Lance Stephenson might be out of the Indiana picture next season, but for now, he fits in with the team’s tradition. Apart from combining Reggie Miller’s instigator approach with Ron Artest’s blurred behavioral boundaries, Stephenson epitomizes the kind of way this largely successful organization comes up just short of ultimate success.
To some Indiana fans, Stephenson is surely a nuisance they’d prefer to see quelled or let go. There are surely many other Pacers fans who delighted in seeing their guy do anything to rankle a king. Stephenson, like Pacers before him, is an avenger of resentments. The former second-rounder is acting out a certain kind of established role when he pours his manic energy toward thwarting the No. 1 pick and reigning champ. He was perhaps misguided, perhaps took things too far, but he’s an underdog who fought Goliath with all he had. So far, doggedly battling (and losing to) Goliath defines what the Pacers have been for decades.
If you’re choosing the most storied NBA franchise to never win a title, you’re either going with the Phoenix Suns or the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps it’s fitting that neither can claim anything but a conference crown in this category. The Pacers have endured their “Always the bridesmaid” status in a particular way, though. Whereas the Suns wooed fans with a “critically acclaimed” offensive revolution, the Pacers went about their journey as thorny antagonists to the main event.
It should be noted that the Pacers were once a dominant ABA squad whose first championship happened concurrent with a 1970 Knicks NBA title you’ve probably heard more about. Bill Cosby might have vivid memories of Pacers great Roger Brown, but he’s among the few. Those Indiana squads were balanced and beautiful, but their ABA renown was drowned out by the bigger city in the bigger league. Later, Julius Erving’s exploits would come to define what people knew of the ABA. He played for the Nets, who hailed from New York.
The “Hicks vs. Knicks” rivalry of the 1990s drew off Indiana’s resentment of the big, attention-hogging city and its self-regard. As was detailed in the “Winning Time” 30 for 30, the combative, confident Reggie Miller became an ideal avenger of local resentments with his knack for annoying Knicks.
The Pacers of that era were -- like they still are -- a team that garnered a fame by proxy. They were never the standalone draw, but they became notable as antagonists to the big-market bullies. It started with a memorable 1991 series against the Boston Celtics, where Chuck Person trash-talked his way into Larry Bird’s accomplishments. Later, there were the aforementioned series against the Knicks, a classic seven-game Eastern Conference finals against Jordan’s Bulls in 1998, and a competitive six-game Finals against the seemingly unbeatable Shaq-Kobe Lakers.
We’re seeing history repeat with a Pacers team that draws its narrative focus off being enemy to the glitzy Miami Heat and LeBron James. They built a season around beating the Heat, and we cared about that storyline accordingly. The question was less what the Pacers were, and more whether that was good enough to upend the team we’ve been talking about since 2010. In the tradition of the Pacers, they couldn’t quite pull off their underdog arc.
It's a shame, but there’s a good chance this team has maxed out its potential. Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent, and Indiana doesn’t have much room to maneuver with or without his services. Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill are all signed to expensive, long-term deals. Hill would be the obvious upgrade at point guard, but other teams likely don’t want to pay him $8 million in 2017. Despite his quality defense and 3-point range, he’s especially hard to move.
On the face of it, the Pacers seem boxed in. They can’t improve the position they need (point guard), and suddenly develop a position of need if they let their volatile shooting guard walk. It’s asking a lot to rely on Paul George as nearly the singular source of Indiana improving. Even if he gets better, who’s the other threat that defenses will have to account for over a series?
Perhaps, in the Indiana tradition, the answer will be some unheralded guy we’ve yet to consider. This is a team built from draft picks who fell outside the top 10, after all. The Pacers have made a habit of punching above their weight. They just can’t ever seem to win the big one as the bellicose underdog.