TBT: Remember when Lance Stephenson was almost an All-Star?
When he played for the Indiana Pacers two years, Lance Stephenson was almost an All-Star. Man, how time flies.
In just the last year, Lance Stephenson has played for three different teams and was traded twice. He’s racked up numerous DNP-CDs and when he does play, he rarely provides much substance. All of this is a far cry from where Stephenson was just two years ago in 2014, when he was regarded as one of the better wing players in the league, a top-tier free-agent and a borderline All-Star. With Stephenson playing decent in his first two games with the Memphis Grizzlies, we have been getting a very tiny glimpse of the player he was in the 2013-2014 season, so let’s reminisce and look back at Born Ready’s career year.
During the 2012-2013 season, an injury to Danny Granger opened up a spot for Stephenson in Indiana’s starting lineup, and with his strong all-around play, he held onto the role all year. Stephenson made an important impact in the playoffs, scoring a then career-high of 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Game 6 of the second round to help Indiana get past the New York Knicks and into the Eastern Conference Finals. This was a pivotal game in Stephenson’s young career as it showed that he could be reaching the potential that he showed throughout high school.
As a high schooler, Stephenson was one of the top players in the country and is one of the best to ever play in New York, winning a city championship four years in a row. He is still the state’s all-time leading scorer. Many expected Stephenson to be the next great player out of New York after Lamar Odom and Stephon Marbury, and for a while it didn’t look like that would happen.
Stephenson spent one solid year at the University of Cincinnati before declaring for the draft. He was selected in the second round (40th overall) by the Pacers and then rarely played in his first two years in the league. He really only became known early in his career because he made a choke gesture while LeBron James was at the free-throw line in the 2012 playoffs.
Yet by the following year, while Stephenson was still known more for "Lance being Lance" moments, he became known for his playmaking abilities, energetic defense and ability to get to the basket. He was turning into a solid player, one that many predicted based off his potential in high school. And that Game 6 performance in the 2013 playoffs propelled him into the best season of his career the following year.
In the first few months of the 2013-2014 season, the Pacers were one of the top teams in the league and looked like a true challenger to the Miami Heat, who they'd lost to in the playoffs in back-to-back years. Indiana raced out to a great start, winning its first nine games en route to a 20-3 record by the second week of December. Paul George was coming into his own, Roy Hibbert was one of the best defensive big men in the league and Stephenson was the jack-of-all-trades player that could do it all for Indiana. By mid-December, Stephenson had recorded four triple-doubles and was blossoming in his new expanded role.
Stephenson wasn’t just consistently having very solid all-around performances, he had a few monster games as well. Like a 26-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance against the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 23 and a 28-point, four-rebound, four-assist performance against the Knicks on Jan. 16. Stephenson was balling and with the Pacers having the best record in the NBA, his name was being mentioned when it came to the All-Star Game.
"He should be close," George told reporters at the time about Stephenson’s possible All-Star selection. "You think about what we're doing, us being No. 1 in the East. Him being the leader in triple-doubles in the league. It goes to show how big of a part he is to our team. He should get a lot of consideration. The No. 1 team in the league should be putting in three All-Stars."
It wasn’t just George, who believed Stephenson should be an All-Star. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel talked up his candidacy up as well.
"All of our guys have sacrificed minutes and shots to be part of a selfless, winning culture, and Lance has had as big an impact as any guy on our team," Vogel said at the time. "He's very deserving."
Stephenson desperately wanted to be an All-Star. He believed that he was one of the better players on the best team in the NBA at the time and deserved to be in the game. All of his points were quite valid. By the end of January, Stephenson was averaging career-highs across the board at 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists a night. He was leading the Pacers in assists, and he was second in scoring and third in both rebounding and field goal percentage (50 percent).
To help improve his All-Star chances, Stephenson even recorded a hilarious promo video to boost his profile and earn votes among the fans.
However Stephenson wasn’t selected to the 2014 All-Star Game as Eastern Conference coaches picked Nets guard Joe Johnson over him. Stephenson’s brash style of play may have rubbed some coaches the wrong way but Johnson was playing well (not overwhelmingly great though) at the time and the Nets were one of the better teams in the East. But even Johnson didn’t think he was going to be selected. He was so cavalier about the whole thing that he was actually sleeping when the All-Star reserves were announced and was surprised to find out he was selected when he woke up.
From the New York Daily News:
It doesn’t sound as if the Nets’ Joe Johnson was expecting to be selected an All-Star. When the reserves were announced on Thursday evening, he was sleeping. He said he didn’t find out he would be going to New Orleans as part of the Eastern Conference squad until about 90 minutes later.
“I was somewhat (surprised). I wasn’t expecting it, honestly,” Johnson said at the Nets’ practice facility at Friday morning’s shoot-around before Brooklyn eventually lost to the Thunder, 120-95. “I am happy and I enjoy it. Every time I’ve been (there), I’ve had a great time. I really enjoy the whole weekend.”
Looking back, it is still perplexing why Stephenson wasn’t selected. Especially when you consider the fact that Atlanta Hawks had four All-Stars in 2015, mainly because they had one of the better records in the league. The Pacers in 2014 may not have been as dominant as the Hawks were last year but they were still a top-echelon team and considered a championship contender. Indiana did have two All-Stars in George and Hibbert, but Stephenson was quite deserving of a spot. The snub truly affected him and he used it as a motivating factor for the rest of the season.
"I already had a chip on my shoulder and it made me even worse," Stephenson said at the time about not making the Eastern Conference reserves via the New York Daily News. "Now I'm going to kill everybody who is in front of me."
In the end Stephenson didn’t truly “kill” the competition as Indiana went through some inconsistencies down the stretch -- at one point going on a four-game losing streak. The Pacers finished the season 56-26 and held on to their top seed in the East. In the playoffs, Indiana struggled in the first round with the Atlanta Hawks, often not looking like they were on the same page before winning in seven games. They then got past the Washington Wizards in the second round before falling to the Heat in six games in the conference finals.
Those conference finals brought up several Lance being Lance instances, including his earning a $15,000 fine for floppin. But none was more memorable than when he blew in LeBron James’ ear as a tactic to get in the Heat forward’s head.
Although Stephenson’s extracurricular antics didn’t help the Pacers, overall he had a very solid season, finishing with averages of 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He shot 49.1 percent and 35.2 percent from three. In the playoffs his numbers were very similar as he shot 45.5 percent and 35.8 percent from three and averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
It looked like Stephenson was well on his way to taking the next step but in the summer, he chose to leave the structure Indiana had built around him by signing with the Charlotte Hornets in 2014. This decision backfired on him.
Not only didn’t Stephenson get a max long-term deal that he thought he could get, he reportedly turned down one that the Pacers had offered him, Charlotte was just not a good fit for him. He went from a starter to a reserve player and then to not even playing as the season progressed. The Hornets shipped to the Clippers in the offseason, where after basically the same thing happening again, they traded him to the Grizzlies at last Thursday’s trade deadline.
Now Stephenson is in Memphis and his contract expires at the end of the year. His future is up in the air as he now is more associated with laughable plays like this:
Which is crazy to think about, since it only two seasons ago that Stephenson was considered a borderline All-Star.
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