Lance Stephenson: Lovable Jester or Jackass-of-All-Trades?

May 28, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) and Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) stand on the court during the fourth quarter in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Miami 93-90. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

So I, Steve McPherson, opined yesterday that I hate Lance Stephenson, beginning with the way he dribbles. Jared Dubin wanted to know why.

Jared Dubin: Steve: you do not like Lance Stephenson. I do not like people who do not like Lance Stephenson. But I like you! Or at least I did. Why do you not like Lance Stephenson?

Steve McPherson: I am going to attempt to restrict my response to things that come from his existence on the basketball court and in the world of basketball because I feel like it’s unfair to bring in real world stuff that we just don’t know enough about. I honestly feel like when people don’t like a player because of basketball reasons and then shore up their argument by bringing in arrests or other legal proceedings that it’s kind of cheap. Those things are real and terrible in many cases (and you can read about them in regards to Stephenson right here), but that’s not what I’m talking about.

So with that said, let’s begin somewhere that I think we can agree on: Lance Stephenson is an asshole. I have deduced this based on: trolling Dwyane Wade; trash talking LeBron; performing abysmally after said trash-talking while LeBron stomped the Pacers and saying he had no regrets; and finally — and perhaps most significantly — blowing in LeBron’s ear.

Regarding that last incident, let’s focus on LeBron’s reaction to it, which was a wry smile and a shake of the head like, “Can you believe this guy?” That’s maybe one half of the nugget of what bothers me about Stephenson. He strikes me as the kind of guy who thinks he’s CRAZY and WILD and DISRUPTIVE when in fact he’s just kind of annoying and mostly out of his league. You ever see the movie Fresh?  The main character is this kid Michael (aka “Fresh”) who slyly plays three rival drug lords against each other to eliminate them. (It includes a fantastic turn by Giancarlo Esposito of Gus Fring fame as one of the drug lords.) He does it all very subtly and with a minimum of flash, business-like. But he has this friend Chuckie who’s a loudmouth jerk with big plans who wants to prove he’s tough and dangerous. It doesn’t end well.

To me, that’s Lance Stephenson on the basketball court. I can understand that there will always be those guys, and I understand that to some extent the game NEEDS those guys to be the antagonists, the flies in the ointment, the monkeys in the wrench. But this is the other half of the aforementioned nugget: Stephenson has crossed over from character to someone I can’t help but cringe at other people having to deal with. We’ve all worked or lived or even been friends with people who are just exhausting to deal with because of their need to be at the center of everything, to stir the pot, to brashly stomp all over everything. Once I can see that in someone, they cease to be an abstract and become very real and very annoying.

But here’s what I want to know: You didn’t even say you like Lance Stephenson in your question. You said you don’t like people who don’t like Lance Stephenson. What’s up with that?

Jared Dubin: Well, I don’t think that liking Lance Stephenson and not liking people who don’t like Lance Stephenson are mutually exclusive. I thought it would be implied that I also like him, which I do.

Like you, I want to keep the off-court stuff away from my opinions about Lance. And on the court, Lance definitely acts like an asshole. I’m not going to sit here (hi, Mike Woodson) and deny that. I just find it entertaining. I thought the trolling of Dwyane Wade was inspired, the trash talking of LeBron was a welcome development and the blowing in LeBron’s ear was hilarious.

Which side of this “debate” you fall on pretty much just depends on your tolerance for assholes, and I’m more than willing to tolerate assholes so long as they aren’t constantly screwing things up for my favorite team (J.R. Smith) or named Paul Pierce (Paul Pierce).

As far as not liking people who don’t like Lance goes, it was a half-joke, but also I just feel like the league needs entertaining characters, even if they act like assholes, and Lance Stephenson is an entertaining character, even if he acts like an asshole. The league would be less fun without Lance, and if you don’t like fun, well that just sucks, and that’s coming from the guy who Matt Moore says hates fun.

