Lance Stephenson and the balance of fandom vs success

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 04: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers goes to the basket against Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks in the first half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 4, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 04: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers goes to the basket against Frank Ntilikina #11 of the New York Knicks in the first half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 4, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Lance Stephenson is no longer an Indiana Pacer as he heads off to the Los Angeles Lakers. Emotional connections, talent, and fandom make this move deeper than most.

December 4th, 2017. Hicks vs Knicks in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. sidelined for New York, the action was not supposed to be competitive. And it wasn’t. It only took about a quarter-hour for the game to be all but over; the Pacers had a 19-point lead with 10 minutes left in the second frame.

With the result decided, much of the intrigue was gone. Indiana fans would have been uninterested for roughly 30 minutes of basketball if it weren’t for a local hero. The cape-wearer, in this case, was Lance Stephenson.

With a 59-34 lead, Lance broke out this masterpiece, sending Bankers Life Fieldhouse into a roar that is usually reserved for a tight game in the fourth quarter:

Stephenson turned Pacers home games into a Broadway show. The fan experience in Indianapolis last season was just different. Stuff like that happened all. The. Time. In a game where Indiana led the uninspiring Orlando Magic by double-digit points, Lance quickly re-arranged some furniture and turned a basketball stadium into a rock concert:

These moments are what makes being a basketball fan so fun. A well-executed floppy set that leads to an open jumper on the wing is exciting for a very small percentage of people. Lance Stephenson doing a figure-eight between his legs with the ball before dribbling and spinning around a defender and sinking a flashy layup is enchanting for everyone. Who cares what the score is? Did you see that!?

You could tell many fans adored Lance because of these captivating plays. He’d check into games for his first appearance of the night and suddenly the entire stadium was on its feet cheering, even though the score was something like 13-11. It didn’t matter what his on-court impact was or who scored more points during his stints. That doesn’t matter to a lot of people. What mattered was that he was in the game. Period.

I’ll eat crow as a writer here. Lance Stephenson would do something basic on the court, like take an open three. “No!” I would shout, before the shot even left his hands, from wherever I was observing the game. “His true shooting percentage stinks!” I would muse.

But then, I look around, and everyone else watching Lance is in awe. Smiling. Enjoying the experience. As an analyst (if you’ll allow me to label myself as such), that feeling of enjoyment is largely absent from my viewing experience. But 99 percent of viewers have the fan identity, and that makes them love Stephenson. Lance leads the league in one stat; he makes fans of his team smile and laugh more than any other basketball player.

So when the news broke that Kevin Pritchard and the front office were declining Stephenson’s team option, all fans could do was ask “why? Did you see what he did?”.

More from 8 Points, 9 Seconds

Stat dorks like myself say that Lance Stephenson had a negative impact on the team when he was on the hardwood. Fans and even some numbers-minded people will counter with “his impact goes beyond stats”. I agree with that counterpoint, to a certain degree.

Lance’s impact stats are what they are. They don’t suggest he’s a great – or even good – NBA basketball player. His Player Impact Plus-Minus put him in the fourth percentile league-wide. 96% of players made more impact than Lance. That, on the surface, is horrid.

But the counterpoint is right. That isn’t fair to Lance. Those stats don’t properly quantify what his impact is. His tomfoolery is hard to quantify. By zooming out in the statistical realm, specifically into the world of clutch stats, we can perhaps better appreciate the antics.

Clutch stats are often used as an addendum to overall statistics. This can be attributed to clutch plays having a larger, more tangible impact on the game. During Russell Westbrook’s magical 2016-17 MVP campaign, one of the bigger arguments in his award-winning favor was that he was perhaps the most clutch player in the NBA, sinking important shot after important shot to win games for the Thunder.

Clutch moments are defined as being more important points in time than just any random instant. Clutch stats are most often calculated when a games score is within five points with five minutes or less on the clock.

