Why Indiana Pacers Must Continue Building with Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson

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Why Indiana Pacers Must Continue Building with Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Watching the NBA Finals from home again, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird has plenty of time to ponder his team's future before the offseason kicks into gear: blow up the squad and rebuild or stay the course.

Among the personnel decisions he'll have to make is determining the fates of Roy Hibbert and unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson, two of the most scrutinized players in the NBA this year. He's already retained head coach Frank Vogel, which lends itself to the notion that the Pacers won't make wholesale changes if they can avoid it.

After getting dispatched from the playoffs by the Miami Heat for the third consecutive (and most disastrous) time, Bird still has difficult decisions to make. Not having the right of first refusal on Stephenson only complicates the matter further.

The 23-year-old will have his suitors, and some teams may even play ball to acquire their troubled center, but Bird should consider keeping the Hibbert-Stephenson-Paul George-David West combination together for another go-round.

I'll be the first to admit that it has as much to do with the alternatives and other weaknesses as the situation itself.

If Stephenson walks, Indiana still has $64 million in salary on the books for 2014-15 and an enormous hole at the 2. (This doesn't include the $8.7 million club option on Evan Turner the Pacers will almost certainly decline.) That leaves them over the projected salary cup, and under the luxury tax line by about $13 million.

Here's what Grantland's Zach Lowe had to say about where their remaining dollars could go and try not to get too excited:

...If he bolts, the Pacers would have no ready means to replace him. They could split the full midlevel exception between two wing players, but go that route and you’re paying combinations like Jerryd Bayless–Nick Young.

Lowe goes on to mention Wesley Johnson, Vince Carter, Shaun Livingston, C.J. Miles and Jordan Hamilton as potential substitutes.

Do any of those names turn you on?

We can go back and forth with no end in sight on the merits of Stephenson's talents versus the destructiveness of everything else that is Born Ready.

Though "best passer" is difficult to qualify, Stephenson led the Pacers in all passing-related categories.

He also blows in players' ears, touches their faces and makes 'em dance.

Stephenson put up the fifth-best field-goal percentage on drives among players who went to the hoop at least three times a game.

Then again, his wild play led him to finish 20th in total turnovers.

He's already a lockdown wing defender, with a ceiling Bird described as unlimited:

On and on.

Barring some unforeseen miracle, rest assured Indiana will not advance to the Finals by taking a step backward in the talent department. That's what Stephenson's replacement will be for at least a year or two.

It's completely legitimate to worry about what all the millions of dollars he gets will do to his ego. Stephenson has done nothing but surprise people and improve since getting into the league.

As for a Hibbert trade, all you can do is wish them luck in finding a suitor willing to offer any sort of value for him. Portland has come up in whispers. As reporter Sean Meagher of The Oregonian points out in player reviews, Robin Lopez is outplaying his contract:

With Lopez playing rim protector, opponents converted just 42.5 percent of their attempts at the goal – ranking second behind only Indiana's Roy Hibbert (minimum 50 games played, defending at least six attempts per game at the rim), according to NBA.com/stats player tracking.

He finished eighth in the NBA and fifth among centers in blocks per game at 1.7, setting a new career-high with 139 in the regular season.

Lopez easily gives the Blazers more than 40 percent of Hibbert's production at 40 percent of his cost.

No. Even if Bird were open to moving the former Georgetown product, and he's said nothing of the sort yet, Indiana is stuck with Hibbert's contract for at least another year. 

With a player option for the 2015-16 season at $15.5 million, Hibbert will either have succeeded in playing up to the value of his contract (and, by extension, improved the Pacers' playoffs result), or the season goes so horribly awry that he won't want to come back. (That's a lie; there's a third potential reality where both he and the team stink, but he sticks around for the money anyway.)

Who are you going to replace him with, anyhow? Aside from Hibbert, Lopez was the only other player to be top five in both opponents' field-goal attempts and percentage at the rim during the regular season.

Larry Sanders might be the only quality tradable big man whose team would see Hibbert as an upgrade. On paper a swap for Al Horford could make sense with adequate tinkering. Until you remember that less than a month ago, the Atlanta Hawks added fuel to Hibbert's media tire fire, rendering his skill-set ineffective.

It sucks to say that the only reason to keep a player is that a team can't find a better option.

As disastrous and confounding as the last three months of the season were for the big man, it might ease the pain to widen the scope. Hibbert still finished the season with the second-lowest opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim, sixth in the playoffs per NBA.com. A performance worthy of second- team All-Defense.

Going a little wider, it's amazing how quickly people forget his 2013 Eastern Conference Finals performance—in the first of a major five-year deal no less.

The position which Indiana really needs to improve is point guard.

George Hill will not bring you a championship trophy as the main ball-handler. Though Kawhi Leonard plays a different position, a little bit of the Pacers' soul must crumble a little every time Twitter mentions the Leonard-for-Hill draft-night fleecing.

As with Hibbert, the Pacers would probably have to take back less than they'd like to get for Hill. But making an even $8 million per year, for four years, his contract will be more attractive than Hibbert's. To put his price into context, Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin and Jameer Nelson will make as much or more next season. 

Players of his caliber get traded all the time.

Which player would you like to see leave Indiana this summer?

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His skill set just doesn't line up with the type of system George and Stephenson need in order to thrive.

A hometown guy he may be, but Hill's aggressiveness too often comes in unfulfilling spurts, and he lacks the vision to be the offensive catalyst. He said as much after a game in February 2013. “I'm reluctant to play the one. I'm happy with it," Mark Montieth reported him saying. "I 'm learning, but there's still some two in my body.”

It's still there. Hill is a shooter. He can be effective running next to someone who can actually penetrate and get things under control when Indiana wants him to be that guy.

Bird should work a trade for Hill and make the necessary moves to open up cap space for Stephenson. It's possible the antics have knocked his value down from the reported $10 million he wants.

Per Lowe's calculations, Indiana has $7 million to $8 million worth of wiggle room under the luxury-tax line but can get create some room by using the stretch provision on Chris Copeland and buying out Luis Scola. He notes that it also creates roster holes that would have to be filled on the cheap.

Lance wants Larry and Larry wants Lance:

Hibbert deserves the opportunity to clear his mind on some good fishing this summer, work with one of the legends, as Bird has suggested, and prove that he can be an elite two-way big again.

Pardon the awful pun, but this time the grass isn't greener any other way.

 

All salary information taken from Spotrac.com.

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