The Indiana Pacers have quite a few All-Star candidates, but it might be a relatively unheralded shooting guard who makes all the difference in the chase for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
We know that George is going to be a superstar-caliber swingman who makes an impact on both ends. We already realize how tough West is to guard and score against. We're well aware of Hibbert's size and defensive impact.
What we don't understand is just how much Lance Stephenson brings to the table.
The 2-guard began to play more controlled basketball while being tutored by Brian Shaw, who is now coaching the Denver Nuggets, and his progression must continue in the positive direction if Indiana hopes to win another title.
So far, so good.
Stephenson looked excellent in the first game of the season, a second-half blowout of the Orlando Magic that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block on 8-of-12 shooting from the field.
It's only one contest, but it still underscores just how important he is to this Pacers squad.
The Granger Effect
The big knock on Indiana last season was the complete and utter lack of a bench. Only the Portland Trail Blazers had a bench that struggled more—in both a statistical sense and according to the vaunted eye test.
Remedying that problem was the focus of the offseason, and it was done fairly well. Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson were all key additions, but the biggest difference stems from having Danny Granger back in the lineup.
Maybe. If he's ever healthy.
Let's assume that Granger is in the lineup. That either allows Frank Vogel to start the former leading scorer alongside Paul George (which pushes Stephenson to the bench) or gives him the ability to start Stephenson and let Granger serve as the sixth man.
Either way, it's a positive because it adds one more quality player to the second unit. And that impact is sorely needed, as the team proved against the Magic on opening night.
The bench scored 24.1 points per game in 2012-13, according to HoopsStats.com, and that wasn't much better in the first game of the 2013-14 campaign. Of the 97 points that Indiana produced, 26 came from non-starters. It's a slight upgrade from last year, but not enough unless the starting five gets even better at offense.
But of course, that was without Granger in the lineup.
According to an official release from NBA.com, the small forward is set to miss three weeks of action as he rehabs a strained calf. It's a sobering piece of news after knee injuries limited him to just five games last year, and he was never impressive during any of that action.
One of two things is going to happen with Granger.
If he stays healthy, then we enter into the two-faceted scenario that was described up above. Either Stephenson's value helps keep Granger in a sixth-man role, or Stephenson becomes a prominent member of the bench horde.
But if Granger doesn't stay healthy, everything changes.
Without Granger in the lineup, it's even more imperative for Stephenson to look excellent in the Indiana lineup. The Pacers won't be able to play the bench as much, and they'll need everything they can get from the starting lineup, which just so happens to include the 2-guard in question.
The answer to that question is still a definitive "yes," but Stephenson has to continue convincing people that Granger isn't completely necessary.
Ability to Attack the Basket
It's hard to succeed in the NBA when you don't have slashers. The players who can get to the rim and finish shots are ultravaluable, as they thrive from the most efficient area of the court.
Sure, three-pointers have their merits, but so too do those shots that come right at the rim.
Throughout his career, Stephenson has consistently improved both the frequency and accuracy of his shots around the basket, per Basketball-Reference:
|Year||Attempts at Rim||FG% at Rim|
|2013-14||7 (on pace for 574)||85.7|
Throughout the opener against Orlando, Stephenson was thriving on offense.
Not only was he knocking down three-pointers (important in itself), but he was also showing off an attacking mentality that featured some improved dribbling skills and the same finishing touch he's shown over the last season-plus.
Below you can see the distribution of his shots in Game 1:
Maintaining that presence at the rim opens up everything for Indiana.
Stephenson is a competent enough passer that he can dump it off to a big man or kick out for a jumper. And given the mid-range skills of his big men and the three-point looks that Paul George loves to take, that's critical.
The difference this year needs to be control.
While he could get to the rim last season, he often did so by putting his head down, and that didn't bode well for his ability to find open teammates. It also led to plenty of turnovers, both of the charge variety and the kind that see the ball just slip out of his hands.
Against the Magic? Only one turnover.
That's exactly what Indiana needs to see each time Stephenson is on the court, and it'll get even more important when he's squaring off against one of the swarming defenses that the Eastern Conference playoffs will surely feature. Maintaining ball control is vitally important against both the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, after all.
Again, he might not be the most glamorous player on the roster, but Stephenson's contributions are just as important to the inevitable title chase as those produced by George, West and Hibbert.
Without the 23-year-old 2-guard, there's a scary lack of depth, an overreliance on Danny Granger (who has yet to earn back trust since being initially injured more than a season ago) and fewer players willing to attack the basket. Those are all fatal flaws when chasing a two-time defending champion that looks as dangerous as Miami.
No pressure, Lance. I hope you really were born ready.