Without him, the Pacers will struggle. They will stumble, they will fall.
They will endure.
Losing him to the Charlotte Hornets—as the Pacers did, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell—is not addition by subtraction. It is a gross misfortune that further depletes a shallow team and fractures a progressively unstable culture.
This loss, this talent reduction, pushes the Pacers, ostensible title contenders, toward significant regression and a state in which championships are neither won nor legitimately chased.
The Lance Effect
Embracing the addition-by-subtraction thought train is a clear and ever-present danger founded upon Stephenson's new contract.
Under terms of the deal Stephenson will make $9 million next season and in 2015-16, with a slight raise in the 2016-17 team option.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) July 16, 2014
Charlotte's contract promises Stephenson roughly $2.1 million more in the first two years than what he would have earned in Indy, according Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine, begging the question: Did the Pacers even want him?
Offering more money perhaps wasn't an option, but the amount is insubstantial—to everyone except Stephenson, of course, who has earned less than $3.5 million through his first four NBA seasons. Surely the Pacers could have stomached a little extra scratch, especially if it meant they wouldn't be tethered to the incalculable Stephenson long term.
That some would even entertain Indiana maintaining covert disinterest in one of its best players approaches absurdity. Other factors had to be at play. And if this was a case of the Pacers preferring to explore different directions, they're wrong.
"Born Ready" is—ahem, excuse me, was—too important to their success and general well-being. He was one of only four players—Kevin Love, Nicolas Batum and Kevin Durant—to average at least 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game, and his absence, like Hardwood Paroxysm's Caleb Nordgren explains, leaves them with a colossal chasm in the starting lineup:
Stephenson’s departure leaves a fairly gaping hole in the Pacers’ vaunted starting lineup. George Hill, Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert played 1468 minutes together last year, per NBA.com, and posted a net rating of +9.6, which is, according to league sources, very good. No other Pacers lineup even cracked 200 minutes together and only two cracked the century mark. All of which is to say that the Pacers were a team that relied incredibly heavily on their starters and enjoyed quite a bit of success in doing so.
Team President Larry Bird, never one to wait around, acted swiftly following Stephenson's decision, picking up free agent Rodney Stuckey:
Rodney Stuckey has agreed to join the Indiana Pacers on a one-year deal, @USATODAYsports has learned. Nice pickup after losing Stephenson.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 17, 2014
Acquiring Stuckey, a shoot-first combo guard, is, at its heart, a good, affordable move. But let's not pretend he even begins to replace Stephenson, regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench.
Already bereft of playmaking, the Pacers signed a "replacement" who isn't known for his passing. Stuckey isn't lauded for his shooting either, an area in which Stephenson continued to improve; he drilled a career-high 35.2 percent of three-pointers last year, compared to Stuckey's 27.3 percent clip.
Bigger losses will be afoot on the defensive end, where Stuckey, at times, makes Luis Scola look like Defensive Player of the Year.
|Player (2013-14)||Opp. SG PER||Def. Rtg.||Def. WS|
Basketball-Reference and 82games.com.
Having the league's best defense should allow the Pacers to adequately cover up for Stuckey's missteps. That, admittedly, is not the most pressing concern.
Soldering on without Stephenson's profound impact is.
The Pacers defense remained relatively unchanged without him last season. Their defensive efficiency actually improved by 0.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench, per NBA.com.
Offense is where they suffered the most without him.
When he was on the floor, the Pacers registered a 102.9 offensive rating, the equivalent of the NBA's 19th-best mark. Bad, not terrible. Without Stephenson, they were actually terrible.
During his time on the bench, the Pacers recorded a 98.3 offensive rating, the equivalent of ranking 29th in offensive efficiency. That's what happens when taking one of your best scorers, and your best playmaker, out of the game.
Signing Stuckey won't help remedy that pain. The Pacers ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency last year with Stephenson on the team. Now that he's gone, they're destined to wallow in similar, likely more hopeless territory.
Instead of relying on some unconventional, rather ineffective amalgam of Paul George, George Hill and Stephenson to run the offense, they'll depend on on just Hill and George—the latter of whom experienced a disturbing drop in production without Stephenson last season.
