INDIANAPOLIS — Lance Stephenson’s triumphant return to Indiana was a joy to behold. After being absent from the NBA for the entire 2019-20 season, he joined the G League to resume his career, first signing a 10-day contract with the Hawks, then a series of 10-day contracts with the Pacers before Indiana finally. signed him for the remainder of the 2021-22 season.
Like Stephenson, he gave Pacers fans plenty to remember. He scored an NBA-record 20 first-quarter points off the bench against the Nets on Jan. 5, had a career-high 14 assists against the Jazz three days later and threw a back pass that leads to an Oshae Brissett. post dunk against the Trail Blazers on March 20, arguably the team’s most exciting game of the season.
“This is my home,” Stephenson said after his record-breaking game against Brooklyn. “I still have my home here. I’ve never left here, so it’s amazing to play here. It’s like playing in front of my family.”
Stephenson was heartfelt, but as heartwarming and fun as it may be, it can’t go on forever.
He becomes an unrestricted free agent on Thursday, and while his third stint with the Pacers was memorable, Stephenson’s age and skills don’t match a young team going through a rebuild, so Indiana shouldn’t re-sign him. .
“It’s something to talk about,” Stephenson said in his post-season interview. “We’re going to talk a lot in the offseason, try to find something.”
If we are realistic, however, there is nothing to understand. Stephenson’s time is up.
The 6-6 swingman, who turns 32 in September, thrives on having the ball in his hands. This is the main reason why he was able to have these performances last season. However, Indiana already has a slew of ballhandlers — star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, backup point guard TJ McConnell, veteran point guard Malcolm Brogdon (at least for now), and sophomore guard Chris Duarte — and the team just added two more balls. -handlers through the draft, Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin and Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard.
Stephenson averaged 18.6 minutes in 40 games for the Pacers last season, but is highly unlikely to play such a big role with a healthy McConnell back in the lineup and a pair of rookies ready to have an immediate impact.
“The word that stands out for me is feel,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, describing Nembhard during the rookie introductory press conference. “He just has an amazing feel for the game. I love point guards. I’ve had the real privilege of working with some really, really good point guards. I mean Jason Kidd, we won a championship with Jason Kidd, we had JJ Barea in that team. Jason Terry was a playmaker who turned into a goalkeeper. I see some of those qualities in Andrew.”
To me, that doesn’t look like a player who’s going to step off the bench, and of course Mathurin — Indiana’s top draft pick in 34 years — will also get plenty of playing time.
I know some of you are probably asking, “Well, why can’t they just bring Lance back on a one-year minimum contract while he mentors young players?” In theory, that sounds good. It’s a decision I’m sure he would welcome. But at his heart, Stephenson was never meant to be just a locker room guy and a cheerleader.
The passion he has for basketball comes from playing it – as evidenced by air guitars after 3-pointers, shimmies after dazzling passes and high-fives with fans after dynamic plays – so to take that away just so Stephenson would stay with the franchise that drafted him 40th overall in 2010 isn’t the answer.
Both parties better understand that his third run with the Pacers was mutually beneficial but not permanent. He breathed life into an otherwise abysmal season at Indiana, while proving he can be a productive NBA player.
Stephenson averaged 9.3 points, 3.9 assists and 2.8 rebounds with the Pacers, and I’m sure another team in the league could use him and, better yet, play with him.
“It’s going to be great, interesting free agency,” Stephenson said in April. “I’m just looking forward to it, just to keep my body strong and sharp. I’m very angry that the season is over because I feel good right now. I feel like I could go on .”
And Stephenson will continue, but not here in Indiana, where fans will hate to see him go but will still welcome Born Ready “home” when he visits another
Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Contact him by email: [email protected]