After 3 years of bouncing to different teams through free agency, trades, and 10-day contracts, Lance Stephenson is coming home to the team that drafted him. It was announced Wednesday that the Indiana Pacers had signed Stephenson to a three-year, $12 million dollar contract. The signing came shortly after the Pacers waived guard Rodney Stuckey in the midst of his knee injury which will keep him out for most of the remainder of the season.
It seems logical that Stephenson was brought in to assume the role of Stuckey: an athletic combo guard who can give timely scoring for the second unit. Both players are similarly sized, although Stephenson is much burlier, they are gifted passers, and are great at driving to the rim. Stuckey's performance this year failed to match his previous two season in Indiana, and with another injury knocking him out, it only makes sense to see if his production can be replaced by someone already familiar with the environment.
In his final season with the Pacers, Stephenson was the starting 2-guard and primary playmaker, averaging 13.8 points and 4.6 assists per game on .491 field goal percentage. Stephenson also led the league in triple-doubles that year with 5 and finished second in Most Improved Player voting.
Since leaving Indiana after the 2013-14 season, Stephenson has played for the Hornets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and most recently the Timberwolves, all with varying success. While with the Memphis, he averaged a career-best 14.2 points per game while taking a career-high 11.8 shots per game. This season, he was released from the Pelicans after 6 games, and was given 2 10-day contracts with the Wolves in February.
It's surprising to see a player go from multiple 10-day contracts to a 2-year deal with a different team, but it's clear that the middling Pacers need a shakeup in the roster. Indiana has slipped to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference despite the best efforts of star Paul George. After blowing a home fourth-quarter lead against the Wolves, George called out his teammates, questioning their heart and drive, and saying the locker room needs to be more "pissed off."
From that standpoint, Pacers fans should be very excited for the Stephenson signing. It has become a chore to watch Indiana at this point in the season, as the team often plays poor defense, commits lazy turnovers, and runs bizarre offensive sets which don't produce high-quality shots. Stephenson's athleticism, energy, playmaking talent, and, of course, on-court antics can provide a spark for the Pacers down the stretch. It's clear that almost all the way through the regular season, the Pacers still lack any real offensive identity other than "mostly improvise and then give the ball to Paul George once we're down 17," so adding Stephenson in the fold will at least give Indiana another option.
The one thing about which Pacers fans should feel most excited is that George himself is happy to have Stephenson back as a teammate. Wednesday night, George said in a phone interview that he "can't wait for him to get back in that jersey." Keeping Paul George satisfied with the roster situation is the number one priority for the front office from now until George makes his looming free agency decision next summer. In the short-term, this is a low-risk, high-reward signing for the rest of Indiana's season that could get them back on track for the playoffs. In the long-term, Stephenson's return could be a watershed moment in convincing George to stay with the Pacers.