by Kent Sterling
When I criticized Pacers president Larry Bird for drafting Lance Stephenson almost three years ago, I pointed to reports of troubling behavior that I believed to be consistent with a reputation the Pacers were trying to shed.
I had a talk with Mark Boyle the following summer about Stephenson, and he told me that Stephenson was obviously the most talented player on the roster during practice. He added that talent, not character, wins in the NBA.
The supposed moral high ground was where I continued to plant my flag. Past is usually prologue with human beings who’ve had trouble corralling their enthusiasm, especially when provided virtually limitless resources and little in the way of meaningful consequences.
But after three years in Indianapolis, Stephenson has been a solid citizen, developing a trust for the teammates who early on weren’t too fond of the kid from Coney Island with the nickname “Born Ready.” Now, he looks people in the eye when he talks to them, and seems to understand that being a part of a society doesn’t weaken the individual.
His lone misstep was tweeting his address with an invitation to a pool party at his house and that all were welcome. That kind of youthful exuberance I can live with – although the Pacers security mobilized to end the festivities early. I would – and have – done the same thing.
And now “Born Ready” has been thrust into a prominent role on a team that is 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Miami Heat – an arrogant group that feels disrespected by being forced to play games to earn another championship rather than simply being awarded the Larry O’Brien Trophy because they are that good.
Stephenson scored 20 last night, and has been a true x-factor in these playoffs. He’s almost impossible to account for offensively because he is completely unpredictable. He’s as likely to take the ball to the bucket in a one-on-five as run the offense as diagramed, but there are enough times that the ball goes in the bucket that he’s seen as eccentric, not selfish.
There is something freeing about a teammate who exhibits the kind of raw enthusiasm and confidence that oozes from Stephenson on the court. Fast, agile, and strong, Stephenson is a tough guy to keep from clearing enough space near the basket to get off a clean look. He didn’t score 2,946 points as a New York City prep star by accident, and his brash attitude seems to be as big a help to the Pacers as much as his production.
That attitude led Stephenson to ask to guard LeBron James when Paul George got in some foul trouble, and he did excellent work using his strength to stay in front of James. In his post game press conference, James said, “He played really well, but if you’re sitting here talking about an individual one-on-one match-up between me and Lance Stephenson, I’m not going to harp on that.”
James had a bit of an angry smile on his face after he said that. It’s safe to assume that he took this loss and the question a little personally, and that Thursday night will see a focused effort from the best player in the world.
Pacers Coach Frank Vogel called Stephenson a barometer for his team, “When he’s bad, we typically struggle, but when he’s good, we’re pretty darn good. That’s the simplest way to put it, and it’s very accurate.”
Boy, is he right. In this postseason, when Stephenson’s offensive rating (the statistical estimate of points produced per 100 possession) is over 100, the Pacers are 8-0. When it’s under 100, the Pacers are 2-6 – with the two wins versus opening round victim Atlanta Hawks. When his effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for three-pointers being worth an extra point) is over 40%, the Pacers are 10-1 this postseason. When it’s below 40%, the Pacers are 0-5.
George Hill is a similarly important bellwether, but the rest of the Pacers – especially Paul George – can play a bad game but not hurt the Pacers chances of winning.
I’m not wrong about people very often, but in Lance Stephenson’s case – to this point – I misjudged the man, and mischaracterized Bird’s decision to draft him 40th overall (and guarantee his rookie contract) as a mistake. Like many decisions Bird made that were dissected at the time as errors, this was pretty damn smart.
Without Lance Stephenson, this Pacers season would be over, and the future would not look nearly so bright.