When Rodney Stuckey badly rolled his ankle against the Miami Heat just six games into the 2015-16 season, he was expected to return to the floor in a matter of days, not weeks. Two games later against the Orlando Magic, he did. But the lingering aftermath of that initial injury ended up significantly impacting him for a matter of weeks, not days.
"This injury was caused by the time I twisted my ankle in the Miami game," Rodney Stuckey told Scott Agness of Vigilant Sports when he was later sidelined for 18 consecutive games with what the team described as a sprain and bone bruise in his right foot. "Then, I tried to come back early and then I twisted it again in the Orlando game. I sat out, felt better, but I didn't sit out as long as I should have so it caught up to me at the end."
Nearly two months after he tweaked his bad ankle against the Magic, he re-aggravated the same injury again against the Phoenix Suns on January 12. This time, when an MRI of his foot revealed his bone was at risk of becoming a stress fracture, the training staff put a stop to the combo guard's latest attempt to play through the pain.
"It was a serious thing," Stuckey told the Indy Star's Nate Taylor, adding of the training staff: "They know me. I'm a guy that I'll play through anything. It definitely was a good idea for them to shut me down."
After ample time away from the game, the combo guard returned for the team's final 25 games of the season; however, as the below splits indicate, his productivity steadily declined with each wave of injury.
How did Rodney Stuckey impress:
Stuckey has been at his best the last two seasons when he is in attack mode, which means getting into the paint and going to the free throw line. As can be seen here, when he recorded 17 points and 4 rebounds on 66 percent shooting against the New York Knicks.
The problem for Stuckey is that these sorts of performances occurred only sporadically. Last season, he had stretch of games spanning from early February to mid-March where he scored eleven or more points in 15 out of 16 games and 25 or more in a quarter of those same contests. This season, it was more common for several single figure scoring outings to be punctuated by one or two standout performances.
Part of his inconsistent play may have been the product of occasionally sharing the backcourt with another ball-dominant combo guard, but the more plausible explanation is that injuries were consistently forcing him to have to play his way back into game shape.
Following his 18-game mid-season sabbatical, there were noticeable instances where the nine-year veteran appeared unsure of himself as he struggled to regain his lift.
For instance, take this play from Indiana's second meeting with the Portland Trail Blazers, where the 30-year-old, usually quick to attack the rim or spot-up from mid-range, seems reluctant to attempt a field goal even without a close defender nearby.
Later in the same contest, Stuckey appeared hesitant to land on his right foot, which caused him to miss an open look at the rim.
With C.J. Miles slumping and inexperienced players being thrust into larger roles, Larry Bird explained to Pacers.com's Mark Monteith why Stuckey's value to the second unit was made more apparent by his absence:
"Exactly. And he's a guy when he's hurt, you know he's hurt. His problem is, he tried to play on this (sprained ankle) and never let it heal. Then he'd play for a week and it would get sore. Then the last time he goes, 'I'm not doing this anymore.' (Our training staff) said, 'We've got to shut him down until this goes away.' For the whole year, I don't think it will ever go all the way out of there, but it's got to calm down. Even Stuck came in and said, 'Man, I can't hardly walk.' Everybody has injuries, but your key guy on the second unit, that's painful for us."
How did Rodney Stuckey disappoint:
But the all-bench unit proved to be a source of considerable pain in the playoffs even with Stuckey in the lineup. Acquiring Ty Lawson as an insurance policy was a necessary gamble with the second unit's scoring fulcrum limited by injury for a large portion of the season. However, rearranging the entire playing rotation to suit the skills of a mid-season acquisition was probably asking too much.
According to NBA.com, the Indiana Pacers got outscored by 39.2 points per 100 possessions when Lawson, Stuckey, and Miles were on the floor at the same time during the first round of the playoffs.
The combination of Miles shooting 10 percent from three and Lawson's odd reluctance to score made driving the lane an ill-fated acrobatic act for Stuckey, who already had enough problems of his own putting points on the board, particularly in Game 5 when he went 1-of-10 from the field.
Still, the combo guard's regression to the mean as a shooter was a problem long before the playoffs. After shooting a career-best 39 percent from long-range last season on a one-year contract, Stuckey's three-point conversion rate (24.1%) fell by 15 percent during the first year of his three-year, $21 million deal, which lends credence to the notion that his contract-year boom should be seen as an aberration from his 28 percent career-norm.
Of course it should be noted that being sidelined from basketball-related activities prevented him from being able to engage in the type of post-practice three-point shooting drills which he credited for his improvement last season.
What's next for Rodney Stuckey?
During the 2014-15 season, Stuckey was the second unit's glue guy, an aggressive driver capable of shaking defenders en route to the rim with his speed and strength. This season, his productivity appeared to be hijacked by injuries, as he attacked the paint with less confidence and regressed as a shooter. With both seasons seemingly representing the extremes of what Rodney Stuckey can be, neither season should probably be seen as more predictive of future results than the other.
What this season does reveal, however, is that the Indiana Pacers were probably remiss not to sign a backup point guard sooner. Prior to Ty Lawson's arrival, George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Rodney Stuckey were averaging 93.2 of the team's 96 available backcourt minutes. With all three now on the wrong side of age 30, putting undue burden on the trio to man the guard duties probably is not a mistake that should be repeated.
Like Ellis, finding a guard that complements Stuckey's skills is a tricky business. Playing the non-shooting guard next to Lawson again next season could prove dicey barring offseason improvement in that area from either player.
Injuries limited Rodney Stuckey this season. The Pacers need to avoid being what limits him next season.