Steve McPherson: What’s interesting to me about your response is how you say you will tolerate assholes EXCEPT … which is pretty much the thing, right? I mean, we’re talking about where we draw lines. I have, for example, long been enamored of Michael Beasley — again, trying to keep off-court stuff aside because some of that is more sad and/or difficult. Just as a character in the NBA he’s been entertaining, and he provided more than his share of terrific moments when he was on the Timberwolves. Uppermost in my mind are the time he accidentally rubbed Anthony Tolliver’s knee and the time he thought he had cut his finger badly enough to see bone. (If you can’t read lips, I believe what he’s saying in that clip is “Oh sh*t that’s my bone!” For what it’s worth, it was actually just fatty tissue, which means still a pretty bad cut.)

But for some reason Beasley is on one side of a line that Stephenson is over, for me. For you, Stephenson is fine, but J.R. Smith and Paul Pierce are over that line. In a sort of inverse way to Smith, a lot of people were big fans of Garnett when he was on the Timberwolves, but when he went to the Celtics, something seemed to turn with regards to his intense, often overbearing personality and what could be seen as on-court bullying. When he was punching up from the NBA’s hinterlands, that was one thing. But once he was punching down (figuratively in terms of actual physicality but often literally at players shorter than him), people found him to be much more of an asshole.

I guess I should maybe make it plain that my distaste for Stephenson doesn’t in any way make me feel like he’s a bad NBA player. I think often our own feelings about a player seem like they should carry weight over into his game, but generally that’s not the case. Our moral judgments have little to do with on-court productivity, even if we want to see players we perceive as bad guys punished. I will say that Stephenson is beginning to turn me completely against the Pacers, even though Paul George is one of my favorite players to watch play basketball right now. Stephenson is becoming a kind of mascot for this Pacer view that they’re rebellious and outsiders and that the box score can’t hold the real quality of this team. All the stuff that was on display after they lost Game 4, basically. All of which kind of makes Lance Stephenson Poochie — a market-driven character of supreme irritation. I hope the Heat can send him back to his home planet.

Jared Dubin: “I think often our own feelings about a player seem like they should carry weight over into his game, but generally that’s not the case.”

I feel you on that. I am probably the most vocally anti-Paul Pierce person on the Interwebs, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know that he is and has been awesome for, like, a super-long time.

Getting back to Lance, though: do you feel like he knows that he’s a character? I think this may be why we differ in our opinion on him. I feel like he definitely knows what people view “Lance Stephenson” as. He talked about it himself on ABC when he acknowledged the Good Lance/Bad Lance stuff. But it seems like you think that Lance thinks (they know that we know that they know we know they know) he’s just a normal dude who does some weird shit occasionally. Is that how you see it?

Steve McPherson: I definitely feel like Stephenson is very much playing a character and that he’s very aware of it. It goes back to the Real World/Road Rules thing, actually, because I think the turning point in a lot of reality TV was when the people who were on those shows had grown up watching those shows. They could figure out who was the misfit, who was the party girl, etc. Stephenson’s seeming meta-awareness of this troublemaker/trickster role is one of the things that grates on me. There are guys who slip into their roles gracefully, like JaVale McGee (this is probably the first time anyone’s used “gracefully” and “JaVale McGee” in the same sentence), and then there are guys who seem to be forcing their roles, like Kevin Love trying to be “vocal team leader” or Stephenson trying to be “irritating energy guy.”

I guess I kind of see Stephenson as trying to be Ron Artest 2.0, a hard-working all-rounder who projects this air of instability that makes everyone wonder if he could just snap at any moment. But Ron — sorry, Metta — has all but disappeared inside that sense of self, whereas with Stephenson it’s like he’s choosing this as a strategy. Which, I mean, WHY NOT JUST PLAY THE GAME? He’s a good player. Why all the noise?

