One of the first few NBA memes to enter the pantheon of longevity and social re-usability was Lance Stephenson blowing in LeBron James’s ear in the middle of a freaking playoff game. (Side note: The NBA is the best. Could you imagine if something similar happened in the other major sports? Roger Goodell would have immediately banned and fined any player caught ear blowing. Rob Manfred would have found a way to blame baseball’s slow pace on it, and Gary Bettman would make sure to use it as a talking point in advance of the next NHL lockout.)
The meme seen around the world immediately made Stephenson a viral star, while he and the Pacers got into the Heat’s collective head. It was a beautiful moment for the intersection of basketball and Twitter that will go down in infamy. It may also be one of the lasting positive memories we have of that Pacers team and that Stephenson.
On Wednesday, The Vertical reported that the Pacers were looking to bring Stephenson back to Indiana. The deal is reported to be for three years and $12 million, with two of those years guaranteed and a team option on the third. Seven years after the Pacers drafted him, Stephenson is coming home. What he will find there, though, is a much darker place than the one he left.
The Pacers, like Stephenson, have regressed since 2014, becoming a shell of the team that once made two straight conference finals and had a combination of veterans and young talents good enough to make the squad one of the league’s top teams. The past three years have been filled with questionable moves, players in turmoil, and trade rumors, giving Indiana the outlook of a franchise in decline as opposed to that of the upstart team they once were. In memory of Lance’s historic internet moment and the Pacers’ short time as a contender, let’s look back at Indiana’s fall from grace.
2013 East Finals
After missing out on the playoffs for four straight years, the Pacers finished the 2011–12 season as the third-best team in the East, but were eliminated by the Miami Heat in six games of the East semis. In 2012–13, they made another quasi-leap and finished second in the conference, setting themselves up for revenge against LeBron’s squad, this time in the conference finals.
What transpired was an epic, seven-game series in which the Pacers went toe-to-toe with the defending champions. Both Paul George, then just a third-year player, and LeBron averaged more than 40 minutes per game while exchanging shots and dapping each other at half court. Roy Hibbert, meanwhile, manhandled a small Heat team in the paint and averaged a double-double as well as a block in each contest. It was a doozy.
Personal story: The sixth game of that series happened to be during my younger brother’s eighth-grade graduation. No, I did not miss the graduation for the game, but I can neither confirm nor deny that when we went out to dinner afterward, I made our family change tables so that I could have a clear view of one of the few TVs in the restaurant showing the game. I didn’t even have a rooting interest in the Pacers or the Heat — this series was just that good.
Paul George Signs Extension
In the middle of the 2013–14 season, George signed a five-year max extension with the Pacers. On paper and on the court back then, it seemed like the Pacers were building a long-standing contender in the East.
2013–14 Season/East Finals
The Pacers won 56 games on their way to the top seed in the East and home court in the inevitable rematch against the Heat.
“Losing to this team two years in a row now is enough motivation for us to beat this team,” Paul George said in the lead-up to the series.
If 2013 had been his coming-out party, then this was George’s coronation into the top tier of players in the NBA. He once again averaged over 40 minutes a game, scoring 24 per contest with five rebounds and four assists. In Game 5, with the Pacers facing elimination, George refused to lose, putting up a 37-point night that featured a 21-point fourth quarter. The stronghold of David West and spirited charades of Stephenson set the Pacers up perfectly as the underdogs who had nothing to lose, while Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse quickly became one of the loudest atmospheres in the NBA.
But as has been the story for the East the past seven years, LeBron and the Heat were simply too much. The series ended after they beat the Pacers by 25 in Game 6, and left the Pacers to struggle with another heartbreaking series loss to the Heat.
In the middle of the playoffs, reports came out that Evan Turner and Stephenson exchanged blows in the middle of a practice. (I like to think they were fighting over who would take the most midrange shots.) In retrospect, that may have been a sign of things to come.
