Without actually having been the proverbial fly on the wall of the Pacers' locker room last season, it would be impossible to determine, with certainty, whether or not Lance Stephenson was, in fact, the sole cause of the erosion of the team's highly vaunted team chemistry.
Since the All-Star break last season, rumors of issues between Lance and his teammates have been ongoing. While some of the whispers may or may not have been exaggerated, it is evident that infighting was pulling the once unified squad asunder. In the end, Lance and the Pacers parted ways over the summer seemingly without strenuous complaint from his teammates.
That said, it should come as no surprise that recent reports hinting at a possible return of Stephenson to the Pacers have not spawned outspoken hopes of a reunion among his former teammates:
Weekend Trade Rumble: Heard various Pacers were asked if Indy should try to bring Lance Stephenson back. Response NOT one of encouragement— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 22, 2014
Overblown rumors or not, it is clear that there were problems. Were they irreconcilable? We will never know. Regardless, the reality is that it had become and is still time to move on from Born Ready.
We have to hope that petty infighting was really to blame for the team's second half meltdown because if we cannot convince ourselves of that, then we must face the reality that what may have caused the collapse was a decidedly worse problem for a contender - an actual basketball related breakdown.
Perhaps the rest of the league had identified the formula for beating the Pacers' once impenetrable defense (i.e. pace, spacing, attacking up the side, using transition drag screens, etc.). If that is the case, then the Pacers may have actually been nearer to their 16-14 finish than their 40-12 start, which means changes were imperative.
The tweaking must begin with actually accepting the departure of Lance Stephenson. He is gone, and any notions of bringing him back need to be let go of for the sake of the team.
Beyond the withdrawal of Lance, the team must now look to retool around what remains as a necessary next step:
Celtics, Pistons, Suns, Timberwolves, Hornets - are seller in this market. Pacers, Nets, Nuggets and Rockets buyers...— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) December 16, 2014
It may seem counter-intuitive for an injury burdened team currently sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and shooting the ball at the worst clip (42.8%) in Pacers' franchise history (NBA era) to be looking to reload rather than unload, yet there are supportable reasons for doing exactly that.
Since the beleaguered roster is experiencing promising renewed health, the team is more viable than it was at the start of the season. Furthermore, the upcoming schedule is far more favorable than the stretch they just completed. Knowing these things to be true, the idea of the Indiana Pacers being buyers rather than sellers is not only conceivable, it is workable.
Here are some other reasons to buy into the idea:
Danny Granger's Traded Player Exception (TPE):
On February 20, 2014, the infamous 11th-hour trade that sent life-long Pacer Danny Granger along with a 2015 second round draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen took place. Exactly one-year later, on February 20, 2015, the $4.33 million trade exception Indiana created as part of the highly controversial deadline swap will expire, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. The ability to add salary without sending out equal salary to match may serve as an incentive for the Pacers to become buyers before the 2015 NBA trade deadline on February 19.
Here is how Indiana could use the trade exception (one-year credit), as explained by Part 85 of Larry Coon's Salary Cap FAQ:
(Part 85): Teams cannot use trade exceptions to sign free agents; they can be used only to acquire existing contracts from other teams. However, a team can acquire a free agent using a trade exception if he is signed by his prior team and traded in a sign-and-trade transaction.
Given that it is mid-season, the Pacers cannot use their trade exception to sign any outstanding free agents (i.e. Ray Allen, Jermaine O'Neal, etc.). Rather, they can only use the credit to make trades.
(Part 85): Trade exceptions are not traded from one team to another. Sometimes it appears like this is happening when one team uses a trade exception to acquire salary without sending salary away, and the other team gains a trade exception in the same process because they sent away salary without receiving salary in return. However, the trade exception the first team uses and the trade exception the second team gains are two distinct exceptions.
This essentially means that the Pacers, for the sake of example only, could acquire Kevin Seraphin from the Washington Wizards (or substitute any other player making less than the dollar amount of Indiana's trade exception). In acquiring the fifth year player's salary, the Pacers would use approximately $3.89 million of their $4.33 million exception. In exchange, the Wizards would gain their own $3.89 million exception and the Pacers would have $440,000 of their original exception remaining to either use before the deadline or simply let expire.
(Part 85): Teams cannot combine trade exceptions with other exceptions (such as the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception or a taxpaying team's 125% plus $100,000 margin from another simultaneous trade) in order to trade for a more expensive player.
Since trade exceptions cannot be combined with other exceptions to acquire only one player, it is important to note that the Pacers cannot combine their league granted disabled player exception ($5.305 million) with their $4.33 million trade exception to swing a deal for an incoming player in the last year of his deal whose salary is worth $9.635 million. Put simply, Indiana can only acquire a player who currently makes less than their one-year credit ($4.33 million).
A final caveat to using the trade exception is that the Pacers already have $74.8 million in committed salary for the 2014-15 season, per Sham Sports. Unwilling to cross the dreaded luxury tax line ($77 million), Indiana, as things stand now, is only capable of using a little over $2 million of their $4.33 million exception.
As such, Danny Granger's traded player exception (the sixth largest active trade exception in the league) in and of itself is not likely to net the Pacers a player of impact. However, should other non-simultaneous trades (separate, parallel deals) present themselves, then Indiana will have an asset in their back pocket with which they can bring to the bargaining table.
Paul George's Contract and the NBA's New Television Deal:
The summer of 2014 was not good to the Indiana Pacers. When Paul George suffered an open-tibia fibula fracture at a Team USA Blue versus White scrimmage, the Blue-and-Gold lost their franchise star for what will likely be the entirety of the 2014-15 season.
"Very unlikely Paul George plays this year," said head coach Frank Vogel to the Indy Star following Paul George's most recent media availability.
As for himself, George expressed his desire to play this season while at the same time indicating that he was not going to rush the rehabilitation process, "That's one of my goals. I would love to come back and make a return and help this team out anyway I can down the line. But right now it's about getting healthy and making sure I'm good for the future."
As if losing the former MVP candidate for the first year of his 5-year/$97 million dollar extension was not already enough, the NBA's new television deal may cut his stay in Indiana short by yet another entire year.
As previously explained here at Indy Cornrows, PG's current max deal will, "look like a bargain compared to what LeBron James and Kevin Durant will be eligible to sign for in 2016." Of course, the flip side of that is that there are very real monetary incentives for Paul George, once fully recovered, to opt out of the fifth year of his contract and re-enter free agency. The opposite is true of David West and Roy Hibbert, who each possess early termination options next summer. Unless thoroughly disgruntled, it makes more sense, at least financially, for both to stay with Indiana through next season and test free agency in 2016 when each will be able to reap the full benefits of the higher salary cap.
All of this, while still only theoretical, serves to highlight why the Pacers are rumored to be trade buyers. With two-years potentially shaved off Paul George's long-term deal, and Roy Hibbert and possibly David West still in tow for another year, Indiana quite simply may not have the time to go through a full-scale rebuild. Instead, they need to retool around their current franchise star sooner rather than later.
No Tanks Allowed:
Given that languishing in the lottery is not really an option unless the Pacers plan to make Paul George the next Danny Granger, it would come as a real surprise if the front office decided to auction off established veterans for spare parts or draft picks.
After all, in the aftermath of Paul George's injury, it was Larry Bird who said, "I know some fans would rather us go in a different direction, but we want to win."
If the Pacers really want to win now, the more likely move is for them to buy, buy, buy rather than sell, sell, sell.
(Stats cited are as of December 26, 2015. Larry Coon's Salary Cap FAQ, ShamSports.com's Indiana Pacers salary information and a post from the archives of Denver Stiffs were consulted in the writing of this article.)