The look on LeBron James’s face says it all. Every time James has to deal with another Lance Stephenson antic—an invasion of personal space, a little too much physicality between plays, overenthusiastic defense—you can almost see the wheels turning in James’s mind. A response will only feed into Lance’s act. A reaction will convince everyone that Lance is in his head. And doing nothing only encourages Lance to continue pushing the envelope. We’ve seen LeBron fatigued, but rarely does he look more exasperated than when he’s dealing with Stephenson. Six years after their first “encounter,” the LeBron-Lance relationship hasn’t changed at all.
Stephenson entered LeBron’s—and the public’s—consciousness in May 2012, when he flashed a choke sign at James after he missed a free throw. Stephenson wasn’t part of the Pacers’ rotation then, and the team apologized, while Lance also received a stern talking-to from Juwan Howard. Stephenson would actually play in the next two Heat-Pacers series, and that’s when the real “rivalry” started. Stephenson seemingly lived for giving LeBron an extra touch or two after the whistle, or, of course, blowing in his ear. Stephenson’s acts grew increasingly ludicrous over the series, but they were tempered by the fact that his Pacers teams never once beat James.
LeBron and Lance would eventually go their separate ways. James obviously returned to Cleveland not long after the final Heat-Pacers tilt. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s career spiraled when he no longer had James to bother. Lance played for five different teams from 2014 to 2017 before rejoining the Pacers. He eschewed a contract from Indy to sign in Charlotte, where he flamed out and was traded after one year. He lasted half a season with the depth-desperate Clippers before he was shipped to Memphis. After a few months with the Grizzlies, Lance signed with the Pelicans, who waived him not long after he suffered an injury. Stephenson then sat idle for a few months before playing on two 10-day contracts with the Timberwolves. Finally, last March, Stephenson returned to Indiana on a two-year contract with a team option for this summer.
The reignition of LeBron and Lance’s... not quite rivalry this postseason isn’t exactly poetic or two arcs coming full circle, however. For all the potential he flashed during his first stint in Indiana, Stephenson’s relevance has always depended on James. And you could argue he’s not even good at getting under James’s skin! For example, LeBron has shot 12-of-21 against Stephenson through the first four games of the Cavs-Pacers series. Cleveland has 80 points on 79 possessions in which Lance is guarding LeBron, which is actually pretty good considering how bad the Cavs’ offense has been for much of the first round. Stephenson’s bluster can be equal parts trainwreck and entertainment, but it’s almost certainly not effective.
If anything, what Stephenson’s act highlights is the lack of real rivals for James. Aside from Paul Pierce, who was never quite the right age or in the right historical tier, we’ve never had the pleasure of seeing LeBron consistently play against a true positional rival. The Warriors are too loaded to make James vs. Durant a thing. LeBron hardly guards Stephen Curry. Dwyane Wade and James never met in the playoffs. Instead of seeing James tested by greatness on his trips to the Finals, we’ve most often seen him be annoyed by the likes of Lance or DeShawn Stevenson.
Lance has always needed LeBron more than the other way around, not that that wasn’t ever painfully obvious. The two players don’t necessarily bring out the best in each other, and the relationship has always been one-sided, both in wins (LeBron) and how much they care (Lance.)
If this really is the last time James and Stephenson face off in the playoffs, we’ll probably all be better for it. While LeBron’s game has seemingly gotten better with age, Stephenson’s career has toiled in obscurity until given the chance to play the role of pest again. The next time Lance puts his hands over LeBron’s mouth or trades sweat during a timeout, I imagine James won‘t be the only one looking exasperated.