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May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) reacts against the Miami Heat in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

History Says Losing Lance Might Work Out Great

This is Rafael Canton’s first contribution to 8 Points, 9 Seconds. He is the founder of NBA Trades. You can follow him on Twitter @RafelitoC7.

Any time a team loses a starter without receiving anything back, it causes panic. Lance Stephenson choosing to spurn the Pacers — signing a three-year, $27 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets — definitely hurts Indiana from a talent perspective. It is understandable that many fans have lost hope, as a team that went down in flames last year seemingly just got worse.

Despite all of those glaring negatives, the Pacers will benefit from this deal – and so will Stephenson.

In Charlotte, Lance will move from his original role as the fifth starter in Indiana to the lead guard spot. With Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker as the only consistent offensive options, Stephenson really has a chance to show that the promise shown during his Pacers’ tenure was only the beginning. Questions remain as to whether Lance can flourish without Larry Bird watching his every move and providing the incubator to allow his game to grow, but there seems to be more room for individual growth in North Carolina than in Indiana.

There are other reasons that he — and the Pacers — may benefit from the move.

For all of the good that came to him in the Hoosier State, he had multiple incidents on the court that affected his relationships with teammates. When Roy Hibbert made his “there’s some selfish dudes in here” quote, he was talking about Stephenson. The mercurial guard also had run-ins with teammate Evan Turner (fighting during practice) and George Hill (verbal sparring during a timeout) late in the season.

Despite saying that he was shocked he wasn’t a Pacer after signing with Charlotte, Stephenson made some revealing comments in an interview with Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “I’m definitely surprised,” he said. “But I’m happy here. I can definitely help this program. It’s a family here. I’m definitely going to miss Larry Bird. But it’s a business, and I feel like here is more of a family. Lets go get wins.”

What stands out is Stephenson stating that the Hornets feel like “more of a family” than the Pacers. That statement could reflect the business-like stance that Indiana took in free agency when it came to not going over the luxury tax and not prioritizing re-signing Stephenson before making the smaller moves they did to, seemingly, replace him before he was even gone. The comments could also reflect the locker-room and chemistry issues; maybe he thinks family members shouldn’t jab one another in the press.

As for Indiana, even though “bad Lance” was always a concern, there is no doubt that the Pacers look worse now on paper. But optimistic Pacers’ fans may be able to look at another one of the team’s “worst offseasons” and see some similarities.

Back in 1999, the recently-LJ’d Antonio Davis had grown tired of perpetually backing up Rik Smits and Dale Davis. He wanted to become a starter, and he knew he would not do that in Indiana as long as his fellow Davis brother (no relation) and the Dunkin’ Dutchman were playing.

Indiana ended up shipping him to the Toronto Raptors for 18-year-old high schooler Jonathan Bender. The Pacers lost that trade from the get go by exchanging a valuable veteran contributor for a raw prospect who was never going to receive serious minutes on a championship contender.

Despite the talent downgrade, the move worked out well for both parties.

Oddly enough, the loss of Antonio added a lot — and it showed. The Pacers finished the following season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and made the NBA Finals for the first, and only, time in franchise history.

The obvious change was the emergence of Austin Croshere as a stretch four adding a boost to the offense. But it wasn’t just Croshere’s unexpected success.

That team also featured Sam Perkins, who, as one of the first 3-point shooting big men in league history, was able to space the floor. By having too long-shooting bigs in the rotation, the offense created more lanes for Reggie Miller to free himself from face-guarding defenders, Jalen Rose to work his midrange game, Smits to avoid double teams, and Travis Best to get into the paint.

The whole dynamic changed when the front court included more shooting, on top of the already deadly exploits of Miller and the old-but-still-accurate Chris Mullin. All the extra space on the court led to the Pacers leading the league in 3-point percentage (39.2%) while making an NBA-high 7.1 triples per game. They finished the regular season with an incredible six players who shot 39% or better on 3s – including 40.3% from Mark Jackson, a career 33.2% shooter from behind the arc.

There is no denying that the change in roles and style of play that resulted from the Antonio Davis trade improved the team, even as it got worse on paper.

As luck would have it, Larry Bird was the one who coached that team to the Finals. So maybe he thinks he can catch lightning in a bottle again, and that is why he has spent the last two offseasons loading up on shooters, adding C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez, and Shayne Whittington this summer after signing Chris Copeland the year before.

In Toronto, Davis, too, got what he wanted when he became a starter for the Raptors. He even made the All-Star Game in 2001 and received a juicy five-year, $64 million contract.

So despite the initial worries surrounding the Pacers, there is a world where both Lance Stephenson and Indiana can be happy in this split.

The bigger question is whether the Pacers can succeed past the first year minus Stephenson. That is a legitimate long-term concern, given David West’s age, Roy Hibbert’s option to enter free agency next season, and no promising young talent beside Paul George.

For next year, however, the team could be just as good – or better. One only need look to the only Pacer team to ever make an NBA Finals to see why.

The reasons were different, but 1999 was the last Indiana season to end as disappointingly as the 2014 postseason did. After a similar offseason talent downgrade, perhaps the end to the 2015 postseason can look as good as the 2000 playoffs did.

Follow me on Twitter @RafelitoC7

Tags: Antonio Davis Lance Stephenson Larry Bird

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