Lance Stephenson no lock to return

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Saturday, May 31, 2014

MIAMI -- Lance Stephenson's recent production hints he is due a major payday as the shooting guard hits the free-agent market this summer.

But after the Indiana Pacers' ouster in the East finals, his teammates had mixed reactions about his future in the wake of a number of Stephenson-fueled controversies.

Paul George, who, like Stephenson, was drafted by the Pacers in 2010 and helped build the team into a contender in the East, was ambivalent when asked if Stephenson would be back.

"I don't know. That's for Larry [Bird], Kevin Pritchard, for them to decide," George said of the Pacers' president of basketball operations and their general manager.

George later tempered his reaction, saying he and Stephenson "came into this league together. It would be great for us to continue our journey together."

But his pause before answering was revealing.

Stephenson, who capped his eventful series against the Miami Heat with a flagrant foul and several minor skirmishes with LeBron James, became an unrestricted free agent after the 117-92 Game 6 loss, finishing a four-year, $3.3 million deal he signed as a second-round draft pick.

His erratic play and decision-making, plus some controversial moves during the playoffs, left some to question how the Pacers would handle whether they'll bring him back.

Stephenson frequently grated on his teammates during the season and was a constant distraction in the series with the Heat despite numerous attempts from teammates, coaches and executives to get him under control.

Other Pacers leaders called for Stephenson to be re-signed.

"I think his future is with us," David West said. "He's a huge part of the progress that we made. He's a great young talent, and he fits with this group. Hopefully, we get him back."

Depending on what the Pacers do with Luis Scola, who has a nonguaranteed $4.8 million deal for next season, the team will have approximately $8 million to $12 million to use to sign players before reaching the luxury-tax threshold that Bird has said they will not cross.

However, the Pacers will not have cap space to sign a comparable replacement for Stephenson if he goes elsewhere, a factor that could play heavily into the team's decision. Bird has also been an ardent supporter of Stephenson since he made the decision to draft him.

When asked if he thought he cost himself money with the way in behaved in the series, Stephenson said he had no regrets.

"I love it in Indiana, but right now, it's not the right time to talk about [free agency]," Stephenson said. "I don't think I act any way; I'm just very competitive. I don't ever back down to anyone. I know some of the stuff looks bad, but that's just my way of playing hard."

As for James, he called Stephenson's actions over the past several games "uncalled for." They included blowing in James' ear in Game 5 and a moment when he tried to annoy James by touching his face during a dead ball in Game 6.

At the conclusion of the game, though, James embraced Stephenson and whispered in his ear.

"He told me to keep working hard," Stephenson said. "And that I have the talent."

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