After posting career highs in points (13.8), rebounds (7.2) and assists (4.6), swingman Lance Stephenson vacated the Circle City and accepted a three-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets, as first reported by The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell:
Now, there is a "Good Lance" (league-high five triple-doubles) and a "Bad Lance" (fourth-most technical fouls, unintentional meme creator), and those split personalities certainly impacted his market. Still, the Pacers felt the production from the former outweighed the headaches of the latter and tried to keep him around.
"The Pacers offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million contract on July 1," ESPN's Chris Broussard noted.
Pacers team president Larry Bird was always a strong supporter of Stephenson, and that stance didn't change as the volatile player hit the open market.
However, the executive had a firm number in mind and wouldn't budge from that rate. The offer was not insulting, but Stephenson felt he could do better.
Turns out, Born Ready was right, as NBA.com's Adam Zagoria noted:
Along with a higher starting salary, the deal he accepted with Charlotte also gives him a quicker path back to the free-agent market:
Stephenson won't turn 24 until September, so the potential for him to secure a jackpot payday in the future is high—provided he leaves those antics in the past, of course.
As Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star explained, Stephenson's bad moments often overshadowed the good ones:
His visage as a willing passer also came with the displeasing sight of often asking the home scorer's table to be rewarded for statistics that he felt they had missed. Also, Stephenson couldn't always control his emotions, collecting the third most technical fouls in the NBA. He fought a teammate in practice before the start of the playoffs and even pushed his greatest advocate, Bird, to the point of expressing open disappointment by his sideshow during the Eastern Conference Finals.
There was obviously risk involved with committing major money to a capricious talent like Stephenson, but the risk of letting him walk could prove to be even greater.
The free-agent market has nearly dried up. Even if it hadn't, the Pacers—who have $73.8 million already tied up in next season's payroll, via ShamSports.com—had limited avenues with which to add talent.
"They currently have 14 players under contract and are about $2.5 million under the tax threshold," Tim Donahue of 8points9seconds.com wrote. "They are out of exceptions with which to sign free agents above the minimum contract. Standing pat—at least for now—is certainly a possibility."
The idea of standing pat is also terrifying.
That would put veteran C.J. Miles into coach Frank Vogel's starting lineup, a move that might be inevitable with Stephenson's departure. Miles is a long-range specialist (46.6 percent of his made field goals were threes last season), a label that is troubling for a couple of different reasons.
For one, Miles doesn't have the track record of a marksman. While he's converted 38.8 percent of his triples the past two seasons, his career three-point percentage still stands at a rather forgettable 35.0.
There's also the fact that the Pacers would be replacing a Swiss Army knife with a one-dimensional contributor. Indiana was short on playmakers with Stephenson around (56.0 assist percentage, fifth-fewest in the league). Without him, the Pacers will become overly reliant on part-time setup men Paul George (3.5 assists), George Hill (3.5) and C.J. Watson (1.7) to generate their offense.
The trickle-down effect behind Miles offers no real causes for comfort.
The Pacers will need to get something out of 2013 first-rounder Solomon Hill, who made only 28 appearances and averaged 8.1 minutes a night during his rookie season. A sprained ankle kept the 23-year-old out of the Orlando Summer League, costing him a potentially valuable piece of his development.
Hill had a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none career at the University of Arizona (10.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists). While scouts liked his versatility, they also wondered where he would play at the next level.
"Hill is a tweener forward, lacking the speed and quickness to reside on the wing or the size and strength to contain true 4's," NBADraft.net's Adam Ganeles wrote in 2012.
Another in-house alternative could be utilizing more two-point-guard looks with Hill and Watson sharing the floor.
The pair played 102 minutes together last season, per NBA.com. The sample size is probably too small to yield any insight, but Indiana's offensive rating was just 96.5 with both on the floor. For comparison's sake, the Philadelphia 76ers had the league's worst offensive rating of 96.8.
Donald Sloan and Chris Copeland could factor into the perimeter rotation as well, but neither saw consistent minutes with the Pacers last season (8.2 and 6.5, respectively).
Damjan Rudez might be another name to watch. The 28-year-old European sharpshooter signed a three-year deal with the Pacers earlier this summer. If the 6'10" sniper factors into Vogel's rotation, though, he'll likely see the bulk of his playing time as a stretch 4, which doesn't help address Stephenson's departure.
If external assistance is still an option, it won't be easy to find. Of the 10 "Plan B" alternatives for Stephenson identified by 1070TheFan.com's Conrad Brunner, only three are still on the market: Ray Allen (who might retire), Al-Farouq Aminu (a defensive specialist) and Evan Turner (who did not play in seven of Indiana's 19 postseason games).
Suddenly, standing pat sounds a little better. The problem is that doing so likely causes the Pacers to take a step back while the rest of the Eastern Conference heads in the opposite direction.
The Central Division in particular could be treacherous.
The Cleveland Cavaliers captured the offseason's biggest prize when a desire to return home led four-time MVP, two-time champion, best-player-on-the-planet LeBron James back to the Buckeye State. The Cavs immediately emerged as the Vegas oddsmakers' favorite to claim the 2015 NBA title, leaving the rest of the conference struggling to keep pace.
"What exactly does the LeBron back to Cleveland narrative mean in Indianapolis?" Buckner wrote. "It means that the Pacers need to keep the core in tact as much as possible and hurry up and re-sign Lance Stephenson at all cost."
That obviously didn't happen.
What did happen, though, was the Chicago Bulls strengthened their core. If Derrick Rose comes back with a clean bill of health, Chicago may have made the offseason's second-most impactful addition. And that doesn't even account for the Bulls' other moves: signing Pau Gasol, bringing Nikola Mirotic stateside and landing Doug McDermott on draft night.
"You can argue that now their four best scorers are (or will be) Rose, Gasol, McDermott and Mirotic, and none of those were on last year’s roster except for Rose for 10 games," Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta noted.
Outside the division, Eastern Conference playoff teams either brought back their prominent pieces or added to their talent base.
The Toronto Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry. The Washington Wizards kept Marcin Gortat and found Paul Pierce's veteran experience as a suitable replacement for Trevor Ariza. The Hornets scratched their biggest itch with Stephenson's offensive arsenal.
As for the Pacers, well, Stephenson's departure may have brought about even more questions than last season's painful finish: 13-13 in their final 26 games.
Who will help George wreak two-way havoc on the perimeter? How much more of the offensive burden can David West carry? Who is the real Roy Hibbert: the All-Star from the first half of last season or the scapegoat from the second?
Most importantly, with the East rising, how can Indiana do the same?
It's hard to imagine the Pacers making forward progress. This feels more like damage control. They don't have another weapon like Stephenson and won't find one elsewhere.
This isn't a matter of the Pacers replacing Stephenson, it's them trying to hide the giant void he leaves behind. They should be able to do that without losing their playoff ticket, but any championship hopes they entertained may have followed him out the door.
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