How Lance Stephenson Has Been Critical to the Pacers' Success


Early in the season, the Pacers looked lost without Danny Granger. The offense was abominable. Despite a relatively easy schedule to start the year, Indiana simply could not put points on the board.

The season-long numbers have not changed much. The Pacers still have the league’s third worst offense, producing a measly 98.4 points per 100 possessions. The absolute bottom limit that should be considered acceptable for an NBA team is one point per possession, and Indiana needs to show some sustained improvement to reach even that paltry benchmark.

As with most of the Pacers’ problems, however, a lot of this is due to the bench. Since Thanksgiving, the starting lineup has actually been producing.

One of the key reasons has been Lance Stephenson.

Stephenson came off the bench in the team’s first six games of the season. To replace Granger, coach Frank Vogel first tried Gerald Green (for three games). That didn’t work, as Indiana dropped a game to the Bobcats and needed an overtime to beat the Kings at home. In the process, Green missed 14 of his first 19 shots and looked more like the guy who played his way out of the NBA than the man who resurrected his career last year in New Jersey.

Sam Young then got the nod.

Indiana lost those three games.

Sitting at 2-4, with an offensive rating of 92.3 points per 100 possession, the team turned to Lance. In his first start, he scored 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting as the Pacers beat the Wizards. It was, after all, just the Wizards, but Vogel found something that worked and he stuck with it.

Stephenson has started every game (as long as he has been healthy), but especially in the early going, the fourth quarter lineup varied. It almost always included the four undisputed starters (George Hill, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert), but Stephenson was sometimes interchanged with Young or Green depending on the game situation.

Lately, however, Lance has been playing so well that his production has demanded he get the vast bulk of the important minutes on the wing next to Paul George.

“My trust level with him, on both ends of the court, is as high as it’s ever been,” said Vogel of Stephenson in a pregame press briefing on Monday. “But it certainly needs to maintain itself — he needs to maintain the play — to keep that trust. He’s still a young player. He’s still going to have some inconsistent moments. And he’s got to keep building that trust.”

Coaches love certainty. They abhor not knowing what they will get from a player.

No doubt, Stephenson is still a wild card. He has his bad games, he blows defensive assignments, and he over-dribbles at times. But compared to the other options at Vogel’s disposal, the flaws are something the coach will likely just have to live with until Granger returns.

One chart shows all you need to see.

(statistics as of January 2)

The numbers are indisputable: the Pacers have not been able to score when Gerald Green and Sam Young play with the four true starters, but they have put the ball in the hoop just fine when Lance Stephenson plays alongside Hill, George, West and Hibbert.

The number of minutes played by each does allow for some statistical noise, but all the lineup data points in one direction. The Pacers shoot better and score better (and turn the ball over less, which isn’t show in the chart above) when Stephenson is on the floor with the starters. They also have shoot a blistering 40.7% from three-point range, thanks in large part to Lance’s 39.0% shooting from behind the arc this year.

Yes, Lance Stephenson has been the Pacers’ best three-point shooter this season.

And this offensive output hasn’t come only when he plays with the starters.

In addition to the 497 minutes Stephenson has played this season with Hill, George, West and Hibbert, he has played another 294 minutes in various other lineups. Overall, the team has scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor versus a depressing 92.1 when he sits. That is the type of differential you would expect from the  2006 Cavaliers without LeBron James or the 2007 Celtics without Paul Pierce.

Not Lance Stephenson.

To put that 10.6 point swing in perspective, it is exactly the same difference that exists between the NBA’s best offense, Oklahoma City (at 110.6 per 100), and the 22nd “best” offense, Minnesota (100.0 per 100).

Lance Stephenson’s individual numbers don’t bowl you over.

He generally produced throughout December, finishing the month by scoring double figures in five straight games, including a season-high 16 points — not to mention a career-high 7 assists — during a win in Cleveland on December 21. But given his high-minute totals, there isn’t a single stat line that makes you say “Whoa Boy.”

