Rodney Stuckey had a lot to prove last season. He had to rebuild his reputation as a teammate, after it was allegedly sullied in Detroit. He had to step-in as Lance Stephenson's doppelgänger. He had to show he was worth the long-term commitment of a multi-year contract. And, most of all, he had to demonstrate that he could be a key contributor on a winning roster.
He succeeded on all fronts.
Having weathered a maelstrom of injuries to start the season, the Pacers went 17-11 post All-Star break. Over that span of time, Indiana outscored opponents by a team-best 7.2 points per 100 possessions when Rodney Stuckey was on the floor (minimum 500 minutes played), per NBA.com.
Fearlessly leading the reserve charge, Stuckey was in his element during Indiana's mid-season surge. Over the course of the team's 7-game win-streak in February, the combo guard averaged a team-high 19.4 points on 48.0% shooting. Indiana's most used bench unit ,with Stuckey at the helm, outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions during that time.
On the year, Indiana's best bargain averaged 12.6 points while shooting a career-best 44.0% from the field and 39.0% from three-point range.
When little was expected of the player earning a veteran's minimum salary and purported to be a problem causer, Rodney Stuckey delivered much. So much so, that the Pacers made him a more permanent fixture of the roster, coming to agreement on a 3-year, $21 million deal with the 29-year-old NBA veteran.
If the Pacers want to succeed at playing faster and smaller next season, here's why Indiana is going to need him to do it all over again in 2015-16.
Don't regress as a shooter:
An affordable Lance Stephenson. That is who Rodney Stuckey was compared to a year ago. An aggressive, though somewhat reckless, driver capable of shaking defenders en route to the rim at will while also possessing the bad habit of attempting a few too many midrange pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock. Not unlike his predecessor, Stuckey was also routinely panned for one major flaw: he couldn't shoot.
During his final season in Detroit, the combo guard knocked down a woeful 27.3% of his shots from behind the arc while connecting on just 30.8% of his 3-point shots off the catch. The rest of his career reads mostly the same with one very noticeable exception.
Playing on a one-year, veteran's minimum contract, Stuckey shot a career best 39.0% from long-range last season and his catch-and-shoot three-point field goal percentage rose by nearly ten percent (up from 30.8% to 39.6%).
If the Pacers want their drastic stylistic makeover to be functional in Year 1, Stuckey's contract-year boom cannot just be an exception. It needs to be the rule.
Otherwise, pairing Stuckey with Monta Ellis could prove to be a somewhat dicey proposition. With two j-challenged guards on the court at the same time, the offensive spacing Indiana spent the entire offseason attempting to acquire has the potential to exponentially shrink when George Hill exits the game. Life as a power forward will not be made easier for Paul George (even in spot minutes) if defenders begin sagging off his teammates in the backcourt to refocus their attention on him.
If the Pacers want to avoid having Stuckey's defender play free safety against whichever other four Pacers Frank Vogel utilizes, as SB Nation's Mike Prada explains happened to the Rajon Rondo-Montal Ellis tandem in Dallas, then Indiana's sixth man's shooting must continue to trend upwards.
Improve from the point:
Exactly who the Pacers plan on utilizing as the team's backup point guard remains a mystery. Toney Douglas is an option, if Indiana wants to waive someone or complete a rare 2-for-1 trade to make room for him. There has been some scuttlebutt that rookie Joe Young may see time in this role due to his ability to push the pace, but the more likely outcome is that George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Rodney Stuckey will be tasked with sharing point guard duties. If so, Stuckey will need to become more comfortable as a floor general.
According to 82games.com, the Pacers got outscored by 10.3 points per 48 minutes with Stuckey running the point last season. Of course, it should be qualified that the combo guard only spent 4% of the team's total minutes at the point in his first season in Indiana; however, that number is sure to spike without a traditional backup point on the roster.
If so, will his numbers improve over a larger sample?
Past history shows that Stuckey, unsurprisingly, was far more productive when playing next to George Hill last season. The Pacers scored a team-best 110.6 points per 100 possessions when David West, Roy Hibbert, and C.J. Miles were joined by George Hill and Rodney Stuckey (minimum 100 minutes played).
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It was a light-hearted moment, when Paul George fielded a question about his return from Rodney Stuckey.
"Yes, I'm just here for spacing." George replied in jest after Stuckey facetiously asked if his own shot volume would see a reduction once Indiana's franchise player rejoined the team.
Expected to, again, carry the largest portion of the team's scoring load, George, now in reverse, needs Stuckey to continue to prove he can be "here for spacing" in addition to his larger role as a bench scorer and intermittent task of playing backup point guard.
C.J. Miles needs to continue to knock down open shots, as he did last season when he ranked 7th in the league in total catch-and-shoot points. Ian Mahinmi must hold down the paint in the absence of Roy Hibbert, and Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill must continue to clean the glass. But it is the team's need for Rodney Stuckey to prove that his 2014-15 breakout campaign was more than just a fluke which is most vital. For Indiana's smaller and faster experiment to be successful, the 8-year NBA veteran's ninth season must be another aberration from his career's norm.