to taking shots.  The other was David West, the only highly praised veteran on the team.  It was aimed at Lance, who often felt the need to explode without control.  Stephenson was the one that caused some of the wackiest turnovers of the year, stolen rebounds for padding stats, gunned to the rim, and made you scratch your head.

Yes, everyone around the organization — fans, media members, and teammates — will agree that the “Good Lance” aspects did seem to outshine that side of “Bad Lance.”  For that, Indiana was lucky to have him.  It’s just those certain selfish moments that leave you wondering if he’s worth the large payday.

Stephenson gave us another piece of negative criticism to use when he completely rejected Bird’s offer of five-years, $44 million on July 1.

First of all, who looks Larry Legend in the eyes, or tells him over the phone, that his money and organization isn’t good enough?  Better yet, who does that and then  lives to see another day, another opportunity to come back and take the deal three weeks later?

Stephenson just might be worth a $10-12 million deal that gives him just the four years instead of five.  Nobody is saying his aggressiveness should be worth less dollars.  Nonetheless, is he going to agree to that kind of deal with another championship contender?  Not a chance.

No other team that made a conference finals (Spurs, Thunder, Heat) are able or willing to give him $8.8 million per year.  The Pacers, however, laid that offer on the table.

Last time I checked, getting to the NBA’s final four doesn’t only mean you’re a contender, but it’s on the brink of reaching a place only two teams get fortunate enough to land.  The glorified NBA Finals have been right in front of the Pacers’ hungry faces for two years, and this could finally be the time to pass the roadblocks.

Michael Jordan needed more than two runs through the East before he was ready to leap his hurdle and get to the Finals.  Is Lance giving up on the Pacers, thinking they can’t take down LeBron?  Or, is he just that egocentric where the dire need of money is eating him alive?

Now, it may be too late.

Bird has used his three free agent signings to slide the Pacers within $4.5 million of the luxury tax threshold, a place owner Herb Simon doesn’t want to enter.  You can do the math, and see that it isn’t nearly enough for Stephenson’s new contract offer.  Charlotte has him on the ropes, as they’re not afraid to use up their remaining salary they had to use this offseason.  They are in “compete now” mode as well, with Al Jefferson entering his contract year, and his 30’s.

Regardless how Bird wants to use the roster and decide what moves will make room, I’m sure his offer to Lance is still on the table, and not changing.

It’s just beyond hairy that it’s gotten to this point, and the All-Star snub can’t see the obvious.

He isn’t finished developing, or even causing trouble.  Stick with the guys that have brought you up from being the nuisance that others didn’t want to draft, to one that can lead the league in triple doubles.

You want to play for a team that can win 54+ games a season and have their best upcoming shot at a Finals run?  Run back to Larry, and decide “championship” over an extra $2-4 million.

 

 

Tags: Eastern Conference Frank Vogel Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Larry Bird

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