The Indiana Pacers commenced free agency in the summer of 2014 by offering Lance Stephenson more long-term guaranteed money than any other team in the league. In an association full of teams that seemed petrified to take a chance on the young, athletic 23-year-old shooting guard, the Pacers at least appeared to be interested in bringing back the mercurial young talent. Lance would end up rejecting that deal, opting instead to take more money in the short term with the Charlotte Hornets, throwing yet another crazy twist into an Eastern Conference that seemed lifeless and boring as little as two months ago. As Zach Lowe chronicled on Thursday, the lesser conference will be nothing if not intriguing next season.
We may never know exactly how far Indiana was willing to go to bring Stephenson back. Upon his denial, Larry Bird quickly began filling up cap space with lesser known pieces and without some creative payroll cuts, the Pacers would have gone somewhere Larry Bird swore they wouldn’t to bring back “Born Ready” – the luxury tax.
What we do know, is that all antics aside, the Pacers will greatly miss the presence of one of its fiercest competitors. Stephenson was plagued with turnover problems (to put it kindly), played out of control at times, and repeatedly killed the Pacers’ ball movement while surveying the floor with the ball his palm, but he was the only player that could create his own shot on a team full of suspect ball-handlers and turnover-prone wings. Throughout the season, he was Indiana’s only legitimate threat out of the pick and roll, and as his shooting improved from year to year, he also provided Indiana with floor spacing that no backups could replicate. Quite simply, when Lance was off the floor, the Pacers’ offense ground to a halt. Paul George was unable to create on a consistent basis, George Hill basically turned into a mediocre catch and shoot guy, and on the rare occasions that someone on the team was able to throw an entry pass into Roy Hibbert, he struggled mightily from February on. If not for some David West heroics in Rounds 1 and 2, the Pacers assuredly would have finished one of the weirdest seasons in recent memory with one of the most disappointing playoff efforts in NBA history.
Further, as the season did come to a close in that depressing Game 6 in Miami, it seemed that Lance was one of only a handful of Pacers that fought til the bitter end. Lance will not only be missed, but his presence will be irreplaceable.
But replace him they must, and Larry Bird – who seems to have seen the writing on the wall all along – has decided to replace parts of Lance with different players rather than plug in a single guy (that doesn’t exist) into the same gap in the rotation.
After last season’s catastrophic trade for Luis Scola, the Pacers were cap-strapped and unable to pull off any major moves without giving up real pieces (like Roy Hibbert or George Hill) in the process due to their overwhelming lack of tradable assets. (For those complaining about the Granger trade too, just check out Granger’s last 25 games with the Clippers – Bird traded a guy that was clearly washed up for a guy that didn’t fit the Pacers’ system. Evan Turner didn’t work out, but you can hardly say that Granger would have been any sort of difference maker). Of course, Larry Legend may indeed try to move Hibbert and/or Hill before the summer is over, but as it stands now, the Pacers’ President is counting on two guys – CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey – to try and replace what Lance did by himself.
What is certain is that for these moves to work, the Pacers will have to change what they were last season – and this may not be a bad thing. As you remember, the Pacers quickly went from “team with the league’s best record” to “team nobody has any idea what the problem is but we will endlessly talk about it and pretend we know” in the blink of an eye. As Paul George and Lance Stephenson improved and expanded their offensive games, the Pacers transformed into a more wing-oriented offense. While this occasionally led to a slightly more exciting brand of basketball – one that gave us crazy Lance plays and the occasional Paul George 3-point binge – it didn’t actually turn the Pacers into a better team.
As Tim Donahue discussed here, the Pacers seemed to lose their identity. They thought they were still the same team from 2013 that pounded teams down low and played suffocating defense while grinding their opponent into the ground. In practice, they became a perimeter-oriented team that didn’t actually have any elite perimeter scorers.
The transformation is obvious. Roy Hibbert, David West, and George Hill all sacrificed their offense in favor of Lance Stephenson and Paul George. In the process, the Pacers’ starting unit went from being by far the most dominant unit in 2013 to a unit that was still very good, but often struggled and opened games in massive holes.
In 2013, the Pacers’ starting lineup known as “The Five” had a point differential of +4.4, a number which easily led the league amongst lineups with substantial minutes. In the playoffs, they got even better, submitting an other-worldly +7.0 against better teams. Compare that to last season when “the Five” only finished the 2014 regular season with a +3.8 point differential, a mark good for third in the league. In the playoffs, that number slipped all the way down to +1.9. For a team with such an atrocious bench, even a small slip from “great” to “very good” met disastrous results.
In order for the Pacers to absorb the loss of Stephenson, they will either need to return to their 2013 identity or trust in Vogel to completely reshape the offense. CJ Miles should help them revert back at least a little bit. After taking less than 8 shots per game in 2013, Lance Stephenson hoisted up more than 11 a game in 2014. Again, most of these shots were syphoned away from David West and Roy Hibbert, resulting in a subtle shift away from the basket.
CJ Miles has only averaged double-digit shots once in his career, and finished last season averaging a very “Lance from 2013″ like 8 per game. Miles excelled at shooting the important corner 3 and also was a better catch and shoot player than Lance, finishing said shot at a 38% clip – a number which is comparable to Kevin Durant. As improved of a jump shooter as Lance was, most of his jumpers came off of the bounce, and he struggled mightily as a floor spacer. He only shot 34% off the catch, a number which put him directly behind Josh Smith in the NBA rankings, and made less than one of those shots per game on average.
