Lance Stephenson
NBAE/Getty Images

Stephenson Brings Missing Element to Pacers

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

Remember that time Lance Stephenson blew in LeBron James' ear?

How about the time he gave James the choke sign from the bench?

Did you ever see that wild "Sir Lancealot" video he made to promote himself for the All-Star Game?

Those are the predominant memories many people have of Stephenson's time with the Pacers, but they are hardly the entirety of who he was, is, and likely will be now that he's coming back for a second chapter.

Stephenson played just four seasons with the franchise, for 252 games (playoffs included), but remains perhaps the most polarizing player in franchise history. He was dynamic and energetic, but also frustrating and distracting. He was macho, but also immature at times. He could put the shine on a game, such as when he produced a league-leading five triple-doubles in 2013-14, but he also could dull a finish with unnecessary turnovers or technical fouls.

OFFICIAL: Pacers Sign Stephenson »

Now that he's back, one can only imagine how it will go for him and the Pacers. He's played for five teams since not accepting the Pacers' contract offer at the start of his free agency summer in 2014, and has yet to regain the career momentum he established three seasons ago, when he nearly made the Eastern Conference All-Star team and was runner-up in the voting for the NBA's Most Improved Player award.

This much, however, seems obvious: the risk is low for the Pacers and the potential rewards are significant. In a Twitter poll posted by Dave Calabro of WTHR, 67 percent of responders gave a positive reaction to the signing. They no doubt recall the hard-nosed player who would grab a rebound in traffic and take it the length of the court for a layup or assist. Or, attack the basket with boundless bravado. Or, hit a timely 3-pointer.

And always play with passion.

The Pacers team he rejoins can use some of that. A lot of that, actually. It seems to have talent exceeding its won-loss record and the players get along just fine, but something is missing. Fire. Adrenaline. Consistent energy. Stephenson will bring those elements, and perhaps it will be contagious. He's not the missing link to a return to title contention, but he could be a step in the right direction. If he's not, the Pacers' obligation to him shouldn't hamper other roster moves.

Stephenson wanted to join the Pacers last summer, but team president Larry Bird, who selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft, didn't think the timing was right. Conversations took place during the season, particularly leading up to the trade deadline, but Bird believed it was an issue best addressed in the offseason. Stuckey's injury — and Glenn Robinson III's, too — changed that. The Pacers are in dire need of another guard, and Stephenson is as proven as anyone available.

It's difficult to understand Stephenson's career since leaving the Pacers. It made sense for Charlotte to sign him and put in the backcourt with another New York City product, Kemba Walker, but Stephenson lost his shooting touch and never fit with coach Steve Clifford's system. He was traded to the Clippers after one season, but didn't mesh there, either, and was traded to Memphis in February of last year. He played well there, averaging 14.2 points in 26 games, and signed with New Orleans before this season. After playing well in the preseason, he pulled a groin muscle on Nov. 4, and was waived. He signed a 10-day contract with Minnesota earlier this season, sprained an ankle, recovered, signed another 10-day, and then was waived.

PHOTOS: Lance Stephenson Career Gallery »

While it might appear Sir Lancealot has fallen off his horse, he was at least nudged by injuries. And, he hasn't been the bust many people believe him to be since leaving the Pacers.

Last season with Memphis, he had a career-high 33-point game in March, two more games over 20 points in the regular season, and finished with 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting in the Grizzlies' final playoff game against San Antonio.

His deal with New Orleans this season was non-guaranteed, but he made the roster over Alonzo Gee, who had a one-year guaranteed contract. He played in six games, averaging 9.7 points. Given nearly 45 minutes of playing time in his fifth game at Memphis, he scored 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting and handed out six assists. He was injured the following game, however, and waived shortly thereafter.

He has communicated with Pacers front office members during his unaffiliated moments in the season, and made clear his desire to return to where it all started for him. He said he would sign a minimum contract. Said he would play in Fort Wayne to get in shape. Said he didn't care whether he started or came off the bench, he just wanted to prove himself again.

Stephenson's on-court "antics" while with the Pacers earned him a negative reputation that persists in the minds of many fans today. The photograph of him blowing in James' ear has become a social media sensation, adapted for endless uses. It's an increasingly false reputation, however. He's not been involved in any controversies since then, nor has he been a locker room "cancer," as some have portrayed him. Check back through seven seasons of quotes, and you won't find one in which he speaks inappropriately. He's never criticized a coach or teammate, never complained about playing time, never ripped a referee. He did annoy teammates his first couple of seasons with the Pacers, when he rarely played, but has since acknowledged his immaturity.

"Coming in my rookie year, you think you're 'the guy,' because you grew up and you were that guy since you were young," he said after making the Pelicans' roster. "Coming into the NBA, everybody is similar to you. Of course, I had a big head when I came into the NBA. Now that I'm older and I learned the game a little bit more, I know how you control that and know how to show that I'm working hard more than coming in and thinking 'I'm that guy.'"

The Pacers don't need him to be "that guy" now. They need someone to bring infectious energy and push the tempo. They are stuck in neutral, and who better to make something happen?


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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