by Kent Sterling
After this season, whatever the outcome, the Indiana Pacers will face a decision – offer Lance Stephenson a big contract extension or let him become someone else’s problem/solution.
Stephenson was tossed from last night’s win against the Miami Heat after his emotional outbursts prompted two technical fouls. It could have cost the Pacers an exceptionally important game. It didn’t, so the noise this morning isn’t centered around what appears to be Lance’s self-indulgent behavior, but that doesn’t make it a less critical part of the Pacers equation.
No doubt the Pacers are committed to putting the best five players on the court for the rest of this season to see where this unique combination of personalities and talents will take them. Today, they have a three-game lead in the Eastern Conference with 10 games remaining in the regular season. That’s a good thing, but Pacers fans know all too well the potential cost that comes with a player suffering from a significant lack of impulse control.
There is no point in regurgitating the antics and cost to the Pacers of those who have come before Stephenson, and it’s unfair to hold him accountable for the sins of those who preceded him, but there is no questioning the potential negatives that may visit the Pacers because his instinct is to act outside the boundaries of of what the NBA deems proper.
Also beyond question is the incredible package of talent Stephenson possesses. For a team that has trouble creating offense, Stephenson is one of the most explosive one-on-one players in the NBA. His balance, strength, and explosiveness are off the charts, and his hands reflect a genius level of hand-eye coordination.
And while we are focusing upon Stephenson’s behavioral lapses, let’s not forget that he led the Pacers in +/- last night with +6 in large part due to hitting three-of-four from beyond the arc, including a very important and entertaining 31-footer in the second quarter to give the Pacers a 31-22 lead.
If human beings came with a menu of behaviors we could add or remove, the world would be a very orderly place – and also very boring. So the question is, can the Pacers find a way to rein in the ugly in Lance while maintaining the great? And is it worth the effort?
On the final three Chicago Bulls championship teams of the Michael Jordan era, they had a similar dilemma with a player named Dennis Rodman. One of the most bizarre and volatile players in NBA history, Rodman was also perhaps the finest rebounder for his size in the history of the game. Phil Jackson found the combination to containing the bad (mostly) while exploiting the good. Rodman was an integral part of one of the best teams in history. The 1995-1996 Bulls finished the regular season an incredible 72-10, and ripped through the postseason 15-3.
Stephenson is more than a little bit like Rodman in the way both indulge impulses, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel might have a bit of the Zenmaster in him. Vogel has some work to do to match Jackson’s collection of jewelry (11 rings), but he is very adept at finding a way to get his players to perform close to their potential by dealing with each as individuals.
The Pacers had a brief discussion as a team last night after the game to remind Stephenson of the negative results of his occasional lapses of self-control, according to David West, and Stephenson showed contrition in his post game comments. Whether that means anything moving forward will be known soon enough.
Only 23, Stephenson could either mature or devolve, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the sudden influx of cash awaiting him after this season will accelerate the process in either direction.
One thing is for sure, winning NBA championships requires unique talent. The debate within the Pacers front office is whether the incendiary exploits are worth tolerating, or the calm but less explosive talent of Evan Turner is a better longterm fit for multiple championship runs.
Today, most fans love Stephenson, but if at a critical moment in the playoffs an impulse Stephenson finds entertaining causes a loss, opinions can change quickly. That’s true in the locker room and front office too.
This Pacers team is intriguing for a number of reasons, and the mercurial Stephenson is at the top of that long list. How long he remains a Pacer will be the most talked about issue of an offseason fans hope begins in late June.