Into the Indiana vacuum left by Danny Granger‘s knee injury has stepped Paul George, a player whose ascension and fit have been so fast and so seamless he’s drawn many an endorsement to be an All-Star reserve (Dime has, too). George can leave you with a sense of wondering where the Pacers would be without his 16.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, his Dunk Contest-worthy athleticism and fearlessness to guard an opponent’s best player. But just as George should be recognized for his role in keeping the Pacers afloat, so too should be Lance Stephenson.
If George’s story has been about a player arriving on the scene with little-to-no fanfare, the opposite could be said for Stephenson, a famous Brooklyn legend since he was a teen at equally famed Lincoln High, a story told to the masses with the documentary Gunnin’ For That No. 1 Spot. He’s largely fizzled as a pro, limited as a player only trusted in bit parts. Until now, when he’s enjoyed the season of his life and is deserving as anyone for his role as Indiana’s linchpin. Jared Wade of Eight Points Nine Seconds has already spelled out in detail why Stephenson has meant the world for Indiana. That post was nearly three weeks ago and yet nothing has changed for his effectiveness. It’s the kind of staying power and consistent basketball that was missing in his game his first two seasons.
Well, almost nothing has changed — he is fallible. When Stephenson played 40 minutes Wednesday night in Portland but scored just two points, Indiana’s offense struggled mightily and its defense looked barely average in allowing the Trail Blazers to break a six-game losing streak. A season ago that invisible performance wouldn’t have moved the needle, but now it’s the exception to the rule. The gap that opens when he sits compared to when he plays is eye-opening. Per 48 minutes, the Pacers score 11 more points when he plays, according to NBA.com, a stat that helps make sense of how the Pacers’ most-used lineup wins 70 percent of its games with him as shooting guard. When he plays, Indiana’s shooting percentage goes up 5 percentage points, its three-point shooting increases 6 percentage points, turnovers fall by more than three and team assists jump by five. He isn’t as much of a defensive liability, either, with opponents only scoring one more point when he sits than when he plays (again, all stats from NBA.com) and head coach Frank Vogel raving about his weakside defense in stretches.
Where the development in his game can truly be seen is how teammates have improved because of Stephenson’s presence. For too long Stephenson was an ill-fitting peg in a rigid offensive system. Looking for his own shot was how his legend came to be known, but didn’t always mesh. This season you can see the team’s improvement on a macro level by seeing how his teammates thrive. George, for example, shoots 9 percentage points better from the field and 13 percentage points better from three when he plays alongside Stephenson. If we’re going to talk about how George has enabled Indiana’s offense, look first at who has freed up George and you’ll see the 6-5 Stephenson staring back at you. Center Roy Hibbert (a plus-minus difference of +9.5) and point guard George Hill (better shooting) use a defense’s wariness against Stephenson’s personal offensive arsenal to their advantages, as well.
And they should be wary: Stephenson does his best work against Central Division opponents. Against Central opponents he shoots 10 percentage points above his season average, gets to the free-throw line more, assists more (5.1 per 48 minutes) and has fewer turnovers (1.5 per 48) than against any other division.
Then-Pacers executive Larry Bird once called Stephenson the most talented player on the roster after his rookie season, and the two still keep in contact through text messages or phone calls every month despite Bird’s exit from the front office. Having the ear of Larry Legend bring a certain cachet by itself, one that has allowed me to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt in his first two seasons. What’s different now is how for nearly two months — instead of a brilliant possession here and there — Stephenson has sustained that billing. He’s been a surprise nearly as big as the Pacers as a whole.
What do you think?
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