While some of the Pacers' players may have been ambivalent about keeping Stephenson given his erratic play during the season and absurd on-court antagonism of LeBron James during the Eastern Conference Finals, he is a huge loss to their system.
Statistically, Stephenson may not seem like such a big piece to the Pacers' offense. He scored about 13 percent of their points last season and handed out about 22 percent of their assists.
His per-game averages—13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists—are impressive but not outright irreplaceable. But he had one key skill that was crucial to the Pacers' offense—the ability to beat his man off the dribble.
Last season the Pacers' ranked 26th in the NBA in drives per game, according to the NBA's SportVU Player Tracking Statistics. A drive is defined as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the basket and is dribbled to within 10 feet of the basket.
The Pacers averaged 17.1 drives per game, and 4.2—about a quarter of those drives—were Stephenson's. They were a team starved for individual offensive creativity, and Stephenson was one of the few players who could provide it.
Tim Sartori, of 8points9seconds.com, honed in on this same issue when breaking down Lance's departure last week:
Those are definitely the main issues to do with the loss of Lance: the lack of creation, and of good offensive players that make the defense turn their heads. There’s more to it, but they’re unlikely to be problems too large that they can’t be fixed by the recent roster additions.
The only other players who averaged more than two drives per game for the Pacers last season were Paul George, George Hill, Evan Turner and Danny Granger. Obviously Turner and Granger are gone, which leaves the Pacers with precious little in the ability to create offense off the dribble.
Without Stephenson as that safety net, the pressure to elevate the offense is going to fall on several players.
George is the Pacers' star and indisputably their best player. As such, most of the pressure to buoy the Pacers' offense will fall to him. George averaged 4.2 drives per game last season, the same as Stephenson, but he shot just 45.3 percent on those drives, compared to 58.4 percent for Stephenson.
Although they wouldn't all fit under the SportVU definition of drives, a lot of George's off-the-dribble forays ended in pull-up jump shots. You can see in the video below that whether there was a pocket of space, or he was able to get closer to the rim, he was still a little quick to pull up and take the jump shot.
Although he was lights-out on mid-range jumpers early in the season, regression eventually caught up with George, and he struggled mightily on these shots during the Pacers' late season swoon. At the end of the season his eFG% was more than 20 percentage points worse on pull-up jumpers than it was on catch-and-shoot jumpers.
While George did a much better job getting to the free-throw line this season, averaging 5.8 FTA per 36 minutes, nearly doubling his previous career high, that mark is still well below that of elite perimeter scorers like James Harden, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Every time he stops a drive to pull up for a jump shot is probably a missed opportunity to get to the free-throw line.
The Pacers can get a mid-range jump shot anytime they want and, in the aggregate, are probably much better off getting them from David West in a pick-and-pop than they are having George work so hard off the dribble to get them.
The point is, George has the ability to be much better off the dribble than he has been. He is a skilled passer, sees angles well and has the length and quickness to get by his defender. But this season, without Stephenson as a safety valve, the Pacers will need George to do it more often and make sure more of those drives end up around the basket.
One of the players the Pacers brought in to help fill the void left by Stephenson is former Detroit Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey.
In Detroit, Stuckey bounced back and forth between point guard and shooting guard. Although he's nearly five years older than Stephenson, he has a similar physical build and an off-the-dribble game that should help fill in some of the gaps.
Look, we wanted to keep Lance. We felt like he did a lot of really positive things for our team, and that the amount of things he did would be hard to replace them in one player. But having had that happen, I think we came out about as well as we could’ve hoped by getting C.J. Miles and Stuckey. Stuckey is a playmaker and can take over that part of what Lance did on occasion for us. And plus, he’s a solid player. I hope this is a good environment for him because I think he’ll thrive in a good environment.
The problem is that Stuckey's penetration skills have not aged well during his time in the league. He is a fairly poor outside shooter and teams have adjusted the way they play him in the pick-and-roll. You can see in the video below that opposing defenders rarely chase him over the top of screens. This means he's usually facing two defenders walling him off from the paint when he comes off the pick.
With a big defender sagging, there was plenty of space for Stuckey to pull up for mid-range jumpers, a pattern he has happily fallen into. Last season 37 percent of his shot attempts were mid-range jumpers, on which he shot just 37 percent.
As I mentioned above, turning penetration into mid-range jumpers was a team-wide problem last season and if Stuckey is really going to help the Pacers' offense turn the corner he, like George, will need to get to the rim.
Hill has received plenty of criticism for his point guard play during his time in Indiana, mostly for deferring shot creation duties to his teammates and drifting into a primary role as a spot-up shooter.
The thing is, that worked fine because Stephenson provided what Hill was not, mostly by design.
Hill has the capability to be an effective penetrator, but his mindset has become somewhat warped by spending so much time in the point guard role for the Pacers.
In San Antonio, Hill's job was to score points off the bench, and he usually came in with an attacking mindset. In Indiana, when he is handling the ball it's obvious that he is focused on getting it to his teammates.
Hill spent a lot of time running high pick-and-roll with West and displayed a disturbing trend toward passivity. You can see in the video below that as he comes off the screen he's immediately looking for the pocket pass to West, rarely even looking at the basket to see if there is a driving lane available.
Overall these pick-and-rolls were reasonably efficient, given that Hill was not nearly as turnover prone as he appears from the video above and that West was a phenomenal mid-range shooter. But they relied on precise execution, never really stretching the defense out of shape and robbing the Pacers' offense of a considerable amount of dynamism.
Of course, the responsibility for reinvigorating the Pacers' offense in Stephenson's absence doesn't just rest with these three players.
West needs to stave off Father Time and continue to be a force from the free-throw line down. Roy Hibbert needs to finish around the basket and find a way to not collapse the Pacers' spacing when he doesn't have the ball. C.J. Watson and the newly acquired C.J. Miles need to make outside shots and keep pressure on the defense by attacking closeouts.
And, of course, there is plenty of pressure to adapt for Frank Vogel. Stephenson was so important to the Pacers last season, in large part, because the vanilla inside-out offense they played demanded it.
Redesigning this offense from the ground up presents the most obvious solution to playing without Stephenson, rather than trying to simply cover his contributions with other players.
The bottom line is that pressure is on the Pacers. Stephenson's statistical contributions may not have been enormous, but his presence was.
They can't simply walk into next year thinking that doing the same things they've always done will be enough. Key players need to develop and the team needs to figure out a holistic way to support them with increased offensive creativity and flexibility.
Statistical support for this article from NBA.com.