Life After Lance
After being bounced out of the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row by the Miami HEAT, the Pacers entered free agency hoping to bring the band back together for another run next season.
The biggest question mark was unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson, who yesterday signed a three-year, $27.4 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. The Pacers proposed several contract offers to Stephenson, most notably a five-year, $44 million deal, but ultimately failed to retain their talented guard. While it seems odd that Stephenson would take a deal worth roughly $17 million less than what the Pacers offered, the logic behind taking a shorter deal is similar to the logic behind LeBron James taking a two-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Charlotte’s deal guarantees Stephenson roughly $2.1 million more upfront, and allows him to renegotiate for a bigger contract after the NBA finalizes a new TV deal after the 2015-16 season (which will be much more lucrative than the current deal). This will significantly increase the NBA salary cap, which is directly tied to how much players are able to earn.
So where does that leave the Pacers? The loss of Stephenson unquestionably hurts a Pacers team that once looked to be the class of the Eastern Conference, but ended last season looking like a mid-tier team at best.
Last season the Pacers were the best defensive team in the NBA, allowing just 96.7 points per 100 possessions. The defense was anchored by 7’2 center Roy Hibbert, who held opponents to just 41.4 percent shooting at the rim on 9.8 contested shots per game, and who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year Award voting. On the wings, Paul George and Stephenson were the main defenders tasked with shutting down opposing teams’ best scorers each night. At 6’5 and roughly 210 pounds, Stephenson is well-equipped to go toe-to-toe with players like Dwyane Wade, James Harden, Klay Thompson and other high scoring shooting guards. Stephenson is a top competitor and even takes on opposing small forwards when asked to. Fortunately for Indiana, there are still a good number of defensive-minded players who can collectively offset (to a certain extent) the loss of Stephenson’s defense.
However, Indiana’s offense is a different story. Rated just 22nd in the league last season (101.5 points per 100 possessions), Indiana struggled to score the ball and was the biggest issue (aside from internal player relations) for the Pacers last season. Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.7 steals per game and shot 35.2 percent from three-point range and 49.1 percent from the field. He averaged the most assists per game for Indiana, and often initiated the offense as a ball-handler. He often battled for offensive rebounds, keeping possessions alive and giving Indiana more opportunities to score. And while Stephenson isn’t a knock-down three-point shooter (which he has improved on each season), he was Indiana’s most efficient shooter last season with a 56.4 true shooting percentage. In Stephenson, Indiana is losing a versatile player who was both the team’s best play-maker and most efficient shooter from the field, which is a heavy loss to recover from.
Fortunately for Indiana, they took some steps to address the potential loss of Stephenson. On July 2, the Pacers signed free agent shooting guard C.J. Miles, who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season. Miles brings three-point shooting (39.3 percent last season), but is not the perimeter defender that Stephenson is. At 6’7, Miles has good length and is a capable defender, but does not have the strength of Stephenson, or the same fiery competitiveness. In addition, Miles is not as versatile as Stephenson, averaging just two rebounds and one assist per game last season.
In addition to Miles, the Pacers came to terms with free agent guard Rodney Stuckey, who played his first seven years in the league with the Detroit Pistons. Stuckey is undoubtedly a talented player, but has yet to figure out how to produce each night consistently. Stuckey, who agreed to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, averaged 13.9 points, 2.3 assists, 2.1 assists and 0.7 steals per game last season. At 6’4 and roughly 205 pounds, Stuckey can play both point guard and shooting guard, which will allow him to play in multiple configurations with teammates George Hill, C.J. Watson, Miles, and possibly Evan Turner, if Indiana re-signs him.
Turner is another such player who can help offset the loss of Stephenson. Turner was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers for long-time Pacer Danny Granger. When Turner was acquired, many believed Indiana was looking for an insurance policy in case Stephenson left after the season. In 54 games played with the 76ers last season, Turner averaged 17.4 points, six rebounds, 3.7 assists, and one assist per game. The 76ers were in complete tank-mode, providing Turner the opportunity to put up the best numbers of his career, which has been underwhelming four years after being selected second overall in the 2010 draft.
