Larry Bird is rarely ever making noise in July.
The Indiana Pacers are a smaller market for an NBA franchise, and that directly plays into their limited action in the offseason. It’s always re-signing their “stars,” and trying to pull off minor trades around the league that fit into their “win now” method.
Drama circling LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwight Howard never reaches Indiana, because that’s not the path they take. Those momentous superstars — who have all been sought-after free agents in their careers — don’t find Indianapolis as a place to consider when looking to move. Most of that, however, can be attributed to the Pacers’ unwillingness to enter luxury tax territory. So, no wonder.
This offseason has taken a twist, a different path. They’re heading down a road we haven’t seen in awhile; Bird and the Pacers are on the verge of losing (what the market believes) is a four-star free agent.
Lance Stephenson, who loves to be called by his gimmick “Born Ready,” hit the free agent market on July 1, and faces a scenario many didn’t believe he would this summer.
Suddenly, the Pacers don’t appear to want the 23-year-old anymore.
Directly after Stephenson turned down Bird’s offer of five years, $44 million last week, Indiana finalized a deal with Cavaliers’ free agent C.J. Miles. Normally, it wouldn’t be such a burden that people are making it out to be. However, Miles agreed to a four-year, $18 million contract, and it continued to raise the committed salary the Pacers have to deal with next season.
In the same day, the Pacers expanded their diversity on the roster with the signing of Croatian power forward, Damjan Rudez. With Indiana inking him to a three-year deal, they committed two relatively long-term deals before ensuring Stephenson would be back next season. They will be using a portion of their mid-level exception to pay Rudez, who shot a blistering 44 percent from the outside in Spain last season.
The league’s non-taxpayer mid-level exception is granted to teams that are below the salary cap, meaning they aren’t paying the luxury tax. Folks from Brooklyn have absolutely no idea what I’m referring to, because their owner doesn’t care a lick about over-paying for a loaded roster. Where did that get Mikhail Prokhorov?
Surrounding belief is that Rudez will cancel out the contributions Luis Scola can bring to the court, although Scola is the established veteran. Rudez is 28 years old and was ready to go for the 2008 draft, but didn’t get selected. He’s yet to play in the United States’ pros, and he’ll soon realize it two completely different experiences. Ricky Rubio can clarify, and I’d listen to him. Scola will never have the range — or confidence in the range — Rudez has from 22-26 feet out, but he’ll still be the better overall talent right away.
Indiana could still return Scola to be the primary backup for David West at power forward, since a lot of Pacers’ enthusiasts are aware Frank Vogel wasn’t comfortable playing Chris Copeland any minutes last season. The same turn could be taken for Rudez’s installment, depending on how well he fits the defensive schemes. Remember, Copeland’s lack of stout defense on the perimeter (and in the paint) forced him to remain on the bench. Vogel won’t let his defense bend, even if it means getting more offensive fluidity and points on the board. Problem número uno.
Bird and Kevin Pritchard weren’t finished there.
They sifted through the list of undrafted prospects, and found a 6-11 center, Shayne Whittington. A graduate from Western Michigan, Whittington proved to be a talented big man in the MAC in his final college season. In the conference championship game for the Broncos, he scored 20 points and pulled down 13 boards, knocking Western Michigan into the NCAA Tournament. They eventually fell to the hands of the Syracuse Orange, but Whittington was anticipating a ball club calling his agent this offseason. The Pacers want to keep stressing size in the paint, and he’ll be a prospect they hope to develop …. unlike Miles Plumlee, who didn’t blossom until he left Indiana.
As Zach Lowe pointed out in his newest edition of The Lowe Post podcast, this Whittington signing actually cost them more money towards the salary cap. Instead of just drafting him initially, the Pacers sold their 57th pick to the Knicks, who they used on Louis Labeyrie (France). Signing him afterwards actually cost them more than it would if he was a drafted rookie. Solid thinking, Indiana. As usual.
This leaves the Pacers with roughly $4.5 million (or pushing $5 million) to use for Stephenson’s re-signing.
My God, we have a problem. If you would have told me those words in late May, when Lance was the only one pushing the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, I would have a choice of words for you. It would go something like this:
Stephenson didn’t even find the $8.8 average annual salary appealing when Bird offered it to him on July 1. What makes anyone think he’ll buy into a smaller figure Bird would throw at him? He already felt insulted with the first pitch, and in return, the Pacers felt insulted when the rejection came. Indiana’s core, coaching, and management feel as if they’re halfway responsible for Lance’s progression. After all, who gave him the opportunity in the 2010 draft? Who stuck with him through the legal trouble just two months after being drafted?
