Oct 25, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) brings the ball up court during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Pacers defeated the Mavericks 98-77. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: The Return to NBA Finals Is Shot, For Now

It was fun while it lasted.

The free agency speculation?  Sure, you could go with that.  Rumblings around Lance Stephenson and where his ear-blowing self would end up?  That, too.

But, in totality, I’m referring to the Indiana Pacers’ opportunity at doing something they haven’t accomplished in 14 long years — reach the NBA Finals.

Dec 4, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) is introduced prior to a game against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Indiana won 95-86. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not only been torturous ups and downs, filled with players that make the word “mediocre” appear as “magnificent,” and full of disappointment.  It’s been an adventure that had all the makings of a storybook climax.  Everyone seemed destined to be in Indianapolis.

George Hill was drafted to San Antonio after playing high school ball at IUPUI, and eventually R.C. Buford dealt him to the Pacers.  Paul George had nothing but raw talent exiting his sophomore year at Fresno State, and the Pacers gambled on him at pick No. 10 in 2010.  Roy Hibbert ransacked the collegiate game and was a top center in his draft class, picked by Toronto at No. 17 and immediately dealt to Naptown.  David West was, well, sick of losing and being knocked out of the first round.  He high-tailed it away from New Orleans once Chris Paul was traded, and signed with an upcoming Eastern Conference force.

Then, there was Lance.

Stephenson grew up in the borough of Brooklyn, and the biggest gamble the Pacers made putting this core group together was selecting him in the second round of 2010.  Yes, it is the second round.  But Stephenson had numerous red flags waving in his direction and nobody was sure he would pan out to have the right winning attitude, or sheer skill, to put into a team that has historically had some negative images on the roster.

The band was supposed to include Hill, Stephenson, George, Hibbert, West, and veteran Danny Granger.  No other team would be able to truthfully stand up and say they have a six-piece core that respects and enjoys one another more than Indiana.

Consider this Guns N’ Roses, because the group has somewhat dispersed.

Granger was traded, to the dismay of thousands of fans when they found out Evan Turner was the epitome of bird excrement.  Stephenson decided to sign a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday.

Stephenson’s deal with the Hornets will only pay him around $1.3 million more in this upcoming year than the contract Indiana offered him on July 1.  Altogether, his offer of $44 million through five years would have been a load more of guaranteed money, considering a freak injury could occur in his next two seasons and hinder any money-making for his future.

It was a risk, but a fair one when you understand Lance values himself higher than ever.  After leading the Pacers in rebounds last season — at the shooting guard slot — who wouldn’t think highly of themselves?  After being the only reason Miami didn’t run 60-point man-slaughters on the team in the Eastern Conference Finals, his worth shouldn’t have to be justified.

Where people run into problems, however, is when they fail to realize the difference between being worth a ton on the open market, and being worth a ton specifically for the Pacers.

Indiana’s offense, which ranked 20th in pace, couldn’t get up and down the court effectively in fast breaks.  They are one of the few teams left in this transforming league that refuses to go away from the two traditional big lineups, and they predicate their scoring chances on late shot clock activity.  Rarely ever do you see the Pacers — especially last year — come down the floor with a plan, a go-to set, or a clear sense of who they are.  Late entry passes with six seconds left on the clock, Paul George going between the legs into crossover jumpers and maybe keeping control of the ball, and Hill being unable to run pick-and-rolls effectively.  Take your pick.  It was a brutal mess, that Frank Vogel couldn’t fix.

To the Pacers, Stephenson’s driving ability, looking egregious or not, was worth $44 million itself.  Why?  They had no energetic inclination to do anything, and that’s the only way the ball was getting into the lane on most nights.  During last season, the Pacers only had two individuals average over four “drives” per game.

The entire league, needless to say, had much better production among the leaders in this category.  Stephenson and George both averaged 4.2 drives per game.  Of all players that played at least 25 minutes a night, that was only good for 57th in the league.  The NBA’s top contenders — Spurs, Heat, Thunder — each had a member (or two) in the top 30.  Getting the ball in scoring position is something Indiana severely lacked on, and Stephenson was their best when it came to making defenses collapse.

As for crashing the boards, the amount of pressure this loss puts on Indiana’s bigs is relentless.

Percentage of rebounds per chance is a measure that sufficiently depicts how active guys — especially guards — are on the glass, grabbing as many boards as they have an opportunity to.  Of all players that were on the court at least 25 minutes per game and played at least 50 games, Stephenson ranked 11th in the league in rebounding chance percentage (69.1%).  On the Pacers as a team, there was nobody with a higher rate.  In fact, there was nobody in the general vicinity of Lance, as George ranked second at just 61.5 percent.

From that perspective, Stephenson was the most valuable offensive — and partially defensive — player on Indiana last season.  Of course, Hibbert and his early running for Defensive Player of the Year out-shined everything, but nobody notices the small things.  Good Lance (not Bad Lance) gave us those things to look for in the Pacers’ sets.

If you’re Charlotte, however, you are extremely happy to snag Stephenson off the free agency market for just $9 million per year.

Because, in all honesty, there is also reason to question his value when he’s not on an offensively challenged team.  In terms of True Shooting Percentage, Stephenson ranked 20th among all shooting guards last season, at just 56.4 percent.  The likes of Gerald Green, Courtney Lee, and the Pacers’ newest addition C.J. Miles all placed above Lance in that regard.

Stephenson’s game warrants high attraction and for teams to go on a bidding war for him, but his worth shouldn’t be at a price tag of anything over $11 or 12 million.  At just 13.8 points per game and a PER of 14.72 last year, overpaying for Lance was something a franchise with cap space shouldn’t have done.  And Michael Jordan didn’t, so bravo.

Thus, you have to be careful when you estimate a player’s profit and value.  In terms of what he means to his current team, it can be drastically different compared to what he’s worth on the open market, when teams are looking to revamp their rosters.  Stephenson was as valuable to the Pacers as their $18 million dollar George, but nowhere near that much when he’s on a team that doesn’t need him to lead the way in every category.

For that reason, Indiana is in the dark days of trouble.

Chicago has become the clear favorites to take the Eastern Conference title as of now, and that’s only due to the praying that Derrick Rose finally leaps his obstacles.  Cleveland takes a backseat to nobody, because of the most beloved athlete in the world.  Regardless if they’re young and inexperienced, those Cavaliers automatically leap Indiana in too many areas to be ignored when LeBron James is in the lineup.  Toronto will return relatively the same team, but Lowry isn’t playing in a contract year, so we have no remote idea what’s happening up north.

The Pacers fall into that mix, and probably at the bottom of those three mentioned teams.  George can hire a personal chef, put on some weight, and work on his post moves all he wants …. the offensive burden may be too much for him to carry with Born Ready now buzzing away in Charlotte.

 

**All statistical support credited to NBA.com/Stats**

Tags: David West Frank Vogel George Hill Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Larry Bird Rodney Stuckey Roy Hibbert

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