INDIANAPOLIS — Last week, the Indiana Pacers lost Lance Stephenson.
On Monday, they replaced one of the NBA’s best young players with shooting guard Rodney Stuckey.
It’s a swap that will make it a challenge for Indiana to win a third straight title in a division that might be the toughest in basketball.
“We just have to come out and play hard and play with each other,” Stuckey said of the vastly improved Central Division. “I’m glad LeBron went back to Cleveland; I thought that was good for him and the city of Cleveland. Chicago got better, but I think we still have a pretty good chance to make some noise.”
The demise that plagued the Pacers’ regular season continued as Indiana crumbled in the playoffs and sputtered all the way into the offseason without a first-round pick and little to no money to make a splash in free agency.
Indiana could not afford to let Stephenson walk away but they couldn’t really afford to keep him, either. The result: Stephenson opted to join Charlotte, becoming a cornerstone for the Hornets’ rebuilding project and perhaps putting him in line for a max contract when his three-year deal expires — something that was unlikely to happen in Indiana.
So the Pacers went to Plan B, signing Stuckey, who might benefit from a change of scenery.
“I’ve got to come in and earn everyone’s respect, first and foremost, just play hard with them and compete with them,” Stuckey said. “I hate losing. It’s never fun when you’re losing. I knew that Indiana was always a great organization and they win. That’s what I’m all about. At the end of the day, winning is what I want to do.”
Along with Stuckey, 28, who averaged 13.9 points with Detroit last season, the Pacers signed 6-foot-10 European forward Damjan Rudez and former Cavaliers swingman C.J. Miles in an attempt to solve their shooting woes. The 27-year-old Miles, 27, averaged 9.9 points last season with Cleveland.
That may not be enough to keep up with the rest of the division.
With James’ decision to return home to Ohio, the Cavs became the favorite to win the East. They also have the No.1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, and could be in the mix to sign All-Star forward Kevin Love.
Chicago took All-American Doug McDermott in the draft and will be much stronger with the additions of Pau Gasol and fellow Spaniard Nikola Mirotic. If Derrick Rose and defensive player of the year Joakim Noah are healthy, the Central Division could be a race that doesn’t include the Pacers.
The Pacers might be in better shape to reload next offseason when they can redo the contracts of Roy Hibbert and David West — or possibly change direction.
Indiana still has one of the league’s most talented young players in All-Star Paul George to go with Hibbert, West, veteran George Hill and potentially the strongest bench in the division.