Look around the NBA and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that’s had more of a roller coaster ride over the past six months than the Indiana Pacers. Before the All-Star break, they were world beaters, with the league’s best record and a historically great defense. By spring, they were a laughingstock. Roy Hibbert had turned into Michael Olawakandi, the offense was dysfunctional and there were rumors of locker room beefs.
The Pacers held onto the top seed in the East, but had to battle back from the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs before scraping their way into the Eastern Conference Finals. There, they fell once again to the mighty Miami Heat, prompting questions of whether or not Larry Bird could bring back the same core for 2014-15. Rumors of Hibbert being “quietly shopped” have made their way through Internet circles.
When LeBron James unexpectedly departed South Beach for Northeast Ohio, leaving the East wide open, it seemed like there was every reason for Indy to run it back one more time. Though capped out, they had a standing offer to Lance Stephenson, right at his salary-by-production value over five years. Lance decided to bet on himself, jumping to the Charlotte Hornets to presumably be mentored by notoriously insane competitor Michael Jordan, leaving the Pacers in the lurch.
Stephenson’s departure leaves a massive hole in the Pacers’ roster. Indiana’s starting lineup, basically the only group that Frank Vogel put any trust into, logged nearly 1,500 minutes together last season. By contrast, no other lineup logged more than 185 minutes. That’s not great, especially when the Pacers’ five most used lineups last year included Lance, according to NBA.com. To counter their damaging lack of depth, the Pacers have added some veteran depth this offseason. They picked up CJ Miles, coming off a steady two-season run in Cleveland, and Rodney Stuckey has flown under the radar his entire career. Did you know that Stuckey put up 18.7 points per 36 minutes last year?
While the two signees aren’t household names, they might be able to provide more of a scoring punch than expected. Stuckey has been a tweener guard size-wise his whole career, but there’s no question he’s a scorer. Even last year, as a forgotten man in a lost Pistons season, he had a 24.3 usage rate, finishing nearly a quarter of the possessions he was on the floor for with a shot, foul drawn or turnover. Only Paul George topped that number for Indiana last year, so Stuckey’s ability to get to the rim - 46 percent of his shots came there in 2014, per NBA.com - could certainly come in handy.
Miles, meanwhile, has worked himself into a reliable three-point threat, hitting 38.4 and 39.3 percent from distance on 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively. The only two Pacers to top that mark last year were Rasual Butler and Chris Copeland, although neither could find consistent playing time in Vogel’s rotation. Evan Turner actually hit half of his threes in Inday (12-24), but he’s obviously not a threat and hasn’t drawn any interest from anyone, let alone the Pacers.
Those numbers do help to sugarcoat the loss, but Lance walking out the door is going to be a real blow to Indiana’s offense. The Pacers were 4.5 points per 100 possessions better with Stephenson on the floor last year, and he captained a lot of bench-heavy units when the other starters needed a breather. Lance was basically the only threatening pick-and-roll player the Pacers had; George might be more of a scoring threat, but is nowhere near the ball-handler or passer that Stephenson is. Lance posted a 22.1 assist rate, best on the team.
Stuckey, at one point in his career, was a solid distributor, with a career assist rate (22.7) right at Lance’s mark from last season. That fell off a cliff last season, down to 12.7, which either points to a serious decline in Stuckey’s passing ability or the utter mess that was the Detroit Pistons. The Pacers obviously hope it’s the latter. Otherwise, they could well be without a reliable ball-handler and distributor, as it definitely won’t be Miles and it’s hard to put your trust into George Hill to break down a defense.
The biggest question with Lance’s departure will be how it affects Indiana’s defensive identity. While that obviously starts with Hibbert’s presence in the middle, the length and speed of Stephenson and PG on the perimeter was downright terrifying. Those two logged a defensive rating of 96.6 in more than 2,000 minutes together last season, and that dropped to 95.4 when you added Hibbert to the mix, according to NBA.com. Miles has the ability to guard the two wing spots, but he’s yet to record a defensive rating lower than 107 in his career. Stephenson, meanwhile, only came close to approaching that number in his rookie season, when he played less than 10 minutes per game. Circumstances matter here, obviously, but it’s unlikely that Miles will be able to replicate Lance’s on-ball ferocity.
The Pacers’ brutal-to-watch offense will probably be even rougher on the eyes come fall, barring a quantum leap from PG as a playmaker or Hibbert morphs into Tim Duncan over the summer. The defense will still be there, as long as Hibbert doesn’t get shipped out, but it won’t have quite the same fangs it had last year. No matter how you slice it, losing Stephenson is a blow for Indy, especially to see him walk on such an affordable contract. Even removing Stephenson’s 3.4 nERD and 7.4 win shares from last season, the Pacers are still going to be a 50-win team as currently constructed.
In the East, that’s enough to make some noise. But at this point, it doesn’t feel like these Pacers are ever going to get over the hump.