By Sean Highkin
With 21 seconds left in the Pacers' series-tying Wednesday victory over the Wizards, Lance Stephenson drained a long jumper to put Indiana up five, effectively sealing the win. It was one of just three baskets he made, scoring 12 points on 12 shots. On a night when Roy Hibbert snapped out of a months-long funk with a dominant 28-point, nine-rebound performance, the fourth-year guard was next in line for scrutiny. He's coming up on free agency this summer, and we still have no earthly idea what he's worth.
Stephenson is the Pacers' bizarre season personified. Early on, when Indiana was 18-1 and looking like world-beaters, Stephenson was the oddball heart at the center of the team, a little eccentric but an integral piece. During an abysmal final stretch of the season, which included being pushed to seven games in the first round by an Atlanta Hawks team that finished under .500, Stephenson was the irritant. The narrative around the Pacers has changed dramatically over the course of the season, as it has around Stephenson.
"I love Lance Stephenson," Pacers coach Frank Vogel gushed before a preseason game in Chicago last October. "I love having him on our team. I love the edge he brings to our team, the toughness, the physicality."
When Hibbert and Paul George took center court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to thank fans following the announcement of the All-Star reserves, they singled Stephenson out as being equally deserving of the honor, a sentiment they echoed during the weekend's activities in New Orleans.
Mere months later, though, with the Pacers in a free-fall, Stephenson's relentlessness began to wear on his teammates. Reports surfaced of physical altercations at practices. His erratic play could be forgiven early on, when the Pacers were winning and his positive contributions outweighed the negatives. Once the losing started, it became difficult to view his recklessness as anything but irresponsible.
Hibbert's bizarre tailspin and George's regression after an MVP-caliber start to the season have hogged the national attention -- after all, they're the All-Stars making the big bucks. But they're also both known quantities, at least in theory. Even after more than a year in the Pacers' starting lineup, Stephenson is an enigma. Some nights, he's a boundlessly explosive scorer and playmaker; others, he's a ball-stopper who jacks up terrible jumpers and makes careless turnovers. In Pacers wins this season, Stephenson averaged 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists a game and shot 50.9 percent from the field. In losses, he averaged 12 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists and shot 45 percent. Every night, Vogel and Stephenson's teammates have hope for the good Lance to show up, and fear the bad one.
Stephenson's free agency is going to be one of the most fascinating subplots of this upcoming offseason. As a second-round pick who signed a four-year deal after being drafted in 2010, Stephenson is a relative rarity: An All-Star caliber talent hitting the open market, unrestricted, at age 23. The Pacers, who have never loved paying the luxury tax, are aware that keeping Stephenson will cost them. Larry Bird, who has been one of Stephenson's most vocal champions since he came into the league, is so wary of paying him an eight-figure salary that he traded for Evan Turner in February partially as an insurance policy. But Turner has been mostly terrible as a Pacer, and Stephenson's own performance has suffered since the acquisition.
The temptation to throw big money at Stephenson is understandable. It's the kind of high-risk, high-reward signing that could vault a team on the bubble into title contention if everything breaks right. But if there's one thing Stephenson has proven, it's that you can't count on things happening the way they're supposed to when he's involved. This has been a double-edged sword for Pacers fans -- when Stephenson was written off as a long shot to even become a rotation player, he became a starter on a team that pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. But now that the spotlight and expectations are on him at a level they've never been before, he's shown himself to be a still-inscrutable entity.
Stephenson's teammates and coaches love him because he's a relentless competitor with no filter, and they hate him because he's a relentless competitor with no filter. His loyalty to Bird, who believed in him and gave him second chances when nobody else did, is something no other team will have as a trump card if they sign him.
The mere prospect of his talents being harnessed makes him worth keeping around, even with the Pacers at a crossroads. They have no other options -- Turner has been a disaster, and a bench that was once touted as a strength has been anything but. It will come at a high price, but Stephenson and the Pacers need each other, both now and in the future.
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.