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Dissecting Lance Stephenson’s Departure from the Pacers

The immediate feeling was one of shock (“What?”). Then betrayal (“How could he?”). Then anger (“You bastard!”). Then denial (“We’re better off without him anyway”).  That was how I was after finding out that the Indiana Pacers’ top priority for the summer, Lance Stephenson, is not coming back to the team after accepting a 3-year, $27-million deal (team option in year 3) from Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets.

I wasn’t alone. Across Twitter and message boards, Pacers fans were calling Born Ready a traitor, an ungrateful POS, with some going as far as cursing him with an injury or saying “He’s dead to me.” He’s not exactly LeBron James, but the response is indicative of how much Pacers supporters value Lance’s contributions to the team and their fear of what will happen without him in a more competitive East.

Knee-jerk emotions aside, I eventually came to accept that the Pacers would have to move on without their most dynamic player, their leading rebounder and passer and flopper, their double-edged sword who has been credited with last season’s historic start as well as blamed for the team’s epic second-half collapse. I read every article and came to understand why Lance made he decision he made, and how his absence might impact the team next season.

Why Lance? Why?

So why did Lance turn down the $44 million, 5-year deal from the Pacers? Didn’t he say he wanted to return and was backing it up by using the Pacers’ practice facility during the summer? Didn’t Larry Bird, coach Frank Vogel and all his teammates say they wanted him back? Didn’t he say he wanted to win, and the Pacers road to the finals just get easier with LeBron’s return to Cleveland?

Initially, everyone thought it was the money, with reports that Lance felt “insulted” by the offer. And to some extent, it is about the money. With David West in decline and Roy Hibbert turning into the invisible man, it’s not a stretch to call Lance the second best player on the team behind Paul George, and yet at an average of $8.8 million/year over five years he would be its fourth highest-paid player and earning just $800,000/year more than George Hill.

Part of that is the Pacers’ fault by overpaying Hill, Hibbert (who will make nearly $15 million next season) and arguably West ($12 million next season), and rewarding Paul George with a near-max deal ($15.8 million next season), which has severely hamstrung their flexibility. The other part is Lance’s own fault for his off-court history and on-court antics. But still, it’s hard to imagine Lance looking at Gordon Hayward’s $14.8 million/year and Chandler Parson’s $14.7 million/year deals and not feel a little salty.

The word on the grapevine was that Lance was looking for something in the Tyreke Evans $11 million/year range, though even after the free agent pool effectively dried up there was no team willing go make that kind of an offer to an up-and-coming 23-year-old who led the NBA in triple doubles last season. That must have also sent a humbling message to him about how he is perceived around the league.

I always thought it would take a significantly better offer, money wise, for Lance to jump ship, which is why I was stunned to learn that he was taking less guaranteed money overall and just $200,000/year more, on average over three years, to go to Charlotte. It just made no sense to me.

Now that the dust has settled, I feel like I’m starting to get it. First of all, Lance’s agent, Alberto Ebanks, said the sticking point was less about the money and more about the length of the contract. Yes, Lance wanted a shorter contract, and the Pacers were unwilling to budge on the length.

In Lance’s mind, a shorter contract meant more flexibility and more money in the long-run. In two years, Lance would be just 25 and possibly an All-Star entering his prime. If can just stay out of trouble on and off the court during this time, there is no reason why any team won’t offer him the max contract he desperately believes he deserves the next time he becomes a free agent. Of course, this is all contingent on him staying healthy and out of trouble, but Lance seems to be believe that he’s indestructible and can keep his antics under control at will.

Secondly, under the Pacers’ offer, Lance was set to make around $7.7 million in his first year, about $1.3 million less than what he will make in year one in Charlotte. Over three years, the monetary advantage of Charlotte’s deal is about $3 million over Indiana’s. In a league where millions don’t mean much, that’s actually still a lot of money, especially if you consider that Lance made just $1 million last year and just over $3.4 million for his entire four-year NBA career.

