He's edgy, controversial and a tad annoying, but combo guard Lance Stephenson means everything to the Indiana Pacers. Now that they have been jettisoned by the Miami Heat four games to two in a best of seven series, the Pacers will begin a summer full of questions as they look to tweak their roster in attempt to finally dispose of the Heat, the same team that has bounced them from postseason play the last three years.
Stephenson tried a pesky, nuisance strategy against the Heat that failed miserably but turned him, within a two-week period, into one of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) most controversial players. From blowing in LeBron James' ear to directing a constant stream of trash-talk at the two-time defending champion Heat, Stephenson overshadowed what was otherwise a solid season with his on-court and off-court antics. Now, with the Pacers securely among the top four Eastern Conference teams, Indiana's fourth-year guard is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Should he be re-signed? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.
Riley: Stephenson's 2013-2014 numbers don't explode off the paper but when you examine the impact he had on the Pacers’ playing attitude, he's everything that Indiana could ask for–minus the antics. With averages of nearly 14 points, seven rebounds and almost five assists a game, Stephenson's growth helped pushed the Pacers into the status of a regular season powerhouse before an unexplained team slump doomed their championship campaign. His playoff numbers stayed nearly identical to his regular season stats but his aggressiveness and fearlessness was an attitude that probably would've pushed the whole team over the top had it been transplanted in every player on the roster. Forget the antics. He's going to get a fat contract from some team this summer and the team should definitely be the Pacers.
Green: We talk about Stephenson's aggressiveness but it may have cost the Pacers big time against Miami. He constantly poked and pulled at James' coattails, upsetting the King and providing bulletin board material that the two-time defending champs used to simply overwhelm the Pacers following an Indiana victory in Game One of the Eastern Conference championship series. Sometimes you just have to know when to be quiet and apparently Stephenson just doesn't know. Pacers President Larry Bird even had to intervene after his player’s embarrassing –and creepy–blow-in-the-ear tactic against James was caught on camera –and went viral online. A talented and tough-as-nails player, Stephenson’s penchant for making bonehead decisions, followed by erratic play at times, is reason enough for anyone to be hesitant about buying into him long-term. Still, I love the kid and his fiery style on the court. It’s entertaining to watch. I even found his blowing in LeBron’s ear– and the King’s reaction– entertaining. If I was Larry Bird, I’d make sure Stevenson stays put.
Riley: In Indiana's case they may not have much choice. This is a classic example of a player meaning more to one team than to any other franchise. Stephenson's worth and value is twice as much as a Pacer than elsewhere. He can operate well as either a point guard or a shooting guard and he is a stout defender. When he's on, he electrifies the team and gets the Pacers' home crowd into the game. There isn't much superior talent at the shooting guard position in the NBA; given the shortage, Stephenson is about as safe as you can get. He's not Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade but he's a solid plug-and-play defender who could go to most teams and command major minutes.
Green: Indiana's problems lay in the exorbitant contracts already handed to Paul George and Roy Hibbert, leaving money scarce to sweeten the pot for Stephenson. Indiana also acquired former 2010 No. 2 overall draft pick Evan Turner and they have the team option to retain him next season, as well. The Pacers may elect to just pay Turner, a classic small forward, and insert him into the starting lineup while moving George from his three position into Stephenson's spot. The Pacers have options and don't merely have to just pay Stephenson in fear of losing him. Indiana's already saddled with a bunch of hefty contracts and re-signing their combo guard will push them dangerously close to the luxury tax. For a team that doesn’t have a league championship banner yet and continues to get bounced out of the playoffs by the Heat, paying that tax doesn't seem like a wise strategy. But if I’m Bird, I would find a way to overcome Stevenson’s shortcomings and get a long-term deal done. Trust me, Stevenson would be worth it.