Lance Stephenson was tremendous for the Pacers in the first half of the season, becoming a nightly triple-double threat who played under control and within his team’s system.
The playoffs, however — especially in the series against LeBron James and the Miami Heat — were another story entirely.
Stephenson turned into a wildcard who resorted to non-basketball tactics to try to rattle his opponent. He blew in the ear of LeBron James, and smacked him in the face during a dead ball situation, as well. Pacers president Larry Bird condemned his actions, and head coach Frank Vogel similarly did the same.
Once the series was finished, Paul George was asked directly if he wanted Stephenson back next season, considering he was entering the summer as an unrestricted free agent. George paused, and said “I don’t know” before elaborating a bit further with a more politically correct answer.
Now that a couple of months have passed, George has changed his tune, and says he now would welcome Stephenson back with open arms.
George also clarified confusion over his infamous “I don’t know” answer when asked after the Game 6 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals if he’d like to see Lance Stephenson return as a free agent.
“I think that was taken way out of context,” George said. “Obviously, me and Lance have been here four years together. I would love to continue to keep playing with Lance. When I said ‘I don’t know,’ I was speaking on what he’s going to do. I don’t know what he’s going to do, I don’t know what our front office is going to do and at the end of the day that’s my decision. I went through (contract talks), it was tough, but I would love to see No. 1 back here in a Pacers uniform.”
It’s easy for George to say that now, but there was nothing that was taken out of context. His true feelings were evident immediately following his team’s elimination, which were clearly that Stephenson’s clown act had worn thin, and things needed to be sorted out before he absolutely could be certain that he wanted him back next season.
The problem for the Pacers is that they’re maxed out from a salary cap perspective, so there isn’t another direction to go in trying to sign a replacement for what Stephenson will cost. The most likely scenario will be Indiana paying Stephenson in free agency, and then praying he has a normal start to the season which could up his value in trade before the deadline passes.
If they decide to keep him, there’s a real risk that his erratic behavior could re-emerge at the worst possible time.