Thirdly, in Charlotte Lance has a much better chance to be “the man”, which he obviously relishes. Indiana’s distributed offense means his scoring numbers will never be gaudy, and with his age and experience he’ll always be relegated to fourth or fifth fiddle on the team. Now Charlotte will still be Al Jefferson’s team, but apart from the talented but injury-prone center, Lance gets to be the main guy. You think that’s not a salivating situation for a guy nicknamed Born Ready, who pissed of the Pacers vets as a second-round rookie because he thought he was “all that”?

For Pacers fans, it’s easy to call Lance a dog for leaving the team that had enough faith in him to draft him despite his off court issues, maintain that faith in him through the first few troublesome years, and mentor him into one of the best all-round young studs in the league today. There is more than one voice out there saying that Lance wouldn’t even be in the league if not for Larry Bird’s unwavering support. But ultimately, this is Lance’s life and he had to make the decision based on what he believed was best for him and his family.

The Pacers’ perspective

Considering Charlotte’s marginally better offer, one has to wonder why the Pacers couldn’t have simply matched it to keep their prized asset. After all, the Pacers would have had to make cost-cutting moves even if Lance accepted the original 5-year, $44 million deal, so shaving off a bit of extra money wouldn’t have been an impossible task.

Before the free agency period began, however, Larry Bird said the Pacers were going to give Lance a great offer, a fair offer, but that they had also a number in mind they were not going to exceed under any circumstances. And the Pacers have stuck to their word, which makes me wonder how truly serious they were in bringing Lance back.

The way Larry Bird has handled the situation suggests to me that while the Pacers acknowledge the multi-faceted skills and that special edge Lance brings to the table, they were also acutely aware of his shortcomings and made up their mind long ago that they were not going to bend over backwards for this kid. And they certainly weren’t going to conduct major surgery on the team, endure the luxury tax, or jeopardize the future of the franchise for his sake.

They knew they had a bit of leverage because Lance and his family liked it in Indiana and knew they owed the Pacers organization for sticking with him through thick and thin. The five-year deal made sense financially on the Pacers’ side too. They obviously see Lance’s potential and know that he will be impossible to afford if he becomes a free agent again in just a couple of years, so the aim was to tie him down for as long as possible at a price that would eventually become a bargain.

Accordingly, they gave him an offer they thought was fair, and told him to take it or leave it. It just turned out that he chose the latter.

The Pacers without Lance and the look of the new team

The loss of Lance affects the Pacers a lot more than just the 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists he brings every night on 49% field goal shooting and 35% from three-point range. He is the team’s most creative player and passer, a solid pick-and-roll partner (especially with David West), a physical mismatch for most opposing shooting guards, and by far its best player in transition. On a Pacers team with an often anemic offense, Lance’s court vision and ability to push the ball for easy points was invaluable. On top of that, he has developed into a sound defender (who’s still improving) and a key cog in the Pacers’ defensively suffocating starting five. During the team’s struggles in the playoffs, he was often the only guy who gave it his all on the court, so there’s no doubting his heart and effort either.

On the other hand, Lance can be a ball-stopper who takes bad shots that disrupt the flow of the offense. He also can be erratic, he can try to do too much on his own, and he’s often turnover prone. But of course, the main concern with Lance has always been the non-basketball stuff. Much has already been said about his antics over the course of his career. His showboating and untimely technicals, including that costly ejection against the Heat for taunting towards the end of the regular season. Teammates have had to be restrained from going after him in the past. Roy Hibbert admitted that he couldn’t stand Lance in the beginning. There was the LeBron choke-gesture incident, the Evan Turner dust-up in practice, the D-Wade knee-flaring comments, and of course the infamous ear blowing debacle. Sure, he might mature, but when it comes to Lance you simply have to take the bad with the good.