Have yourself a gander:
|Paul George (2013-14)||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||FG%||3P%||TS%|
Everyone is going to feel the impact of Stephenson's departure on both offense and defense. The offense is more concerning because, let's face it, the Pacers were mostly easy to defend with Stephenson, killing themselves with nonexistent ball movement and a lack of shooting.
And now they're removing their leading assist man from the unimpressive equation—the same player who also developed into one of their most valuable shooters and someone George needs to succeed.
Kicked When They're Down
Under normal circumstances, this would be a disaster. Given how the Pacers ended their season, it's catastrophic.
After an incredibly hot start, during which they put 15 other Eastern Conference teams—including the reigning champion Miami Heat—to shame, the Pacers went rogue, crumbling beneath the wreckage their stagnant, utterly anemic offense and locker room turmoil left behind.
None of this will suddenly get any better without Stephenson. His on-court shenanigans may have been part of Indiana's problem, but its biggest, most detrimental quandary remains.
A beyond furious David West, on Hibbert: "He’s got to be part of the fight. H’s got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere.”— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 6, 2014
The 7'2' behemoth was nothing short of awful to close out the season, disappearing when the Pacers needed him most, reappearing for only short spurts that rarely seemed to mean anything.
|When||Win %||Rank||Off. Rtg.||Rank||Def. Rtg.||Rank|
Plus, once people start rolling out the Kwame Brown comparisons, however unwarranted, you know you're doing something terribly, terribly wrong.
Kwame Brown 2003-04: "Bust" 10.9 - 7.4 - 1.5 - 48.9% FG Roy Hibbert 2013-14: "All-Star" 11.1 - 6.9 - 1.2 - 45.5% FG— The Notorious J.O.E. (@NBATalkJoe) April 1, 2014
Most of those wrongs remain.
From the Pacers' fickle bench to their struggling big man to the mere knowledge that their second-best player has signed elsewhere, the redolent stench of disunity, mental fragility and complete uncertainty looms large, more threatening than ever.
Regression By Subtraction
There's no changing this, because there's no undoing it, no resolving it.
This is reality for the Pacers—a new, immeasurably insecure reality.
They weren't perfect with Stephenson. Not even close. But losing him disrupts their continuity, shaking a once-touted infrastructure that carried the proud Pacers for so long, as Noam Schiller, writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, describes:
Over the past 3 seasons, the team’s starting lineup was consistently built from 5 of these 6, with Stephenson replacing Granger in 2012 when the latter badly hurt his knee. Throughout that stretch, Indiana’s starting 5 was an all-around juggernaut, fueled mainly by their defense. With Hibbert at the rim, 3 stretchy and athletic contributors on the perimeter, and West’s brawn and brain tying it all together, Indiana developed into a well-oiled smashmouth machine.
Indiana's honeymoon ended last year, abruptly, crudely and unceasingly, stopping only once the team hit rock bottom.
That decline, that foray into oblivion, was on everyone, including Stephenson. With or without him, there needed to be change.
Continuity betrayed the Pacers in that regard. The same core was together for so long, they didn't know what to do when Bird broke up the band, trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner and adding Andrew Bynum.
Two members of that tight-knit crux are now gone, though. Stephenson at least gave the Pacers a hope of rekindling an old fire, of using a similar, possibly identical blueprint to restore order and spearhead a return to dominance.
All of that's gone now.
The Eastern Conference is no longer set up for teams facing an identity crisis to waltz into the playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers are much better with LeBron James. The Miami Heat have survived their King's departure by retaining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and adding Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng.
Where will the Pacers finish in the East without Lance Stephenson?
The Hornets, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have all improved dramatically. The Chicago Bulls have added Pau Gasol and are getting Derrick Rose back. The Atlanta Hawks are getting Al Horford back. The New York Knicks have an actual point guard (Jose Calderon). The Brooklyn Nets, even without Paul Pierce, have the makings for a better offense than Indiana.
Things have changed in the East. So, too, have the Pacers. The difference is, the Eastern Conference's modest rise coincides with Indiana's downward spiral—the one that began last season and lives on in Stephenson's departure.
"I now have to look to the next phase of my career and the wonderful opportunity to continue to grow as a player and as a person in Charlotte!" Stephenson said on Twitter. "I'm excited to play for this franchise and the fans!"
Born Ready left the Pacers for a better opportunity. And the Pacers' title hopes left with him.