In Indiana, Turner’s production plummeted and he struggled to get playing time, dropping from 34.9 minutes per game in Philadelphia down to 21.1. But at age 25, there is still hope that Turner can find his way, and turn into the player many envisioned when he was drafted out of Ohio State. Indiana is no lock to re-sign Turner, however, and it is being reported that the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics have interest in signing him.
Losing Stephenson hurts the Pacers, but there is some baggage that Stephenson takes with him to Charlotte. He has been involved in several incidents throughout his career, which ramped up towards the end of last season, and into the playoffs. He stepped into a HEAT huddle during a timeout, blew into LeBron James’ ear during a stoppage in play, reportedly punched Turner during practice, and was fined for excessive flopping. His antics started to overshadow his game and was a distraction for a Pacers team that dealt with internal issues throughout the season.
Nevertheless, the loss of Stephenson is a major blow to a Pacers team that has championship aspirations. With LeBron leaving Miami, there is an opportunity for the Pacers to take the next step towards the NBA Finals. But without Stephenson, and with competition from teams like the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, Indiana will need Miles, and Stuckey to mesh quickly in Indiana and offset the loss of Stephenson, which will not be easy.
Kris Humphries Looking to Run With Up-Tempo Wizards
In 2012, Kris Humphries signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets. A little more than a year later, Humphries was thrown into a major trade with the rebuilding Boston Celtics, who traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Piece and Jason Terry for Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, and first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, along with Humphries.
After one season with the Boston Celtics, Humphries agreed to a three-year, $13 million contract with the Washington Wizards. Humphries is the latest addition to a rising Wizards team that re-signed center Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60 million contract and signed free agent small forward Paul Pierce to a two-year, $11 million deal.
Humphries told Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato that he chose the Wizards because it was the right opportunity for him, stating “great opportunity in Washington, a team that did really well last year, plays up-tempo. Just looking to go in there, run and try to contribute to an already successful team.”
The Wizards went 44-38 last season, and lost to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Wizards improved significantly from a 29-53 season in 2012-13 due in large part to the development of young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, a career year from Trevor Ariza, and the acquisition of Gortat. However, the Wizards lost Ariza to the Houston Rockets, and backup forward Trevor Booker to the Utah Jazz. While Pierce will fill in for Ariza, Humphries will fill in for Booker.
Humphries is an upgrade over Booker and comes on a reasonable three-year deal with a team option on the third year. Humphries chose the Wizards in favor of other teams pursuing the free agent forward.
“Obviously going back to Boston, there’s a number of teams,” Humphries said, “but sometimes when you get the right opportunity and the right organization and chance to get out and kind of play your style of basketball and it all works out, you kind of got to go for it.”
When asked how Humphries thinks he will fit with the Wizards, Humphries stated, “They run, John Wall runs. They all get up and down, they got shooters. They picked up Pierce as a veteran, a guy who’s won a championship, a guy who can really shoot the ball, two great big guys, so I’m just looking to come in off the bench and bring energy, rebound, defend and do the things I’ve done for the last 10 years in the NBA.”
John Wall is one of the fastest players in the entire league, which Humphries understands.
“He gets out and goes, so you know me I’m just going to get in as great of shape as possible and be ready to be out there running.”
After 10 seasons in the league, Humphries says he has one main goal in mind moving forward.
“Obviously winning a championship is important, so just working towards that.”
With John Wall and Bradley Beal pushing the pace, Pierce’s veteran leadership, and Gortat, Nene and Humphries on the frontline, the Wizards are in a position to make some noise in the Eastern Conference next season. Washington may not be the favorite to win a championship, but Humphries will have the opportunity to help the Wizards take the next step on their way to the top of the Eastern Conference.
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