Retracing Lance Stephenson's journey from Pacers star to unwanted free agent
At this point in September, NBA teams are mostly done fiddling with their rosters. Training camps are scheduled to start near the end of the end month, and particularly this off-season, most of the big money deals have already been signed.
Even with all the cash being thrown around this summer, not everyone was able to take advantage. Among the intriguing names left in free agency is Lance Stephenson, the former Pacers star, who turned 26 on Monday.
Stephenson is two seasons removed from leading the NBA in triple-doubles. Since then, he has played for three teams and been traded twice. And now there are reports Stephenson may essentially be forced to play overseas this year.
How did Stephenson go from one of the NBA’s most exciting young players to unwanted league-wide? Let’s take a look.
After a legendary high school career in which he broke the New York State scoring record and one season of college at Cincinnati in 2010, Stephenson was drafted by the Pacers in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft. Stephenson played sparingly during his first two seasons as a pro, starting one game in 54 appearances from 2010–12. His most recognizable moment during that time came in 2012 playoffs when he flashed a choke gesture at LeBron James. Stephenson hadn’t been playing during the postseason, which led James to say this in May 2012: “Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I'm not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.”
The next season, James would have no choice but to give Stephenson time, as the young guard played in 78 games for the Pacers in 2012–13 and became a wild card on what was generally a plodding offense. Stephenson pushed the ball in transition, bullied his way to the rim and found himself launching threes from halfcourt sets. When Lance was on, Indy was nearly impossible to beat. But bad Lance was a problem, too. His turnovers during wild fast breaks and bricky shooting streaks could hurt the team at times.
A year after the choke sign, Stephenson redeemed himself in the playoffs. He played in every game, and helped the Pacers push the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. One year after LeBron wouldn’t give a quote about him, Stephenson was getting under the skin of the defending champs on the court.
In 2013–14, Stephenson took on a bigger role for the Pacers, playing the most minutes per game in his career at that point. He led the league in triple-doubles and scored 13.8 points per game while shooting 49.1% from the field. The Pacers got off to the hottest start in the league that season, but chemistry issues seemingly sunk the team during the second half of the season.
Stephenson reportedly got into a fight with then-teammate Evan Turner in practice during the first round of the playoffs. In a conference final rematch with Miami, the Pacers put up their worst fight against the Heat. Always brash on the court, Stephenson’s antics reached their nadir when he blew into LeBron’s ear during a playoff game.
It was unclear how badly Indy would want to keep Stephenson around after his irritating ways started to outshine what he did on the court. As a free agent in 2014, Stephenson decided he wanted to test the market.
Turning down a five-year, $44 million deal from the Pacers, Stephenson joined the Hornets on a two-year, $20 million contract. Signed as a missing piece to a talented roster, Stephenson quickly fizzled in Charlotte. Coach Steve Clifford said Stephenson was “not a star,” and played him off the bench for most of the season. Stephenson struggled to fit in, and his three-point shooting cratered to 17%. A year after being the energizer on one of the top teams in the league, Stephenson found himself mostly unwanted in Charlotte.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Hornets unloaded Stephenson to the Clippers in June 2015. Stephenson was initially considered a key piece for the Clips, as he had the ball-handling skills to backup Chris Paul at point guard and could play shooting guard or small forward in lineups to close the game. Instead, Stephenson’s career kept going backwards. He remained a bench piece, playing only 15.8 minutes per game for L.A.. His shooting improved, but turnovers remained an issue while his defense failed to match its previous form. Not moving the needle with the Clippers, Stephenson was traded to the Grizzlies in February.
Out of necessity on a roster decimated with injuries, Stephenson became a go-to option for Memphis. He still mostly came off the bench, but he averaged 14.2 points in fewer than 27 minutes per game. Though his defense came and went, Stephenson carried the offense when he was on the court and was fairly efficient despite his chucking. At the very least, Stephenson proved he could be a valuable scorer off the bench for offense-starved second units, and showed flashes of the player he used to be.
Retooling their roster, the Grizzlies have not re-signed Stephenson this summer. Memphis declined a $9 million team option on Stephenson, and there has been little to no interest in him on the open market. In the same summer in which his former teammate Turner got $18 million a year after averaging 10.5 points per game, Stephenson can’t find a team willing to take a gamble on him.
Stephenson may now have to play internationally to prove he still has game and then try to join a contender late in the season. He could also sign for very cheap with an NBA team now and hope he regains his form and can eventually cash in on all the promise he flashed only two years ago.
Whatever he decides, Stephenson, at 26, is far from guaranteed a future in the NBA.