Perhaps more important is that while Lance was on the floor with “The Five,” his role just wasn’t as big as we may have thought. In the playoffs, “The Five” averaged 97 points per 48 minutes with less than 17 of those points coming from Lance. “The Five” relied on Lance to score less than 20% of their points while playing together, a number which should be easily attainable for a shooter like CJ Miles. Lance was wildly important as a creator in that unit and easily led the other four in assists, but as good of a player as he was, he was only the third or fourth most important part of “The Five” on both ends of the floor.
Where Lance truly excelled last season was in “Bench plus Lance” (BPL) lineups. It was in these units when Stephenson dominated the ball and ran Indiana’s entire offense that really demonstrated Lance’s value. As bad as Indiana’s bench was, 19 of the 20 BPL lineups finished with a positive point differential last season. Once Evan Turner joined the team, these units began to struggle more as the Pacers’ floor spacing was completely non-existent (the most-used BPL lineup in the playoffs finished -17.9 with an offensive rating of less than 80), but for the majority of the season, Lance helped to prop up the lackluster bench and keep them afloat. Expecting CJ Miles to fill Lance’s roll as a creator and “go-to” guy with bench players would not only be foolish, but it would be the ultimate exercise in futility. This is where Rodney Stuckey comes in.
For his part, Stuckey is one of the more polarizing players in the entire league. He was allegedly hard to get along with while he was in Detroit and even had a few run-ins with coaches. After averaging almost 16 points per game in 2011, Detroit signed him to a contract that became almost instantly terrible and for all intents and purposes locked them into mediocrity for several years. Over the last three seasons, Stuckey’s lackluster defense and inefficient scoring have put a damper on some of his more impressive individual statistics.
This much is clear: Rodney Stuckey is probably not a starting caliber shooting guard on an NBA playoff team. However, if you look at some of Stuckey’s numbers through a different lens, one can easily envision a situation in which the 28-year-old combo guard could thrive.
Just for fun, let’s compare the 36-minute stats of the following three players:
- Player A: 22 pts on 17.4 FGA, 3.8 assts, 2.3 tovs, 1 stl, 42/36/87 shooting %, 5.5FTA
- Player B: 18.7 pts on 15.7 FGA, 2.9 assts, 2.3 tovs, 1 stl, 44/27/84 shooting %, 5.4 FTA
- Player C: 19.5 pts on 14.6 FGA, 6.8 assts, 3.2 tovs, 1.6 stls, 47/35/87 shooting %, 4.4 FTA
Player A is clearly the best scorer, Player C is the best passer, and both guys shoot the 3-pointer better than Player B. But all three players, in general, are pretty comparable. Player A is Jamal Crawford. Player C is Manu Ginobili. Player B is Rodney Stuckey.
Almost nobody would place Stuckey in the same conversation with these other two players. Both Crawford and Ginobili are elite shooters (when they are hot) and are seen as the premier bench scorers in the league. But statistically, Stuckey isn’t that far behind them, and once you factor in the offenses involved – Crawford plays a large portion of the game with Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin, Manu plays in one of the most beautiful offenses ever constructed, and Stuckey had to play in the slop that was Detroit Pistons basketball last season – Stuckey can at least make an argument that he’s one of the better bench scorers in the game.
A comparison of each player’s shot chart further emphasizes some of Stuckey’s qualities as a player.
Again, Stuckey isn’t nearly the outside shooter, but he’s actually a much better finisher in the lane than Crawford and he gets into the lane more than both players. The chart may be even more impressive when again, you consider some of the awful shooting lane-cloggers that Stuckey had to play with last season on the Pistons.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether you think Stuckey is in the same league as Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili. What does matter is whether Stuckey can replicate what Lance did with the bench units last season in Indiana. As a playmaker, Stuckey may not be able to completely fill the void – but as a shot creator and scorer, the ex-Piston might actually be able to provide more scoring than Lance in his role as a 6th man for the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers. Further, it’s sometimes hard to place a value on a guy that can create shots – even missed shots – for a unit that struggles to do so otherwise. Zach Lowe even highlighted this a few years ago when the Pacers started struggling so mightily after the inefficient Danny Granger got hurt and missed some time. Having a player on the floor that can create at least a decent look for himself when the play breaks down is not a luxury that every team in the league automatically has.
By practically every metric, both CJ Miles and Rodney Stuckey are inferior players to Lance Stephenson. Lance added toughness, defense, and fire to the Pacers’ starting five last year while also taking on the role of “6th Man” with bench units. Neither player could come close to completely filling the void left by Born Ready. However, both players can potentially take on parts of Lance’s old role and at the very least, provide the Pacers with a serviceable imitation of Lance Stephenson. CJ Miles should add improved shooting to “The Five” which may also enable Paul George to further blossom while giving David West a few more looks in the process. Stuckey is already familiar with his incoming role as bench leader and may even add some spice to a new Pacers’ bench that could feature more shooting with incomer Damjen Rudez. Together, the two will attempt to fill in the gap left by Lance Stephenson’s broad shoulders.
At least that’s what Larry Legend is hoping.