As 2014 NBA free agency rolled along, Lance Stephenson and the Indiana Pacers were at an impasse. Stephenson rejected the contract the Pacers offered to him, instead choosing to review other offers on the market. Today, Stephenson ditched Indiana, officially agreeing to a three-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets. For the Pacers, this move could lead to a non-playoff seed in the NBA Eastern Conference this upcoming season.
Before exploring why Stephenson’s departure could leave a fatal wound to Indiana’s playoff hopes, Stephenson’s baggage must be noted. He drags along some pretty hefty on-court antics, most notably blowing in LeBron James‘ ear and giving him the choke sign during one of his free throw attempts in recent seasons. Still, as confusing of a player as Stephenson is, allowing him to walk away will do much more harm than good for the Pacers.
Stephenson was a three-tool player last season, contributing to Indiana in points, rebounds and assists, while playing solid perimeter defense. He has certainly developed since arriving in the league, improving his three-point percentage by more than seven percent from the previous year. Last year, he shot 45.5 percent from the field, a respectable number for an NBA shooting guard.
The Pacers will also miss Stephenson’s fearlessness and competitive edge. The stage was never too bright for Stephenson, unafraid of going toe-to-toe with the league’s best player. His youthful energy ignited Indiana, which possessed conference’s best record in the regular season.
Indiana had their fair share of struggles last season, however, much of it had to do with team chemistry. In the last 23 regular season games last year, the Pacers went a dismal 10-13, demonstrating that they were one of the league’s most offensively inept teams. Indiana’s starting center Roy Hibbert took a larger nosedive than any other player in the league last season, unable to tally nine points and five rebounds per game after the All-Star break.
Hibbert was not the only one to decline, as Paul George failed to shoot 40 percent from the field during the second half of the season. Now, defenses will key in on George even more than last year with Stephenson’s exit, and his field goal percentage may look eerily similar to that number next year. As all of this disarray swirled around the Pacers, coach Frank Vogel seemed helpless, having lost his locker room completely.
Now, with Stephenson’s departure, the Pacers seemingly look like a fringe playoff team. Teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards all have a legitimate shot to form a better record than the Pacers in the 2014-15 season. Noting that, George and company will have to hope that last season’s struggles were only an aberration, because if they were not, Indiana could find themselves as a lottery team in 2015.