Throughout life, there are moments where splitting ways is best for both parties.
The satisfaction of stability can be peaceful, a green pasture of contentment, but sometimes it leaves you longing for more. For the Pacers and Lance Stephenson, that’s what it’s finally come down to. Maybe Lance wanted to cash in on the impending lockout many NBA players are carefully preparing for, maybe both sides were looking for excuses to end the relationship with one another. Either way, it’s the what not the why: Stephenson signed a three year contract with the newly re-branded Charlotte Hornets, while the Pacers were unwilling to dole out what the University of Cincinnati product desired. And now, Larry Bird has lost one of his biggest diamonds in the roughest rough.
There were good times for Lance and the Pacers. However, as mutually beneficial Lance’s time in Indianapolis was for both parties involved, it feels like both sides could potentially benefit from a divorce.
At first glance, that seems like a crazy notion. Many believe that Lance benefited from the structure and talent around him while playing for the Pacers, and there certainly isn’t a player on the current roster as talented as Lance who could fill his role as main facilitator for the team. Yet something still feels right about this transaction (which is much tougher to say about the Kings letting Isaiah Thomas go in favor of Darren Collison, as an aside).
Towards the end of last season, the word that described the Pacers best was “stale.” After two seasons of this core playing together, they became like the dusty puzzle in the back of a closet that’s been solved way too many times to provide any entertainment value. It became quite simple to just space the Pacers defense out and attack them from the outside first, then quickly get easy baskets while Hibbert was away from the rim. On the opposite side of the ball, stale gave way to stagnation. Either Lance was dribbling the ball to the setting of no ball movement, or Paul George was doing the same, with forced post-ups and the occasional open spot-up sprinkled in. Occasionally there was a well coached play that looked good but felt extremely forced. The offense got away from David West’s high-post facilitating, and looked increasingly more individualistic.
The blame isn’t only to be placed solely at the door of Lance Stephenson, but he wasn’t doing much to change the team’s ways. In a way, for there to be something different, a cog in the machine had to go. It’s not addition by subtraction, it’s addition by adaptation. This group was so set in their ways, that the lack of flexibility led to their demise and making a move is going to force this team to become more flexible. And in the end, it made the most sense for it to be Stephenson. Frank Vogel started to unfairly be placed on the hot seat, but it didn’t make sense for it to be him. Paul George is the face of the franchise. Selling Roy Hibbert at what likely will be his lowest value point seems like making a scapegoat out of him, removing David West — who is the unquestioned leader on the floor — doesn’t really stir the pot, and it’s hard to believe Bird’s inbox is filled with George Hill inquiries. Lance was the easiest to cut ties with, both in role with the team and contract situation.
It’s not a positive move in talent, but it’s a move that shows that this organization wasn’t satisfied staying in the pasture, reaching the same result as the year before in much more hollow and dramatic fashion. They extended their offer to Lance, but were far from hellbent on keeping him, and surely every player in that locker room will take note from that fact and the chances they’ll get as a result. Now it’s up to CJ Miles to use his spot up shooting to change the offense’s shape, and for all five guys on the floor to make up for a lack of ball handling with the kind of synergetic play movement they exhibited in the early years of coming together. It may not be the smoothest sailing in the beginning, but it’s certainly not an unachievable goal.
As for Stephenson, his time in Indiana began to feel like borrowed time before many people tore the last of 2013 from their calendars. From the start of the season, it felt like a massive payday was going to prevent the front office from retaining their 2010 second round pick. And while it didn’t necessarily shake out that way — Lance in fact, is the one gambling here by rejecting more guaranteed years and money — the writing on the wall served as preparation of the split up either way.
And in a way, this departure and contract feel fitting for Born Ready. He’s not the first player carrying this skillset and persona, and almost all of his predecessors experienced NBA life through the scope of the journeyman. His antics and penchant for highlight reel plays are like a roller coaster, and there is a fallout after hitting the high point. The ride he gave the fans earlier in the season while being looked upon as the fifth starter was the most fun many had in the post Reggie Miller era, yet as his role grew those same people became weary that the team would struggle placing so much responsibility on such a mercurial player. It’s happened before in similar cases in the NBA, and it will happen again.
So Stephenson similarly left that green pasture, with hopes of landing on both feet in Charlotte. The initial worry is that his train will get forced off the tracks without the on-court talent and off-court environment the Pacers built around him, but a second look shines the light on how much it makes sense. Fairly or unfairly, there was a shadow that covered Lance in Indiana. He grew up almost as the youngest sibling. While he was prancing about on the court with an unmatched swagger in his step in December, Paul George was emerging as an early MVP candidate and Roy Hibbert was looking to wrap up DPOY by the All-Star game (Reality hits hard sometimes, doesn’t it). Lance’s achievements were brushed away as small, on a relative basis. The truth is that he made huge forward strides as a player, and stayed at that level even while his teammates fell back on harder times. Lance’s pre and post all-star numbers are very similar, sure there is a dip in assists but that will happen when the team begins to struggle to score 80 points in a game. His playstyle is much more individualistic than is admitted when the “only played so well because of his teammates” crowd likes to admit. It’s still a risk, but Lance could really shine for the Hornets.
Lance is ready to show the world the player he truly is, and the Pacers are ready to change the team dynamic without him. There’s a good chance that this move makes both sides fall flat on their face, but there’s equally a good chance that this break off changes both for the better. Only way to find out is by giving it some time.