Let Lance be Lance.
That is the watchword for the mercurial Pacers guard who appears to be Larry Bird’s favorite player.
For four years, we have been perplexed and amazed at the raw talent and even more raw immaturity displayed by Stephenson.
From a rookie bench player with character issues who was kept while others were jettisoned in a housecleaning movement three years ago, No. 1 has become a key part to Indiana’s future and indispensable on the court.
This postseason cemented something that became clear over the course of the season. The Pacers, as they are currently assembled, struggle without Stephenson on the floor.
The numbers are solid — 14 points, seven boards and five assists a game. But those alone don’t tell the story of why many think he should have been an All-Star and why he is in line for a big payday this offseason.
Lance brings another dimension, another gear, an X-factor. He is the off-road overdrive turbocharger on a team that is otherwise a dependable family sedan.
“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” said Larry Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, who was instrumental in drafting Stephenson out of Cincinnati. “I always want him back.
“You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”
Whatever the reasons, Bird clearly got a great payoff for the 40th pick in the 2010 draft.
Now, it is time for Stephenson’s payday. The guard, who grew up in Brooklyn, is making just over $1 million a year. That figure may go to $12 million or higher as an unrestricted free agent.
The question is whether Stephenson will be cashing that paycheck in an Indiana uniform.
The Pacers are already over the salary cap, and there will be a limit on how much of owner Mel Simon’s money Bird is free to spend. Indiana will be a bidder, but it may not be able to match big-market teams like the Lakers, which also have shown interest.
“When it comes down to it, it’s up to him,” Bird said about Stephenson’s decision. “(Once he matures) his game is unlimited.”
That qualification — “once he matures” — is more than a small point.
Stephenson spent the playoff series with the Heat playing jester. He flopped, he slapped and he jaw-jacked. While Coach Frank Vogel and others nobly tried to deflect criticism by talking about his passion, they could not cover the real problem. Stephenson simply needs to grow up.
It showed as a rookie in a domestic violence incident off the court. It showed as a reserve when he gave LeBron James the choke sign from his spot on the bench. And, it showed most famously in Game 5 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals when he blew in James’ ear as the players awaited a free-throw attempt.
It also shows on the court in his too frequent domination of the ball and over-hyped play.
“He’s a defensive stopper with wildly streaky offense and wonderfully questionable decision-making, all while hurling himself all over the court at 150 mph,” one ESPN writer wrote.
Throughout it all, players and coaches have chuckled that Lance is just being Lance.
Toward the end of the season, though, it started to wear thin. The numbers, so good before the All-Star break, started to decline. The temper — good for the fourth-highest number of technical fouls in the league — became more temperamental.
Stephenson became an embarrassment, a punchline for late-night TV. Certainly, he is not the kind of player who should be representing this city and state.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe he is so good that we are all collectively willing to look the other way.
Not me. And, I suspect many of you may feel the same.
Sure, I want the Pacers to win. But I care equally about how they win.
Class and dignity should be a constant. With Stephenson it is always a question mark. That is not good enough, and that is why Indiana needs to focus its limited free-agent dollars elsewhere.
Good luck and goodbye.
Let Lance be Lance. Just let him be Lance somewhere else.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.