The Indiana Pacers fell to the Miami Heat 117-92 in the deciding Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals Friday, and one of the more pressing questions president Larry Bird must now answer involves the future of gregarious but talented shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
This summer Stephenson has the opportunity to cash in on his progression into one of the NBA’s best two-guards, maybe to the tune of a five-year, $40 million extension with the Pacers or another team. But his antics in the East Finals may have cost the 23-year-old several years and millions on his next contract, or even his tenure with Indiana.
Stephenson’s bizarre behavior during the Heat series included the infamous blowing in LeBron James’s ear (a repeat of last year), wrestling with James, sneaking a peek into Miami’s huddle during a timeout and raking Heat guard Norris Cole across the face in Game Six for an unnecessary rough foul.
Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and even before he blew in James’s ear in an attempt rile up and mess with the psyche of the league’s biggest star for the second straight year, his stock had already begun its descent. For every breath aimed at LeBron’s ears, Stephenson may have watched as many zeroes fall from his next deal.
The Pacers are in the unique and enviable position of contending for a championship, but not breaking the bank to do so. Bird has only $65 million devoted to player contracts next season, just enough space to sign Stephenson to a lucrative deal.
The poor market for shooting guards is also in Stephenson’s favor. Other than Miami’s Dwyane Wade, who could opt-out of his contract early, most NBA general managers would have Stephenson ranked well above guards like Boston’s Avery Bradley, aging veteran Vince Carter or assist-anemic scorer Nick Young.
Unlike lottery picks, Stephenson also won’t have to deal with restricted free agency. As a second round draft pick, Stephenson can go to the highest bidder without the threat of Indiana matching an offer, assuming he actually wants to leave the only NBA team he’s ever known.
Yet even before the Heat series, it was believed Stephenson’s value on the open market was declining. According to ESPN, even the risk-taking Dallas Mavericks won’t pursue Stephenson despite their need for more young players and a point guard.
Originally dubbed the next great star to come out of Coney Island, New York, and the highest scoring high school player in New York State history, Stephenson has now fallen prey to the nasty labels of “problem” or even “head case” player and it couldn’t come at a worse time in his career.
A second-round draft pick in 2010 after one season in Cincinnati, Stephenson is free to entertain any offer from teams that have the need for a versatile, two-way guard capable of lighting up the scoreboard and defending an opposing team’s best perimeter player. But even rebuilding teams with ample salary cap space and desperate for better backcourt play (Utah, Milwaukee, Orlando) won’t want a player who has continued to give Bird headaches despite the Hall of Famer’s best, most patient efforts.
Bird has defended Stephenson and taken him under his wing, but even he had had enough. The two reportedly sat down before Game Six and Bird specifically told Stephenson, “Don’t do it again,” referring to his passive tussling with James.
Stephenson’s issues on the court are also rooted in issues off it. It’s not like his antics have come out of nowhere, and there is a pattern.
In 2009, Stephenson pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a sexual assault case, and could have faced six months in prison. In August 2010, two months after he was drafted by Indiana, Stephenson was arrested and charged by New York City police for assaulting his girlfriend. The charges were later dismissed.
After that incident, Stephenson seemed to get his act together, and over the last four years he quietly became one of the Pacers best young players and a bright spot for the future.
That was until Stephenson and swingman Evan Turner reportedly engaged in a fistfight during practice just before the playoffs began in April. Both players later denied the altercation, but it was taken as a sign of the Pacers chemistry crumbling late in the season when they started so well at 40-11 only to limp into the playoffs with a 16-15 finish.
If Stephenson’s histrionics were successful against LeBron, maybe the Pacers and Bird would have looked the other way. Winning always allows teams and teammates to have a much shorter memory. But even Pacers leading scorer Paul George hesitated when asked by reporters following Game Six.
After a slight pause, George noted that he and Stephenson came up in the NBA together but also pressed that the decision is on Bird and team officials.
Unless Stephenson can convince Bird one more time, a return next season appears bleak.