Lance Stephenson and David West Depart
The offseason following that series was when everything slowly began to unravel. The Pacers offered Lance a five-year, $44 million contract. But Born Ready wasn’t quite ready to settle. He decided to test the free-agent market and spent the entire offseason there as teams failed to show any interest. In the end, he had to take a two-year, $18 million offer from the Charlotte Hornets. He played only 61 total games for the team, scoring more than 20 points just once in his entire tenure and recording the worst 3-point shooting season of all time, before he was traded to the Clippers for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes in the summer of 2015.
Seeing the writing on the wall, David West, one of the underrated pieces of those better Pacers teams, took a whopping $11 million pay cut in 2015 to play for the Spurs in hopes of winning a title.
Roy Hibbert Disappears
If you think the Pacers’ timeline is dark, then Hibbert’s is even bleaker. Once upon a time, Hibbert was the vanguard of “verticality,” turning rim protection into an art and making plays at the rim as exciting as Steph Curry is making 3-pointers these days.
A two-time All-Star and All-Defensive Team member in 2013, Hibbert looked to be on his way to a possible Hall of Fame career as the anchor of the best defense in the league.
But as the league decided to communally migrate away from the basket, Hibbert’s best qualities — his size and length — became devalued and his slow demeanor was quickly overshadowed by the better, more athletic rim protectors that followed him. Since the Pacers dealt him to Los Angeles in 2015, Hibbert has bounced from there to Charlotte, from Charlotte to Milwaukee, and from Milwaukee to Denver, averaging 5.5 points and a measly 4.3 rebounds per game. This is his fourth straight season with a blocks per game average lower than his rookie year in the league.
Sorry, Roy. You never should have joined Entertainment 720. Or at the very least, you should have been the one to nix this photo shoot, another precursor to the Pacers’ downward spiral.
Paul George Injury
Leading up to the 2014 FIBA World Cup, George, one of Team USA’s starters, suffered a broken leg in an intrasquad scrimmage. The gruesome injury was as bad as it looked and forced George to sit out the entire season.
The Frank Vogel Debacle
After their feud with the Heat dissipated, the Pacers missed the playoffs in 2014–15 without George, but made it back the year after, with George back healthy as their cornerstone superstar. However, Indiana did little in the way of building around him, simultaneously resigning themselves to a life of mediocrity in the East and as the marquee playoff matchup on NBA TV. Last season, the Pacers lost in the first round to the Raptors. Less than a month later, Larry Bird announced the team would not renew the contract of Frank Vogel, who had won 58 percent of his games during his six seasons in Indianapolis and taken the team to the aforementioned playoff heights. With the coach’s contract being up, the small-market Pacers had to decide whether to make a change or risk a larger payout down the road. The team hired respected assistant coach Nate McMillan in Vogel’s place, but he has yet to bring the team anywhere near the success that Vogel did.
Now: Back to Mediocrity
Since McMillan took hold of the team, the Pacers have sputtered to a .500 record and the 7-seed in the East. It’s not disastrous, but for a team that once could see a Finals berth within its grasp, the Pacers’ drop-off has been staggering.
“There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride,” George said after the Pacers lost a nine-point lead and the game to the Timberwolves on Tuesday. “This locker room is just not pissed off enough.” When the franchise player, who has been involved in trade rumors and is expected to leave when he hits free agency this summer, is saying things like that, you might want to brace for what comes next, because it’s bound to be another sad data point in the Pacers’ fall from their best moments as a franchise since Reggie Miller did this.
I don’t think anyone has presented or will present a more consistent and dangerous challenger to a LeBron-led team in the East — since he left for Miami — than those Pacers squads did at their peak. Not this year’s Wizards, Raptors, or Celtics, and certainly not the Hawks of the past three seasons.
Whatever happens now — whether George stays or goes and whether there is a full rebuild in the Pacers’ future — at least we can say it’s good to have Lance back in the fold, if just for nostalgia alone.