Lance Stephenson. Love him or hate him. Period. There’s no middle ground. He’s as polarizing as they come; Mike Tyson, Terrell Owens, fill in the blank with your controversial star of choice. Sure, he’s not biting off ears like Tyson (although he is blowing in ears, just ask LeBron) and he might not be starring in a reality TV show about himself like T.O. (well, I think the Pacers did make a ‘movie’ about Lance to help lure him to sign).
Let’s just say Lance Stephenson is one of a kind, that’s probably the best way to put it. Even though at times Stephenson lacks professional judgment and on-court decision-making, one thing he doesn’t lack is excitement. With him, well, there’s really no such thing as a dull moment.
Whether you love him or hate him, the truth about Stephenson is that he can flat out play. The leading scorer in NYC high school history brings with him a swagger and a never back down attitude that is positively contagious and also at times negatively toxic (once again, just ask LeBron).
As much of an added bonus Stephenson can be to an organization, he can also be a detriment. So the question is, is he the missing puzzle piece to link together a championship or is he the puzzle himself?
Let’s take an in depth look and get to the bottom of it. Trust me, it won’t be a dull ride!
WHAT HE BRINGS TO THE TABLE
There is no denying that Lance Stephenson plays with emotion and passion. Sometimes, a little too much. Basically, he is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Kahwi Leonard. Lance will let you know how he feels and he’s not afraid to wear those emotions on his sleeve.
Although at times it can get him in trouble and put his Pacer teammates at a detriment (once again, never add fuel to King James’ fire), his bulldog toughness is a positive and is what helps separate him from other athletic playmaking guards in the league.
Stephenson’s toughness and swagger comes from his Brooklyn background and making a name for himself on the playgrounds of NYC. And if you didn’t know he was from Brooklyn, he will certainly remind you constantly yelping out at practices, “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, I’m from Brooklyn,” according to Pacer teammate Roy Hibbert. The never back down attitude that Stephenson brings to the table is admirable and a trait that the Pacers highly value.
Lance has grown up with a chip on his shoulder and with something to prove and he fully embraces that role. Whether it was challenging the next great one in high school at the time, OJ Mayo, and more than holding his own head-to-head or whether it is taking it on himself to stop LeBron (which might be more of a pipe dream) his confidence in his ability and his pitbull-esque attitude are rarely shaken.
Stephenson doesn’t necessarily have a strict position, but is more suited for the title of playmaker. And this label fits him well. A very overlooked trait and skill set in the NBA is the ability to make plays for teammates and create advantageous scoring opportunities.
Lance does just this. In pick-and-roll situations (22.8 percent of Lance’s offensive touches), he is converting at a 0.84 points per possession rate ranking him in the top 70 percent of the league and ahead of the likes of Manu Ginobili.
The adjusted field goal percentage from Stephenson pick-and-roll situations for the Pacers is 51.1 percent, meaning that Lance is able to create open looks for teammates out of the ball screen. He is still a ways from being a polished Chris Paul-esque playmaker, but Stephenson is much more in tune with efficient distributing averaging nearly twice as many assists this season, 4.6, than he has his entire career.
Stephenson's playmaking ability is key for the Pacers, essentially giving them a three-headed playmaking monster alongside underrated George Hill and Paul George. Now if they just had a few shooters on the wing to capitalize on this playmaking plethora... But that’s another story for another day.
A very underrated aspect of Stephenson’s game is his shot-making ability. Not known for being a catch-and-shoot type player, Lance is much better in this field than he is given credit for (and probably much better than he actually realizes).
In spot-up catch-and-shoot situations, Lance is converting at an adjusted field goal percentage of 59.8 percent with a points per possession clip of 1.16. That ranks him in the top 90 percent in the league and in front of the decent spot up shooting trio of Ray Allen, Matt Bonner, and Klay Thompson. If you just said to yourself ‘what the...?!’ after reading that, trust me, you’re not alone.
I had a tough time believing it as well. But as ESPN says, ‘Numbers Never Lie’ (Most of the time, that is). What is even more impressive about Lance’s catch-and-shoot ability is his ability to do so in the clutch. As we all well know, confidence is one thing that Stephenson does not lack in the least bit.
