For the third straight year the Indiana Pacers‘ season was ended by the hands of the Miami Heat. Although this season the Pacers had the home-court advantage with the deciding Game 7 at home, losing Game 2 on their own court never gave them that opportunity. In a year that started with so much promise with a 33-7 record, much talk has been made about what should happen moving forward including unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson.
After being taken in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft, Stephenson has really taken his game to a very high level this year, after seeing very limited playing time in his first two seasons. He is a true all-around player and showed it this year averaging 13.8 points, 4.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds; he led the league with five triple-doubles this season.
The talent and athleticism are obvious with Stephenson, but his immaturity at times and in-game antics — including blowing in the ear of LeBron James during game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals — leave some questioning if he will be worth bringing back. On July 1 he will have the opportunity to sign with any team that wants to offer him a contract, and he will have to make the decision to either go somewhere else to make more money or stay in Indiana for a lower price and have championship aspirations once again.
Stephenson’s worth to this Pacers team goes well beyond his scoring and athletic abilities as for extended periods of time he guarded LeBron about as effectively as you can. You can tell that Lance has confidence in his game, as while many would play hesitantly going against the best in the world, he acted like they were on the level.
One of the biggest issues that many see with the Pacers is their lack of point guard play at times as George Hill seems to be more of a fit at the shooting guard spot. Although bringing Stephenson back does not fix the point guard woes, his ability to distribute and bring the ball up the court will take tremendous pressure off of Hill.
With everything that has happened this season for this team it is often hard to keep in mind how young they are especially from the starting rotation; beyond David West, who is the true veteran leader, none of the starters are above the age of 28 and Stephenson is the youngest of the bunch at only 23 years old. He is only going to improve going forward, and the Pacers cannot afford to not bring him back.
Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird was asked about Stephenson and if he wanted to bring him back for next season:
“I always want him back, you just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”
Ultimately the decision will be Stephenson’s to make as the Pacers are to an extent limited from a financial perspective. He fits in perfectly with this team, and because of the youth and high ceilings for many on the squad including Paul George, the Pacers can be in the championship hunt for many years to come.