Player Review 2018: Lance Stephenson

May 07, 2018 | by Mark Montieth,

Age: 27
Years Pro: 8
Status: Has one year remaining on his contract, a team option.
Key Stats: Played in all 82 games for the first time in his NBA career, and was one of just two Pacers to do so. Started in the seven games Victor Oladipo couldn't play. Averaged 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in 22.5 minutes per game.

All of that wondering why Lance Stephenson plays so much better with the Pacers than with any of the other five NBA teams that have employed him can be explained simply enough. He has a special relationship with the fans, sure, but it really comes down to one thing.

Pacers coaches have given him the ball and taken their chances.

Nate McMillan, like Frank Vogel before him, dares to "let Lance be Lance" as long as Lance doesn't let his emotions get the best of him and cross too many lines of decorum and common sense. That's paid off for the Pacers, as Stephenson is coming off what, on a per-minute basis, was likely the best of his eight NBA seasons, one in which he re-established himself in the league, regained respect and no doubt helped restore his confidence.

Four seasons ago he was nearly an All-Star, leading the league in triples-doubles (five) while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 35.3 minutes per game. This season, in 22.5 minutes, he averaged 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. Extrapolate those numbers over 36 minutes per game and his scoring and rebounding were better and his assist average virtually the same.

Stephenson's greatest value, however, might be his intangibles. The fans begin buzzing when he reports to the scorer's table and begin roaring when he goes Rucker Park on opponents. Line-crossing be damned, he brings a brand of bravado that inspires fans and therefore teammates, injecting a cocky, macho element into what's mostly a polite, finesse team. He often helped instigate comebacks from double-figure deficits that became nearly routine.

"He has a genuine connection with the fans," Darren Collison said at one point in the season. "He plays hard, he's entertaining, and he openly admits this is where he belongs."

But, again, that's because he's given enough rope to play his game. And that brings challenges and some difficult decisions for McMillan when Stephenson strays too far from the game plan.

Although he makes seeing-eye passes through traffic nobody else on the team can make and runs a better pick-and-roll with the big men than any of the other guards, Stephenson can be turnover-prone — especially when the game isn't close and he loses his focus. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8-to-1 wasn't good for a primary ballhandler.

His 3-point percentage (.289) also was lacking. He's capable of shooting well when his feet are set and he doesn't fire a line-drive at the rim, and he's done so at various points in his career. He hit a solid 35 percent for the Pacers in the 2013-14 season, hit 40 percent in 43 games for the Clippers in the 2015-16 season, and hit 5-8 of attempts in his six regular season games with the Pacers last season — and then went on to shoot 39 percent in the four playoff games with Cleveland.

He's also too much of a homebody. He averaged three more points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse than on the road this season and shot much better, too — 33 percent from the 3-point line at home but 23 percent on the road, for example.

The intangibles help make up for that. Contrary to his image in some places, he's an asset to the locker room culture. He never questions a coaching decision, even when he's been taken out of a game against his wishes, and supports his teammates, both through the media and personal conversations. Through seven seasons, as an employee of six franchises, he has yet to utter a controversial statement.

And, after being pulled through the maze of five other franchises after leaving the Pacers in 2014, he's as grateful as anyone to be in the NBA.

"I'm just happy and blessed to be able to keep playing this game," he said after one game this season. "Just having fun, man. It's a blessing to be able to play this sport."

Still, there are those moments...moments when he forces a quick shot hoping to set off an explosion, dribbles too much to try to make a play, or goes too far playing to the emotions of the crowd. Playing air guitar, galloping back on defense, or flapping his arms like a bird are harmless enough. Annoying LeBron James to the point of drawing a technical foul has its merits, too. But sometimes his antics and decision-making are disruptive rather than inspiring. He was a stimulus behind some thrilling rallies during the season, but had to be taken out of other games because of poor choices.

"He does some good things and then we have to...we just have to watch him carefully," McMillan said. "Some of those plays can cost you. He has to be able to control his emotions out there going down the stretch.

"You have to play this game the right way. You have to have a respect for the game and your opponents. At times I think he crosses the line. When we see that, I have to sit him down. It's as simple as that."

The next step for Stephenson is to remain standing in the closing minutes of close games by playing with poise and and to be as energetic and effective on the road as he is at home.

He does those things, and he likely can have a ball in Indy for the rest of his career.