That confidence (outlandish at times) allows him to never back down from the big shot. Whether his teammates want him taking it is another question. However, they should. In the fourth quarter or overtime in close game situations (5 point spread or less) Lance is shooting 50 percent with a net plus/minus of +19 when on the court. Not bad for a player who couldn’t find the basket two seasons ago, let alone the crunch time in the fourth quarter. Oh, the great power of confidence.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
Like I have referred to previously in this article, ‘Love Him or Hate Him,’ there’s no middle ground with Lance. Along with the positives of his relentless passion and never-shaken confidence comes a negative side, as well. In life, a lot of peoples’ extreme strengths can also be their weaknesses and their downfalls. The same is true for Lance.
As enigmatic as he is, he also lacks much needed on-court basketball maturity. Costly fourth quarter technicals, media-driven posterboard material for opponents, and continually giving more fuel to the fire for the best player in the game – it all adds up in a negative way for Stephenson and ultimately his Indiana teammates.
It’s what has driven Paul George to answer questions about Stephenson’s return to the Pacers with responses like, “I mean, I don’t know. That’s for Larry (Bird), Kevin (Pritchard), for them to decide."
That’s not exactly the type of I’ve got your back teammate chemistry playoff teams normally have.
Stephenson has continually proven to be predictably unpredictable; something a no-nonsense executive like Bird doesn’t have the patience for. However he might be a fan of the Stephenson trash talk. From many sources I’ve heard stories that Larry Legend was the greatest trash talker of all time. There is a time and place for it, though, and only when the talk can be backed up.
Example: Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals
Stephenson makes a public statement that LeBron’s trash talk back to him is a ‘sign of weakness.’ Bad move. LeBron goes for 32 points, 10 boards, 5 assists to put the series 3-1 in Miami’s favor and virtually out of reach.
Days later Stephenson would admit it was a mistake to call out the four-time MVP. We all know LeBron doesn’t have a weakness (other than the Spurs’ maintenance staff with the power over the AC). On-court basketball maturity; Stephenson needs to develop it to be a dependable franchise piece.
Stephenson is known for being an electrifying athlete with the ability to change the flow and tempo of a game. We all know the Pacers can use the can of Red Bull Lance every once in a while to kick start that offense. However, his effectiveness in tempo-changing transition situations is a little too overhyped.
Transition situations are 16.9 percent of his offensive touches and he's only converting at a clip 0.91 points per possession, well under the league average. This ranks him in the bottom 18 percent of the NBA and behind likes of many other players; 336 if you want to be exact.
Why is such a high-level athlete like Stephenson so ineffective in an area where is built to succeed? Simple, decision-making.
Too often Lance will try to take it 1-on-4 and look to create plays when lanes aren’t open to be developed. This proves costly to Indiana as Stephenson is turning it over 26 percent of the time he is in transition.
More than one-fourth of the time when Lance is in transition, the ball ends up going the other way… in transition.
Another area of Lance’s game that he needs to improve to become a consistently productive high-level player in the NBA for years to come (and I firmly believe that he can) is his on-ball defense.
Once again, perception isn’t everything. With so much energy and passion, you would think he's a defensive monster. However, that’s not the case. In isolation situations, Stephenson ranks in the bottom 23 percent of the league allowing his opponent to score at a 0.96 points per possession rate.
Stephenson is giving up an adjusted field goal percentage of 42.7 percent to opponents. Once again, Stephenson has all the physical tools to be a great on-ball defender, but it comes down to the mental aspect of defense, which is more than half the battle.
Lance needs to look at Tony Allen, watch hours of film of him, study him, maybe even stalk him, and ultimately tell himself that he is going to become Tony Allen on the defensive end. There’s no doubt in my mind that he can do it, the question becomes ‘does he want to do it.’
As free agency is heavy upon us, the Brooklyn phenom is a hot commodity (ask him his opinion and he may think he’s more scorching than just hot). Five years, $44 million on the table from the Pacers; take it!
Lance, you’re a great talent but you're not max money.
That’s the type of confidence and passion that makes Lance intriguing and a valued piece to an organization, though. It’s also what makes him a wild card, and not always in a good way.
Think of Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates when it comes to Stephenson, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it can be great, sometimes it can be the complete opposite. Stephenson has all the tools to become an elite player in the league for years to come. Big-time playmaking ability, clutch shot-making, and a relentless passion and energy for the game.
But it all comes down to his sensibility, focus, and maturity on the court in what will determine his fate in the league. Will the Jekyll and Hyde of the NBA be more Jekyll or more Hyde? That is the question.