The first half of the 2013-2014 season was one in which the Indiana Pacers owned the league. Their ability to suffocate teams’ offense, while also having one of the largest, strongest front lines made them a true force to be reckoned with. However, as many witnessed, they began to lose their identity partway through last season, as their All-Star center Roy Hibbert went on a downward spiral by losing his self confidence. Even with a difficult playoff run, Indiana managed to go six games against their nemesis, the Miami Heat, in the Eastern Conference Finals. Regardless of last season, Indiana still was, arguably, one of the top contenders in the East coming into next season — that is, until the East got stronger over the last few weeks between LeBron James going back to Cleveland, Pau Gasol going to Chicago with a possibly healthy Derrick Rose, and Miami even continuing to have a shot at the East. If that was not enough, Indiana’s recent loss of Lance Stephenson to Charlotte has made their future outlook look, well, unpredictable.
Losing Lance Stephenson – While the competition out East has increased tenfold, the loss of Stephenson may be the most damaging change that may lower Indiana’s clout in the Eastern Conference, particularly the Central Division. Certainly, Stephenson was quirky, which was looked down upon on the team, between his technicals and bizarre defensive tactics. Despite all his idiosyncrasies, he was the dark horse on the team. He was the most efficient shooter (49 percent), the leading rebounder (7.2 rpg) and the top play maker (4.6 apg), while also being a skilled defender. As such, the Pacers know they have a deep hole on their roster as they only have Paul George (21.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.5 apg) as the only player remaining who can do a bit of everything. Worse yet is that they only have Paul George and George Hill (3.5 apg) left as playmakers.
New Additions to the Indiana Pacers – Indiana has not stayed silent this offseason. While their principle task was to re-sign Stephenson, which ultimately failed, they have added a couple of pieces that, in turn, will replace him. They signed swingman C.J. Miles who averaged 9.9 ppg and 2 rpg during an average of 19 mpg for Cleveland last season. Additionally, they added another swingman in Rodney Stuckey who averaged 13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 4.6 apg in a bounce back season for him in Detroit, which will most likely result in him taking Stephenson’s starting spot. While Stuckey is a great addition if he continues his improvement from last season, he only makes up for the loss of Stephenson on the offensive side of the court. He is not terrible on the defensive end, but he simply does not have the strength or instincts that the eccentric Stephenson had. What he does do, however, is help Paul George and George Hill by being able to create, while also pitching in on the glass despite his 6’5″ frame.
Depth is another aspect that Indiana has attempted to work on this summer, which started with the signing of Euroleague player Damjan Rudez. The 6’10” forward averaged 10.7 ppg last season for Zaragoza, while averaging 46 percent shooting and a particularly impressive 44 percent average from the 3-point line. While on paper it seems like Rudez’s signing could help Indiana, it also seems incredibly unnecessary as he essentially is the same player as Luis Scola, i.e. a big man who can shoot. The bigger problem with this Rudez is that he is a big question mark as no one knows if he will be able to transition from Europe to the NBA.
The Roy Hibbert Situation – It will certainly hurt that Stephenson is no longer a part of Indiana, but if Stuckey has a similar season in 2014-2015, like he did the previous season, it may not be as great of a loss, especially with an improved offensive roster. Instead, the biggest issue for Indiana coming into next season will be the play of Roy Hibbert. The six-year big man, when he at his best, is one of the strongest and largest players in the league. Because of this, he has proven throughout his career to pose problems to opposing teams, particularly on the defensive end. Furthermore, the Pacers are best when he is anchoring their defense and acts as their key rim protector.
While early on in the season he did his part, Hibbert’s numbers dipped quite dramatically starting midway through the season that resulted in averages of 10.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg (his lowest since 2009-2010) while still being efficient at 2.2 bpg. His numbers dipped even further in the playoffs where he averaged 9.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 1.4 bpg. One can argue that it was due to Hibbert’s inconsistent play that eventually led to the Pacers’ disappointing postseason in a year they had all the potential to win a championship. If his play continues to be as inconsistent in the playoffs, it will be impossible for Indiana to ascend to the top of the East once again. The problem is that Hibbert is virtually impossible to replace. He is the second highest paid player on Indiana at just under $15 million, making it unlikely that any team will want to trade for him.
The Good News – Despite the Stephenson and Hibbert drama, by no means does it appear that the Indiana Pacers will plummet to the bottom of the East. Paul George still is their franchise player who can be a nightmare for teams on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, David West is one of the toughest, most tenacious players in the league, not to mention one of the least selfish with his 14 ppg and 7.2 rpg average. Additionally, George Hill, who had his numbers regress last season, continues to run the point, while establishing himself as one of the better defending point guards in the league. Most importantly is that, despite rumors abound towards the end of the season, Larry Bird is keeping one of the most underrated coaches in the league in Frank Vogel who is, definitively, the key in keeping Indiana’s defensive identity.
Realistically, the Pacers are essentially the same team they were a year ago, just with a minor demotion at their shooting guard position with Rodney Stuckey. In all actuality, Stuckey could serve as a better fit to the Pacers considering all the drama in the locker room between Stephenson, Evan Turner (who will not be returning), Hibbert’s mentality and the dispatching of long-time Pacer Danny Granger. He could be a piece that may not be better than Stephenson on the court but can be the key to securing team chemistry, which is the primary thing element that hurt the Pacers this past season.
The 2013-2014 season was a dramatic one for Indiana. They went from the top team in the league to the most controversial within a short period of time. However, it is due to this meltdown and their slight roster change that has Indiana as one of the most unpredictable teams heading into the 2014-2015 season. Simply put, no one knows which team will show up this season. The East may have gotten stronger, but it would be a mistake for anyone to count out the Indiana Pacers, at least not yet.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey