When the Indiana Pacers allowed Lance Stephenson to exit stage Charlotte this summer, the whole situation seemed unsettlingly narrow-minded. Larry Bird and Pacers brass allowed a 23-year-old near All-Star and two-way menace to bounce over a couple million bucks—pittance for a player who was already destined to be the summer's best bargain.
And it wasn't just that the Pacers let Stephenson walk over cash. It was how they did it. As they cried poor in negotiations with Lance and his representatives, Indiana was steadily spending money on other talent. C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez signed deals to put the Pacers dangerously close to the luxury tax as they were allegedly negotiating to retain Stephenson.
It was a full D-Generation X move right in Stephenson's grill.
While I remain befuddled by the whole ordeal from a basketball standpoint, Bird's overall goal is becoming apparent. On Sunday, reports from Matt Dery of New Detroit Sports 105.1 and Sportando indicated the Pacers have floated center Roy Hibbert in trade talks. Never mind the actual terms—both scenarios have literally negative zero percent chance of happening.
It's notable that the Pacers' quiet desire to trade Hibbert has apparently not subsided. In early July, Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported behind-the-scenes rumblings about the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.
“They’re open to making major changes, if they’re there,” one general manager told Deveney. “I think they’d be disappointed to see that same core group back intact, so it is a matter of, how drastic can the changes they make be? Moving Hibbert for multiple pieces would be a pretty drastic change, but they’re asking.”
It does not take a doctorate in human psychology to parse the tea leaves in Indiana. That Stephenson departed and Hibbert may be on his way out is no accident. The pair were most often cited as the cause of internal rifts as the Pacers descended into a dystopian abyss last season.
Whether it was with his proclivity for clearing out superstar ear cavities with his breath or cleaning Evan Turner's clock with his fists, Stephenson made as many off-court headlines as on. Hibbert, enigmatic and pouty as his season embodied a team-wide descent, straight called his teammates "selfish" after a frustrating March loss.
The Pacers managed to make the Eastern Conference Finals, but thanks only to the good luck of residing in the putrid half of the NBA spectrum. Their locker room was rancid with in-fighting, finger-pointing and delusions of grandiosity. When Bird envisioned building a championship contender with high-character players, the team that walked out of AmericanAirlines Arena a Game 6 loser was the polar opposite.
Not that the Pacers president was without blame, of course. He was the one who sent locker room leader Danny Granger away for Turner, a pouty and surly sort nicknamed "The Villain" by former Ohio State teammate and Grantland writer Mark Titus. Bird also acquired Andrew Bynum, who makes Stephenson look like Gandhi by comparison and gave the Pacers exactly 36 total minutes of action.
It's no coincidence, either, that the two players Bird added played the same positions as Hibbert and Stephenson. Whether looking to give both players a wake-up call or simply rolling the dice on talented players, the moves backfired. Perhaps now Bird is coming to grips with the fact that the core he built will go down on history's list of "good but not good enough" teams.
Timing is of the essence if he's serious about moving Hibbert. Paul George's gruesome leg injury will likely cost him the entire 2014-15 season, taking a team penciled into the East's No. 3 seed and making them a possible lottery team. Like the Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose, the Pacers can use George's absence as an opportunity to build a more sustainable long-term core.
Hibbert's place in that core seems questionable at best. Not only was he at the center of some internal scuffles, his play fell off a cliff in the second half of last season. He averaged a paltry 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds on 39 percent shooting after the All-Star break. The Pacers scored a Sixers-esque 99.3 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert on the floor during the playoffs. His disappearing act became basketball Twitter's gift that kept giving to the point it jumped the shark.
Due more than $30 million over the next two seasons, you can see why opposing general managers have swiped left when shown Hibbert's picture.
What's gone unaccounted for is the fact Bird may have a difficult time retaining Hibbert next summer. In the event Hibbert stays on the roster, he and David West instantly become the focal points of the roster. For all of the rightful mockery Hibbert has received, he's the league's best defensive center. Opposing players shot a league-low 41.4 percent when he was within five feet of the basket last season, per SportVU data. Wings are absolutely terrified to attack him near the basket. He's a 7'2" unmovable force around whom an entire defense can be built.
Subtracting George and Stephenson from the equation creates a necessity for Hibbert to take on a bigger burden offensively. Should he bounce back and turn in a career-best season on that end of the court—far from out of the question—the clowning sessions will grow awfully quiet. Might Hibbert then decide to decline his $15.51 million player option for 2015-16 and become a free agent?
It sounds ridiculous now, but it could be the prudent move. Hibbert will be 29 next summer. The number of teams willing to invest heavy sums of money in big men heading into their early thirties is decidedly few. Hibbert might hit the open market and sign something like a four-year, $48 million deal to ensure long-term security. With David West also holding the option to become a free agent, there are a number of balls in the air for a team already defined by tumult.
We're going down a speculative rabbit hole, but any good NBA executive plays the hypothetical game thinking two, three years down the road. George's injury seems to pre-confirm that 2014-15 is a lost cause for Indiana. The only plans for Bird are the long-term ones. The Pacers already owe George Hill $24 million over the next three seasons, have Miles on the books at more than $4 million per season and have George maxed out.
The Stephenson negotiations showed Bird will cut bait with potential stars over money and personality differences. Heading into next season, Hibbert comes with both. It'll be a surprise to see any team give up something of value for him before October. But if Hibbert comes out and shows even the slightest improvement offensively, don't be surprised if he's the next mainstay being shown the door come February's trade deadline.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.