He emerged from a longer than usual shower, but the stench of muted humility still emanated from Lance Stephenson. Glossy eyed and defeated, on the cusp of elimination, what the Indiana Pacers had worked so hard for had slid through their fingers.
As the Pacers found themselves in a 3-1 hole from which few NBA teams successfully climb, the man who seemed most distraught over the team’s collective plight was not the man who shriveled and disappeared as the attention focused on him, it was the man who has been the emotional leader for these Pacers all season long—David West.
If it is said that Lance Stephenson’s tactics have been trying to his teammates and fans of the Pacers alike, it should be said that they are doubly disappointing to West, because Stephenson and West’s belief in him and his abilities were a major part of the reason why West opted to re-sign with the Pacers less than one year ago.
On a three-year, $36 million deal, West effectively agreed to finish his career in Indianapolis on a shorter deal than he could have gotten, for less money than he could have signed for.
“[Lance] was a big part of that,” West told Basketball Insiders.
“You develop a trust after being in battles with guys. You develop a trust and a faith in his ability. [Lance] has got all the tools and all the skills that any other elite two-guard in the league has. He’s talented and he’s got that attack, and again, he’s just somebody who when I was looking at and evaluating [my free agency], I fully understood the type of load he could carry but also the type of advantage that we would have having him on our team.”
Yet, even after winning Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Final showdown with the HEAT, the Pacers—unlike the regular season—find themselves looking up at LeBron James and his team. And if history is indicative of what will transpire from this point forth, then the Pacers are merely delaying the commencement of their inevitable early summer vacation.
For all that West sees in Stephenson, the Brooklyn kid nicknamed “Born Ready” has failed in one of the game’s most important realms—his maturity.
As a player, there is no question that Stephenson has grown tremendously over the course of his first four years as a professional.
But at this point, it is safe to conclude that he is a professional in title only, not with regard to the meticulous and dedicated approach that his teammates take on a day-to-day basis, especially West.
“When I first got here, [Lance] wasn’t playing,” West told Basketball Insiders. “He wasn’t even dressing and last year, he gets thrust into playing and he grew immensely for us. He was a big, big part of our run last year and coming into this year, knowing he was going to grow and develop and continue to get better… knowing that he can make plays, knowing he’s gonna go out, go hard and just be an ultimate competitor for us,” West said of his teammate.
Yet, while the Pacers were in enemy territory, desperate for a win in Miami, it was West who sweat most profusely during wind sprints and practices. It was West who was the final one to retreat to the locker room prior to tip-off. And yes, it was West who did the least amount of talking off the court, opting instead to let his game do his barking.
“[Lance] is a big part of the reason why we’ve had some success and why we’re back in the Eastern Conference Finals,” West said. “There have been games and periods through the year where he’s carried us. He’s had monster games where he’s been the only guy going. There’s been times when he was the guy scoring, the guy assisting and the guy rebounding and he’s a very, very important piece and a part of what we do.”
Deep down inside, West has believed that these Pacers are the team that is built to best end the reign of the HEAT. On the interior, where the HEAT are susceptible to bigger and stronger front lines, the Pacers have an intimidating tandem.
In Paul George, they have an impressive young player who impacts both ends of the floor, albeit still a tad bit inconsistently. And they have Stephenson—one of the league’s more enigmatic, yet maddeningly effective shooting guards.
For all that West said of Stephenson, and for what he potentially sees for his teammate, Stephenson should take a page out of the book of West, who is simply a blue collar player, a leader among his teammates and someone who rarely complains about things like touches, shot attempts or responsibilities.
While Stephenson was busy basking in the bright lights of the TV cameras in Miami, painting a bull eyes on his chest, West was working.
Yet, by the time Game 5 had concluded, Stephenson would not say one more word than he had to. As he emerged from the showers at American Airlines Arena after turning in a pitiful 33-minute effort, he walked silently and plopped into the silver and blue folding chair in front of his empty locker stall.
Stephenson leaned forward, exasperated, quietly wondering what went wrong.
He wiped his face with a hand towel, exhaled and silently declined a request from a TV journalist to share a few words.
“Nah, I already spoke,” Stephenson said, declining to speak—something he should have done the day before and should do every day after.
Now, as he looks toward an uncertain summer in which he will have the opportunity to be paid handsomely, the question Stephenson must answer is whether his childish on-court antics will cost him even more than they may have cost his team.
Immaturity, after all, has its price.
While it is certainly true that the Pacers have fallen behind the HEAT yet again due to a multitude of reasons, Stephenson is the only clown in Frank Vogel’s classroom.
A team that is trying to win a championship—and one that has the talent and pieces required to compete for one—needs to bring laser-sharp focus into each and every contest, especially in the playoffs. Especially on the road.
In NBA locker rooms, diffusion is real. If one player is unhappy, if one player complains, it has the potential to spread and infect the entire team. If one player fails to approach the game as a professional and does so despite pleas—both public and private—from some of his teammates, it manifests a resentment. It gives off the message and impression that one’s own ego and attention-mongering is more important than winning itself.
The Pacers’ plight and their tearing at the seams is not all due to Stephenson. But he has done very little to mend. He has done very little to serve as a permanent nexus between the Pacers’ January-past and their pitiful present.
In desperate times, after working tirelessly to get back to this point with an opportunity to accomplish something great, of those disappointed in Stephenson, West is probably near the top of the list.
“He’s got a very, very high basketball I.Q.,” West told Basketball Insiders. “Over these last few years, we really trust him with the ball. We trust him to make the right decision, the right read. He’s proven that he’s capable of doing that.”
But unfortunately for the soon-to-be 34-year-old West, Stephenson has also proven something else.
Contrary to his namesake, he was not “Born Ready” for these NBA lights, this big stage nor these expectations.
For West, a man that never even seriously considered leaving what he considers his team when he had the opportunity and one who opted to remain with players who he himself feels he has grown for and with, falling to the HEAT once again would be especially disappointing.
But unfortunately, this season, disappointment is something West has come to know rather well.
This year, Lance Stephenson taught him.
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