There are relationships in professional sports between players and franchises where both parties need each other to be successful. The Indiana Pacers and Lance Stephenson are a prime example.
Stephenson chose not to return to the Pacers after the 2013-14 season, as he sought more money, and was eventually paid $27 million on a three-year contract from the Charlotte Hornets.
In 2014-15 the Pacers, who played almost the entire season without Paul George, missed the playoffs and Stephenson was traded in the offseason after a disappointing first season with the Hornets.
Indiana had an excuse to miss the playoffs with George out and the injury bug hitting the team hard all season long, but things were about to get much worse for both the Pacers and Stephenson.
No one expected the Pacers to win the 2016 NBA Title, but many expected a top-4 finish in the Eastern Conference.
Seventh place finish and a first round exit from the playoffs.
Larry Bird fired head coach Frank Vogel, promoted assistant coach Nate McMillan to the lead position, and made bold moves acquiring players like Thaddeus Young and Indianapolis native Jeff Teague.
One piece was still noticeably missing from Indiana’s roster.
And not just Stephenson’s skills as a basketball player, but as a teammate and personality.
Many people projected Indiana in the neighborhood of 45-50 wins last fall, but mediocrity set in, and Paul George became unhappy, while expressing interest in leaving the franchise.
In February and March, the Pacers tied an NBA record for most consecutive games alternating wins and losses with 16.
Fans were upset, George was fuming, and the Pacers were heading toward missing the playoffs for a second time in three seasons.
And then Larry Bird saved his job and likely the Pacers season.
On the last Wednesday of March, Indiana released guard Rodney Stuckey, leaving the possibility of a former fan favorite joining the team.
You probably know the rest of the story.
Since joining Indiana in Cleveland on Sunday, April 4, Stephenson has lit a fire in the team and fanbase. The Pacers took King James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to double overtime and won five consecutive games to end the season and reach the playoffs.
Stephenson doesn’t deserve all the credit for the points scored in the Pacer’s two game win streak, but does deserve credit for the energy from the players and the buzz that has been coming from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Paul George is playing the best basketball of his career since Stephenson has returned, and Kevin Seraphin went from playing limited minutes off the bench to playing like an All-Star.
Both happening because of Stephenson’s presence.
As the season closed, the Pacers hot, and the Cavs cold, a playoff series between the two awaits.
Don’t call it fate, but it’s okay to wonder.
King James defeated the Pacers from the playoffs three straight seasons while he was a member of the Miami Heat, most recently in 2014 when Stephenson started playing head games with James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cavs are the defending champions, but have underperformed all season long, while the Pacers haven’t lived up to preseason expectations, but are hopeful of returning to being a top team in the league.
Could this be the turning point for George, Stephenson, and the Pacers to finally dethrone the King James once and for all?
Regardless of what happens, Bird’s move allowed Stephenson to save the season for the Pacers.