It would be unfair to put all the blame on Lance for the Pacers’ historic collapse in the second half of the season and their spotty playoff run until the embarrassing six-game defeat to the Heat. But I just can’t shake the feeling that Lance was the catalyst, and I know I’m not alone. There are reports that it began when Lance discovered he didn’t make the All-Star team, after which he embarked on a personal mission to prove all the league’s coaches wrong. He has been accused of stealing rebounds from teammates and it has been all but confirmed that Hibbert’s “selfish dudes” comment was directed at him. So the concerns about his negative impact on team chemistry cannot be ignored.

It’s also telling that immediately after the Pacers’ elimination from the playoffs Paul George said he “didn’t know” when asked about whether he wanted Lance to return. He clarified the comments later on, but it felt like he was fudging his initial response.

Roy Hibbert, for his part, tweeted this after finding out Lance was bolting to Charlotte:

Now, that message seems positive on its face, but don’t tell me you can’t sense a tinge of glee in Hibbert’s tone. He later deleted that tweet and replaced it with an Instagram pic, but it’s too late to hide how he truly feels. That’s right, Hibbert’s definitely glad Lance is gone.

So it is the hope of the Pacers that what they lose in Lance’s production and his edge they will be able to recover in improved team chemistry and maturity. If saying goodbye to Lance means Hibbert can return to his All-Star form and George Hill will be more aggressive with the ball then it would be well worth it.

The Pacers, of course, did not stand pat while Lance made his decision. They’ve signed 6’6″ swingman sharpshooter CJ Miles, stretch-four Damjan Rudez from Europe and undrafted big man Shayne Whittington, while also re-signing the promising Lavoy Allen, whom they acquired as a part of the Danny Granger/Evan Turner trade last season. Shortly after Lance signed with Charlotte, the Pacers brought in a replacement in the form of 6’5″ former Piston Rodney Stuckey (minimum one-year deal), who actually averaged more points (13.9) than Lance did in shorter minutes last season. Everyone else apart from Evan Turner, Rasual Butler and Andrew Bynum is back.

Miles and Stuckey will probably battle it out for Lance’s old spot in the starting lineup. Neither has the ability or promise of Born Ready, but together they might be able to fill the gap sufficiently for the team to not regress. Who knows, they might even make the Pacers a better team. Roy Hibbert might return to form from his brain explosion. Paul George might take the next step in his journey towards superstardom after promising to work on his post moves and become more “aggressive”. George Hill could also return as an improved player after appearing to work his tail off in the offseason to prove his doubters wrong. Chris Copeland might finally get some meaningful minutes. Luis Scola’s shooting touch might return with time off to heal that elbow. And last year’s rookie Solomon Hill appears ready to join the rotation as a contributor.

As of now, the Pacers depth chart for 2014-2015 looks like this:

Starters

PG: George Hill
SG: CJ Miles / Rodney Stuckey
SF: Paul George
PF: David West
C: Roy Hibbert

Reserves

G: CJ Watson
G: CJ Miles / Rodney Stuckey
G: Donald Sloan
G/F: Solomon Hill
F: Chris Copeland
PF: Luis Scola
PF: Damjan Rudez
F/C: Lavoy Allen
C: Ian Mahinmi
C: Shayne Whittington

It’s difficult to tell on paper whether the team is better or worse off, but what is clear is that they will have to be better than last year with LeBron going to Cleveland, making the Cavs an instant favorite; Luol Deng to Miami to fill LeBron’s void to keep them as a force in the East; rising Washington becoming stronger by adding Paul Pierce; Al Horford returning for a scary Atlanta team; and Pau Gasol joining a Chicago team with Derrick Rose returning from injury. So yes, with more than three more months to go before the start of the new season, it’s possible the Pacers could be making more moves. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: It was incorrectly reported initially that Lance’s third year was a player option when it is in fact a team option. This makes the contract make even less sense because if Lance plays up to potential he can’t opt out even if he wants to and Charlotte gets him for cheap for another year.

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