But it didn't start out that way. For all the world it looked like Lance was destined for a Lenny Cooke-ish life. A life of missed opportunities and wasted promise. He was to be a new story, but one in a familiar vein. The latest phenom to have bad decision making off the court* derail a promising career. At the very most it seemed like his ultimate destiny would be as end of the bench personality, A.K.A. The Chemist. That fate seemed fairly well sealed with a now notorious incident he manufactured. The future was written, all he had to do was play out the string. But something weird happened, Lance flipped the script.
* Chances are some of you know what that link is. For the rest, if you are easily offended or squeamish don't click the link
In truth the switch was flipped last year when Stephenson became a starter for the Pacers once Danny Granger was lost to injury. It was a spot he hasn't relinquished since, it was the time when he showed everyone that he would stick in the league. That he had a spot, that he wasn't going to be the washout that everyone expected him to be. Last year was the breakout, and this season was his great leap forward. Even while the Pacers endured one of the more spectacular collapses the NBA has ever seen Lance has brought a kind of brilliant volatility that is desperately needed for the staid and predictable Pacers.
In these playoffs the human roller coaster that is Lance Stephenson has been on full display. Transcendently dominating every aspect of one game, poking the bear and getting smashed in the face by the bear the next. Some have argued that the Pacers as a team would be better of without Lance, and the constant digressions, both on court and off that come with him. But its inarguable that the Pacers wouldn't be as good without Lance. That sentence would have been unthinkable even two years ago, its a fact now.
The transformation of the discourse surrounding Lance is what is so fascinating. In the span of three years he has gone from completely ancillary sideshow to integral piece of one of the best teams in the NBA over the last two years. Who could have predicted that?
The number of things that have gone right for Lance since declaring for the NBA draft* is remarkable. If any team other than the Pacers pick Lance he is probably well on the way to becoming Lenny Cooke 2.0. If his main endorser on the Pacers happened to be anyone but Larry Bird he is probably out of the league. If Danny Granger doesn't get injured in 2012 he wouldn't have gotten a chance to start. Hell if the Pacers could have found an above average PG last summer Lance almost certainly wouldn't have made the leap this year. A ton of things broke Lance's way in the last couple of seasons, and he has taken advantage of all of it, and its been an amazing thing to watch.
*By the way that is the first ever post at Down The Drive
Tonight the Pacers are probably going to lose to the Miami Heat in the fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals. If they win tonight they are losing on Friday in Miami. Thus will end the best season of his young career, a personal triumph, but a failure for his team. With that end comes questions.
The Lance Stephenson show has been one of the most popular in the NBA throughout the playoffs. With everyone finally reaching the conclusion that its for the best to let Westbrook be Westbrook the most readily polarizing player in the league is probably Lance Stephenson; and he has become that on the eve of free agency.
Lance is going to be a restricted free agent this summer, and he will have no shortage of suitors willing to throw 10 million a year in his direction in a league that is well and truly starved of shooting guards. His team is going to have to reconfigure dramatically in the off season. They may have reached the conference finals again, but running back this group is flirting with disaster. For what its worth I don't care where he goes, I just want to keep watching him, because he is the best bet for entertainment going right now.