Jared Dubin: Oh man oh man oh man oh man oh man. I could NOT possibly disagree more about JaVale slipping into that role gracefully. Everything about his “I am the lovably eccentric athletic specimen” shtick feels way forced. The calling himself Pierre, the self-RTs, the reality show with his mom. Ugh. Slipping into the “lovably eccentric athletic specimen” role gracefully is Giannis Antetokounmpo, not JaVale.

I am curious why you differentiate between Artest’s (I won’t call him that other name) self-awareness about his role and character and Lance’s, though. To me, they seem the same, but Ron is just weirder. Lance — like Ron — is a good player, even considering the noise. So why does the noise matter more to you, rather than just being something on the side that makes Lance, Lance?

Steve McPherson: Is “I don’t know” a valid response here? Again, I think a lot of this comes down to lines we’ve drawn consciously or unconsciously. It’s a lot easier to say when we feel like someone has crossed them than to tell you where they’re drawn. Let me throw out some “maybes” to try and triangulate this: Maybe I don’t have as much of a problem with McGee’s schtick because I don’t think he’s as good a player? Maybe I’m more predisposed towards goofiness than the kind of nastiness that Stephenson seems to thrive on? Maybe I just feel like Artest might actually be crazy, whereas I feel like Stephenson is using an insanity defense?

Maybe I should also say that I’ve never been a fan of Artest as a basketball player, but I was also never a fan of a team he was on, whether it was the Bulls or the Pacers or the Lakers or anywhere else. But I kind of had this growing fondness for this Pacers team starting last year and building into this one. I genuinely enjoy Paul George, and I’ve long liked Roy Hibbert and David West and even George Hill. Maybe I’m being too hard on Stephenson and I’m unconsciously assigning him blame for all the troubles the team has gone through. Like they seem to do for a lot of people, the Pacers just exhaust me now. I just want it to end. And I guess I feel like Lance is the guy fiddling while Rome burns.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Cauldron, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

  • Ian

    You can count the significant Lance ‘incidents’ on one hand. It’s gotten so ridiculously overblown because 1) he’s been doing it against LeBron and Wade and Miami, the most heavily covered and adored team by all of the sportswriting community (just look at ESPN, who have like 3 writers who are essentially dedicated to the Heat) and 2) Because the Pacers inconsistently play over the 2nd half of the season people have decided that it’s Lance’s fault, that somehow he made Paul George forget how to shoot and Hibbert forget to do anything for long stretches.

    It’s gotten so bad that there’s been all this talk about how the Pacers should let him walk, which I think is ridiculously ignorant to how the league works: 1) No big name free agent is going to go to Indiana 2) The idea they’ll use the money to get a point guard would require them to trade Hill as well, who has minimal trade value and was acquired by Indiana in the first place because he’s a native son. Are the Pacers better without Lance and Hill but having Kyle Lowry at 12M a year (another guy whose been called a locker room problem) 3) You need to have multitalented stars to succeed in this league, and other than George, Lance is the only one with the potential to develop into that role (he’s only 23, remember, remember?). With no pick in the draft, there’s no realistic way for the Pacers to the kind of potential Lance has. Keeping him has risk (but really, not that much risk, teams are always ready to take on troubled and talented players. Remember the Pacers managed to trade Artest after the brawl?), but letting him go will doom the Pacers to 2nd tier status until PG’s contract runs out and they have to blow to start over.

    Finally, for some reason people feel the need to compare Lance to JR Smith, which is an awful comparison. Lance has shown a real dedication to improving all facets of his game. JR Smith is the poster boy for the player who never really translated talent into ability because he lacked the work ethic. Lance is already better than Smith ever was as a rebounder, passer and defender. Finally, despite the rumors that Lance has been a problem in the locker room, and issues he had before he ever made it to the pros, since He’s joined the Pacers he’s never gotten in trouble with the law, gotten in a bar fight, found with a gun, busted for pot, etc, etc..