The Pacers' Lance Stephenson (1) can be a handful on and off the court, as he proved in the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Heat. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)
Pacers guard Lance Stephenson paid no mind to one unwritten basketball rule while fully embracing another, ignoring the fact he’s approaching unrestricted free agency and is angling for big money this summer after being a value player the last two years.
Stephenson, by whispering sweet nothings — or merely blowing — in LeBron James’ ear during the Eastern Conference finals, drew the ire of everyone with a wagging finger about basketball decorum, including the man who believes in him most, Pacers boss Larry Bird.
He flopped, interrupted Heat huddles and talked about Heat guard Dwyane Wade’s knee injuries before the conference finals began, in the attempt to gain every possible advantage against the two-time champions.
It was bizarre, certainly, and just about foolish to tug on James’ proverbial cape, especially considering how meekly the Pacers bowed out in Game 6 in Miami, but Stephenson consistently brought the effort.
On pure numbers, shooting 50 percent and scoring 14 a night with six rebounds and five assists show he’s capable of rising to the occasion with his play when he’s focused.
He, along with rugged veteran forward David West, were the only ones with the requisite heart needed to dethrone the champs. Point guard George Hill performed like anything but, Roy Hibbert is still on a milk carton, and Paul George’s performances were certainly equally enthralling (Game 5) and puzzling (Game 6), which can’t happen for two max-contract players.
Stephenson will command plenty of attention come July 1, and many of the so-called detractors in the NBA would line up at his door if given the chance to add him.
Given the benefit of time, Stephenson will no longer be viewed as “toxic,” if he ever was. Make no mistake, there’s certainly a “buyer beware” tag any team wishing to sign him to a four-year contract between $30 and $40 million this summer must heed.
If he goes to the right team, with the proper structure and settled locker room, they can use his 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and dazzling plays — if his mind is right.
He’s capable of being a rose — you just have to ignore the thorns, if you decide he’s worth the trouble. If his mind is right.
Brown for OKC
Is it about time we start treating the Thunder with anything but the kid gloves they’ve enjoyed for the past four years?
And criticizing Russell Westbrook doesn’t apply, either, especially considering how the all-world guard’s passion and activity helped carry the Thunder to overtime against the Spurs.
Westbrook (26.8 points, 7.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 3.2 steals), not MVP Kevin Durant (25.8 points, 7.7 rebounds) was the lifeblood of that team the past two weeks. Now, one can certainly dispute whether the duo are a perfect fit and if they can truly co-exist at maximum efficiency, but we’ll never know if the Thunder keep wasting their prime years with Scott Brooks on their sidelines.
They have no structure to their offense, which works on a Tuesday night in Philly when Durant and Westbrook are better than everyone on the floor, but not when you have to play an experienced team and a good coach.
Westbrook takes the arrows that should have Brooks’ name on them.
Yes, they’re both 25. But Durant is in Year 7, and Westbrook is a year behind. Think of the scrutiny James received from the public in his seventh year (2010), which played a part in him going to Miami because Cleveland couldn’t put a decent team around him.
Durant and Westbrook speak up for Brooks because they feel no pressure from the public about actually getting it done. You can bet they’d start squawking if they would be branded as losers, and demanding Brooks be handed his walking papers.
And if that happens, who should the Thunder call? Larry Brown.
Brown is a nomad, someone you date for a “good time” and not lifelong commitment. But boy, what a good time Brown would bring to the folks in Oklahoma City. Give him two years and he’d have the Thunder hoisting that gold trophy during the second week in June.
Give him two years and they’d accomplish enough to keep Durant from pulling a James and leaving town via free agency. Give him two years and Westbrook can aptly run an offense, turning into the best point guard in the NBA while keeping his explosiveness.
Give him two years and he’ll be back out the door — but you’ll have fun in the meantime.
Either that, or he’d drive you crazy.