Somehow, Lance Stephenson turned out to be what the Pacers needed when they needed it. They outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when the prodigal point wing was on the floor, and he, perhaps by some sort of dark magic, managed to effortlessly drain five of his first three-point attempts (62.5%) after having recorded the worst three-point shooting season of all time from that distance not so long ago with the Hornets.
Assuming he finds the respectable middle between those extremes, he’s capable of being an impactful contributor even if his three-point shot predictably regresses. But, it’s up to the Pacers to put him in the position to do so.
To Nate McMillan’s credit, one particular lineup wrinkle from last season should provide them with the blueprint for how to best maximize his skills on offense.
Over the last six games of the regular season, the Pacers outscored opponents by 25.5 points per 100 possessions with Stephenson running point while shifting Aaron Brooks off-ball alongside C.J. Miles, Paul George, and Kevin Seraphin.
It’s a teensy sample size, but using NBA Math’s FATS (Factor Adjusted Team Similarity) methodology to cross-compare that group’s on-court variables to another with Stephenson at the helm was telling, nonetheless.
After inputting the five-man unit’s four factors (effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive/defensive rebounding percentage, and free throw rate), the model found that the Pacers had the pace of a team with an over .500 win percentage (.559). However, when Lavoy Allen was inserted into that same lineup in place of Paul George, they were on pace to finish with a sub-.500 win percentage (.469).
That’s the equivalence of seven wins over the course of a full season, thus shedding some light on the type of personnel with which Stephenson should be surrounded.
Obviously, George is better than Allen. So much so, in fact, that the Pacers were outscored by a team-worst 6.5 points per 100 possessions anytime the four-time All-Star was off the floor last season. Still, Lance was plus-32 in 132 total minutes of action, and he only played 15.1 percent of those minutes with Allen and Seraphin on the floor together, per NBA Wowy.
This roster can’t replicate George’s two-way talent, but they can try to recreate the general framework of that group.
Darren Collison and Cory Joseph are both more capable off-ball shooters than Monta Ellis and each have experience deferring point guard duties, which theoretically could safeguard against Lance becoming disengaged without the ball in a staggered rotation.
Collison has improved his conversion rate from long-range each of his last three seasons, most recently connecting on a career-best 41.7 percent. Meanwhile, the scrappy Canadian shot 29.3 percent from three in the games where he replaced Kyle Lowry in the starting lineup as compared to 40.3 percent when he came off the bench.
Pairing Stephenson’s forceful driving game with either guard as well as two interchangeable forwards would afford him the space needed to turn the corner, find stop-releases on the perimeter, or hit the screener, as he routinely did with Kevin Seraphin.
Fortunately, the double plodder tandems will automatically no longer be an option, but Al Jefferson’s big body still has the potential to present problems, regardless.
Per Synergy, Big Al posted up more frequently (46.2%) than any player in the league last season with at least 250 possessions coming from that particular play type. Parking his paint-bound game on the block with someone who needs the lane to be unclogged to be most effective already proved itself to be a problematic combination.
In fact, during the 2014-15 season, Stephenson and Jefferson posted the worst net rating (minus-7.9) of any two-man lineup that played at least 900 minutes for the Charlotte Hornets, scoring a woeful 94.3 points per 100 possessions..
For good reason, then, Nate McMillan never opted to reunite the odd couple last season, even after Jefferson was cleared to return from an ankle injury.
Domantas Sabonis may turn out to be a pseudo-stretchy option, since he only converted 25 percent of his three-point attempts over the final two months of the 2016-17 regular season, after knocking down 21 of his first 46 tries from behind the arc (45.7%). Even so, Jefferson is a complete non-factor from that distance, and he isn’t as physically equipped to roll hard toward the rim whenever Stephenson gets a head full of steam.
Moving Sabonis to small-ball five, however, would require that either rookie T.J. Leaf or Bojan Bogdanovic be prepared to shoulder some of the burden at backup four.
According to Basketball Reference, the 28-year-old played 55 percent of his minutes at power fauxward last season, and he’s moonlighted some at that position with the Croatian National Team in an effort to compensate for their lack of interior depth.
He and Glenn Robinson III could adequately spread the floor, but the defense would be dicey. As soon as he’s felt contact on his hip at EuroBasket, Bogdanovic has almost instinctively motioned to switch, oftentimes creating awkward and unexpected mismatches for his teammates.
If the Pacers want to try switch-everything lineups in small bursts, they should preferably include Stephenson (6-foot-5) at point alongside Victor Oladipo (6-foot-4), Glenn Robinson III (6-foot-6), Thaddeus Young (6-foot-8), and Domantas Sabonis (6-foot-11), rather than Bogdanovic’s tendency toward nonchalance.
Admittedly, balancing offensive flow against defense will be give-and-take, especially if that more defensive-minded group struggles to get stops and play in the open floor.
The Lance-effect on the Pacers was real last season, but it was only over six games. In the likely event that his jump shot reverts to its unreliable norm, surrounding the mercurial guard with deferential off-ball threats and mobile bigs is the surest path toward sustaining the parts of his game that benefit his team.
In that regard, the Pacers-effect on Lance needs to be real, too.