It has just been steady contributions paired with accurate shooting.

Setting aside individual numbers, it is the qualitative aspects that Stephenson has brought this season that help show why the team has played so well with him on the court.

I understand that he has his faults and that his inability to be in the right spots at times — on both ends of the floor — can aggravate both his coaches and his teammates. You only need watch a few possessions to show him mucking up the the offensive spacing or ball-watching on defense.

Then again, it is impossible to watch the below video and not realize that Lance Stephenson brings something altogether unique, in terms of dynamic playmaking and creativity with the ball, to this roster.

The passes throughout the clip are gorgeous.

More than merely watching him deliver pretty dishes, however, just look at how wide open everyone he passes to is.

He has shown an uncanny ability to drive and kick to shooters on the perimeter after getting into the lane and drawing multiple defenders. Unlike many other young players, he is incredibly willing to pass out rather than force the attempt. Watching some sub-24-year-olds, you get the feeling that they believe, once they’ve gone by their man and found their way into the paint, they deserve to shoot the ball — no matter how contested or off-balance the shot may be. They think they’ve earned that shot, efficiency be damned.

Lance does that sometimes too — everyone does — but look at how often he calmly watches the defense react to his penetration and recognizes where the open shooter will be.  It’s as if he can feel where the new void in the defense is, and he knows when one of his teammates occupies the space. Then he finds them, no matter where they are.

On top of that, notice how he has thrived in transition.

Many of his most helpful plays this season have come when he grabs the defensive board and takes off up court. This is when his top-notch athleticism comes out of its shell.

He begins moving forward, almost lumbering as he high dribbles down the floor. Then, all of the sudden, he hits the nitrous, and it’s as if he’s running down hill with the force of the Raiders of the Ark boulder. If that spherical stone changed speeds through gangly hesitation dribbles.

Please don’t take this sentence the wrong way, but it’s a sudden acceleration of mass that is almost reminiscent of a young LeBron James. He isn’t as big and he isn’t nearly as explosive, obviously, but his initial charge has the same cosmic, almost unnatural, look to it when he begins to really push the ball in open space. It’s almost as if the propulsion takes him by surprise and he slightly loses control for the first millisecond before regaining his equilibrium and rushing forward to to complete a play that he alone knows how will end.

Unfortunately, however, some of Stephenson’s skills seem misappropriated within Indiana’s starting lineup.

Vogel runs a fairly deliberate offense predicated on running sets through the big men. There are not a lot of extra possessions to devote to Stephenson running off a pick to receive the ball in open space where he can create. What energy this team does spend in those sorts of plays is now — rightfully so — allotted to Paul George or used for quick-hitters that open up a catch-and-shoot opportunity, often at the top of the key or around the elbow.

All this makes sense.

There isn’t a coach in the world who would say, “Here, Lance Stephenson — ye who was a bad NBA player until six weeks ago — go score against a set-up defense in the half court.”

But it has been impressive that Stephenson has found room to create in transition, during broken plays and just when he has brought the ball up the floor after a slow break. Even in the half court, he has begun to understand when in the game or in the shot clock — or just depending on his matchup up — it becomes advantageous for him to make something happen.

He still doesn’t deserve the full trust of a coach.

For example, he chucked — and missed — a hellaciously bad three-pointer early in the fourth quarter against the Hawks last Saturday. With his team chopping away at an 18-point lead, in the midst of a 9-1 run during which Atlanta was reeling, he heat-checked his made layup with a 25-foot three as some 16 seconds remained on the shot clock.

It was shot that would have made JR Smith blush.

But his playmaking and ability to create should do wonders for the bench once Granger returns.

There, playing among a unit that can barely create good looks at the hoop let alone score with any regularity, Stephenson should be better appreciated for what he can do rather than what he cannot. And there, he should be able to become the sharpest weapon among, what has been up to this point in the season, a drawer full of butter knives.

(All team and player statistics referenced were as of January 2.)