But let’s change that scope. Kevin Broom, a colleague of mine, had this to say about defining a “clutch” instance:

“I’m often up for debating that definition (of “clutch”). It seems way too narrow for how the game gets played. A three in the 2nd quarter to break a 10-0 run by the opposition would be a clutch play in my eyes, for example.”

A three-pointer that stops a 10-0 run changes the mental structure of a basketball game. It’s a little play, but it has a big effect. And that is how you get closer to Lance’s overall impact. Little plays change the psychological scope of the game for both teams. One team now has more confidence and energy. The opponent becomes deflated.

Lance’s antics, in their own way, are clutch in that manner.

We can use an extreme example to examine this. Remember in the postseason when Lance Stephenson busted out this antic?

Former Pacers player Lance Stephenson holds the ball up near LeBron James
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – APRIL 22: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers holds the ball up after getting tangled up with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during game four of the NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 22, 2018, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Cavaliers won 104-100. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

This silly picture was after Lance fought and scraped for a jump ball with LeBron James. Ultimately, Stephenson ended up the owner of the basketball. He held it up like baby Simba in the Lion King and prompted Pacers fans to go nuts. It was glorious.

Just prior to this moment, the Cavs had cut the Pacers lead to one point. The “LeBron and shooters” lineup was in for Cleveland, looking to make a playoff comeback. But Lance thwarted that, and Indiana held that Cavs unit scoreless for two and a half minutes down the stretch of the game. He changed everything. An aura was created on the court.

The fans are right. You can try, but you cannot perfectly define the impact of something like that. Lance’s impact does go beyond stats.

The Pacers victory over Detroit on November 17th was another example of this. The Pacers trailed by 22 with about six minutes left in the third quarter. Lance came in and started the fourth quarter off with this:

A nice, quality, Lance-ian crossover into an inefficient pullup mid-ranger. But he hit it. And he got the team closer. Then, 90 seconds later, this:

The hustle, the arm pump, the basket. They won’t be defined as a clutch play, but they are. They stop the bleeding of a 22-point deficit and give the Pacers a beating heart. Indiana came back and won this game. Lance had 13 points in the fourth. His “clutch” plays early in the fourth probably won Indiana the game. Stats don’t show that in an exemplary way.

But even if Stephenson is better than his stats suggest, that doesn’t make him a plus player overall. He is still a negative. He isn’t as much of a negative as many statistics say. But he is a hindrance on the basketball court.

The amount that Lance is a hindrance is up for debate. I won’t get into that. I can’t. Nobody can pinpoint this guys value. How many players have this Lance-like effect where they only perform well for a specific organization? He’s an anomaly, and that’s why fans adore him.

Therein lies the challenge with a player like Stephenson. What is the appropriate balance of balance of being a fan favorite vs being, you know, good at NBA basketball? How do you navigate that balance as a general manager?

Lance Stephenson Indiana Pacers
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – FEBRUARY 03: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers plays air guitar after a basket against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half of a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 3, 2018, in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers won 100-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Pritchard chose to take the basketball route instead of the fan favorite route when piloting that decision. There’s a lot of brains to that. As many games as Lance’s underrated impact won for the Pacers, he had some real head-scratchers that lost games for Indiana, too. This one against Dallas from December owns real estate in my head:

Getting rid of Lance Stephenson can be seen as addition by subtraction. Getting rid of Lance to open up the salary space to sign Tyreke Evans is a no-brainer. Losing a fan favorite is a gut-wrenching, and even puzzling, move. But in the aggregate, it is absolutely the right one.

Next: It’s time for Myles Turner to make the leap

It sucks to see Lance go. You can’t quantify the energy he brought to the arena. You can’t quantify the mental edge he offers. But your eyes can see a smile on a fan’s face, and your mind can feel the excitement of something fascinating happening on the basketball court.

But the Indiana Pacers are going to win more basketball games as a result of this decision. It’s that simple. And winning heals all wounds. Winning adds excitement in its own way and brings smiles. Lance Stephenson will be missed, but the Indiana Pacers are better without him.