Starting guard Lance Stephenson is the only Indiana Pacers starter not under contract for next season. The Pacers say they want Lance back, despite his playoff antics.
"I always want him back," said Pacers President Larry Bird Monday at his season-ending news conference. "You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it. We'll talk about it in the next week or two of our game plan, what we're going to do and how we're going about it. But he's a free agent. He can talk to any team he wants. When it comes down to it, it's up to him whether he wants to be here or not."
"I'd like to see him back, clearly," added Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. "But he's a free agent. So it's going to be up to him and what the rest of the offers look like. But I'm certainly hoping that he's back."
Bird did not appreciate Lance Stephenson blowing in the ear of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"I'm very disappointed in the fact that in Game 5, Paul George puts on a spectacular display...then after the game, everyone's talking about all the nonsense," Bird said. "To me, that's not being a professional. That's not what we want to be about here."
Stephenson told reporters that Bird told him to knock off the antics before Game 6 on Saturday. But Stephenson followed up by smacking LeBron in the face in Game 6 as retaliation for James putting a hand on Stephenson’s face while Lance shot a three-pointer. The Pacers suffered a blowout loss in Miami. The Heat ended the Pacers season for the third straight year.
"This game is about respect and I feel like I got respect," said Stephenson after Saturday's loss. "I’m just trying to be the best player I can be and learning from all the mistakes that I go through. The more I learn, the more I can be a pro."
"People are going to take shots at Lance," said Vogel. "I think that Lance is a high character person. I think he's a winner. Too much is stated about all that other stuff."
Bird still wants to resign Stephenson, if the price is right.
"That's what it's going to end up being," said Bird. "There's going to be a price that we're going to and we're not going over."
Stephenson made just under a million dollars this season. On the open market, he's likely to get a multi-year contract worth at least $5 million per season. Bird says the Pacers don’t have $20 million to spend in free agency. Any significant roster moves would have to be made through trades.
Stephenson is just 23 years old with undeniable talent. In just his fourth season in the NBA, he set a franchise record with five triple-doubles this season. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Stephenson led the Pacers and was the top rebounding guard in the league.
"I think he has the ability to be a multi-year All-Star at some point," said Vogel. "He has to make sure that he puts it all together. Helping your team win is a part of that. We thought that was going to put him there this year. More importantly than that, I think he has the ability to be a major contributor on a championship team. I think the ceiling is pretty high."
But Stephenson was also whistled for 17 technical fouls this season, the most in the Eastern Conference this season. He was fined twice in the playoffs for flopping. The question for the Pacers front office is whether the risk of Stephenson's volatile behavior is worth the major investment. And can the Pacers even afford the contract Stephenson will demand in free agency?