When Danny Granger fell victim to the knee troubles, Stephenson had to do some soul searching and take his game to a new level to keep Indiana in contention. Little did the Pacers know, it would transform them into a unit that out-played Miami in the regular season, and make Bird scared to death about the upcoming summer.
Stephenson has began weighing his options in free agency, knowing the likelihood of receiving his worth from the Pacers is lower than ever.
Owner Herb Simon is one of the more decisive figures in the business, and it’s almost like he’s been screaming about not wanting to pay the tax. If the Pacers exceed the luxury tax threshold — $77 million this season — then they’ll be forced to do so. My only pondering thought remains: Why act so against paying the tax if it would ensure your place in the top two of the East? Obviously, wherever LeBron lands (Cleveland or South Beach), they’ll be the frontrunners to head to the Finals. Disagree? Prove that statement wrong. The Pacers are yet to beat James in a playoff series, even when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren’t living up to superstar expectations. LeBron has their number, and he can always figure out a way to discombobulate their defense. Once that’s out of the way, Indiana can’t score on anyone, and their confidence flies out the window.
Re-signing Stephenson and truly “staying the course” is the only way they’ll remain favorites to grab a number one seed, since his improvements nearly gave them 60 wins last season. Lance hired a shooting coach, which improved his overall field goal percentage (46.0 to 49.1), 3-point percentage (33.0 to 35.2), and free throw efficiency (65.2 to 71.1).
Paying the tax isn’t going to equal death, or ruin your reputation. You wouldn’t be the first guy, Simon.
With Charlotte willing to lure Stephenson in to give their fourth ranked defense the perimeter scoring they acutely need, it becomes hairy. The Lakers, when they find out they’re striking out on Carmelo Anthony, will chase Stephenson in strictly a search for talent. Although the belief is Lance would clash with Kobe Bryant‘s play style and their attitudes would be the weirdest mix of characters in the league, he wants to have the stardom. He wants the glamour. But, he wants to have guys around him that enable him to play in May, and ultimately June. That doesn’t come with the Hornets, or these current Lakers.
If Indiana is fulfilled with replacing Stephenson with C.J. Miles, it’s a shocking route they’re willing to take, since Lance just led the entire squad in rebounding. The guy that should have, just hit the trade rumors, perhaps to clear space for Stephenson to re-sign and Indiana’s future retooling.
Maybe it isn’t such an atrocious thing to picture Miles as a guy to step in and give Indiana immediate relief.
Stephenson could bolt, and likely will, but would Indiana like the tradeoff?
Miles has played nine seasons — seven with the Jazz — and recently came off a satisfying year with Cleveland, in which he was able to start 34 games for Mike Brown. With Stephenson out of the picture, one would have to wonder if Miles, 27, can slide into a starting role at the shooting guard spot for Indiana. He didn’t attend college, giving him the incredible advantage of having more NBA experience than Stephenson.
First, understand: He’s not going to fill the play-making gap, and the excitement factor that Stephenson leaves, if he doesn’t re-sign. Lance is more athletic at this point, and has more room to grow into a franchise changer. That would mean Indiana could have two franchise changers (Lance and Paul George) on hand, for their long-term haul. That’s something you don’t want to pass on.
But, for the short-term goal of getting an NBA title, this isn’t a bad signing.
Miles, while averaging just under 10 points per game for the Cavaliers last season, shot 39.3 percent from the perimeter. That gives the Pacers two shooters that are at least 39 percent effective. The other would be Copeland, who shot 41.8 percent from 3-point land last season. The issue? Copeland shot just 1.9 attempts per game, because he only played in 41 games.
That’s how thin Indiana has been with their spacing. C.J. Watson, George Hill, and Paul George all shot 36 percent from deep, and provided as much consistency as Hibbert in the post. If that’s the case, you have problems that seem unrepairable.
Miles, inserted in the lineup, makes teams wary on Indiana’s ability to knock down outside looks. That would be a first.
It may have just been one game last season, but is anyone forgetting when Miles nailed 10 triples in a win over the 76ers? Yes, the defenseless 76ers. It still counts, guys.
Miles is not a slasher that Stephenson would continue to give them, as he only had 80 restricted area attempts last year with Cleveland. That was lower than teammate Alonzo Gee. From long range, nonetheless, Miles shot the best percentage on the Cavaliers from 25-29 feet out.
It’s proven he’s more of a spot-up shooter and a guy that loves catch-and-shoot scenarios, since he only took 23 shots from 10-14 feet during the season. He didn’t depend on his cutting and lane aggravation, like Lance.
This could be what the Pacers need, for quicker success against Miami — or possibly Cleveland.
The harmful aspect?
Losing Lance could just be too tough to swallow, especially if he finally quits getting All-Star snubbed in a Hornets uniform, or in purple and gold.