In case this is your first time here, here’s the concept of This Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: I take an interesting picture from the history of the Indiana Pacers from ABA glory to the modern era and literally write 1,000 words (or more) about the photo.
Previously in this series, we’ve looked at Reggie Miller’s torture of the Knicks faithful, Roger Brown and the ABA days, and the time the Pacers played with only six available players the day after the Malice at the Palace.
The Curse of the Photoshoot:
In the 2013-14 season, the Indiana Pacers looked like real challengers to the Miami Heat’s superteam at least for the first two-thirds of the season.
After taking the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012-13, the Pacers were on a mission the following season, starting off the year with a ludicrous 33-7 record. Paul George and Roy Hibbert were each All-Stars for the second time in their young careers. Hibbert was considered the best rim protector in the league with his mastery of verticality that made LeBron James bust out floaters that he used against nobody else, while George was one of the best 2-way wings in the league and still playing out the final season of his rookie contract before his extension would kick in.
Lance Stephenson, George Hill and David West completed the starting unit that made up the best 5-man lineup in the league that was light years ahead of anyone else defensively for much of the season under Head Coach Frank Vogel. This core was relatively young with great chemistry and the Pacers thought they had a team that would compete for years to come.
“I thought we would be together five, six, seven years, making conference finals,” said Vogel, now with the Magic, recently to ESPN.com.
On February 25, 2014, the Indiana Pacers had a record of 42-13 when the infamous photo that would appear in the March issue of GQ Magazine with the Pacers starting five unintentionally portraying a 90s R&B group and perfectly embodying the team’s (awful) slogan of Blue Collar Gold Swagger hit the Internet. While it was unknown at the time, a curse had been born.
After that Pacers GQ photo appeared, the Pacers finished the regular season just 14-13 in their remaining games, losing as many games and losing twice as often in its final 27 games compared to the team’s first 55, and the Pacers chemistry started to unravel as well.
While they still finished first in the conference and made it back to the conference finals, they nearly lost to the 8-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round and the upstart Washington Wizards gave the Pacers all they could handle in the second.
The Pacers lost to the Heat in a respectable six games, but many of the players from the photo and the team itself are still suffering from The Curse of the Photoshoot and have never fully recovered from the end of that 2013-14 season that started off so promising.
“Our window closed fast,” Larry Bird told ESPN.com.
Now only one player remains (Stephenson who returned from his exodus in the NBA desert) from the 2013-14 roster only three seasons later after George was traded to Oklahoma City and Lavoy Allen’s team option was declined, taking away the last remnants from the roster besides Stephenson. Even Bird has a smaller role with the team after resigning from his President of Basketball Operations position.
The Pacers missed the playoffs the following season and have finished 7th in the East the past two years. They now look prepared to start a rebuild around Myles Turner after trading away George.
Let’s look at what’s happened to each player from the infamous photo since the 2013-14 season from least affected to most affected by the curse:
West and his tight pants from the Pacers GQ photo seem to be the least affected by the curse, losing money, but gaining an NBA Championship. West decided to leave the Pacers by declining his $12 million player option after George’s lost broken leg season to get back to competing for titles and became a ring chaser that no longer had to be the only grown man and veteran voice in the locker room. After one season with the San Antonio Spurs, West joined the Warriors and got his ring this past season.
The Pacers have missed his veteran leadership since he left and his departure may have led to the Pacers plan to put George at the power forward spot the following season.
Hill had a career-best season in 2014-15 with an increased offensive responsibility with no George or Stephenson to share the ball with, but he also missed nearly half that season with various injuries. The following season Hill went blond and the Pacers rewarded him for his outstanding year by signing Monta Ellis and taking the ball away from Hill while he stood in the corner on most possessions. Aggressive George Hill became a rare sight.
Hill’s time as a blond should be no surprise when Hill enjoyed the Pacers GQ photoshoot the most among the starting five.
“GHill was probably the one that was really loving the whole photo shoot and loving his look,” George said when the photo came out. “They gave him that outfit and he ran with it.”
Hill was traded the following offseason in a 3-team deal that sent Jeff Teague to Indiana and Hill to the Utah Jazz. Hill had a great season for the Jazz but found his free agent market surprisingly thin as he again struggled with various injuries during the season that caused him to miss 33 games.
Hill ended up signing as a veteran mentor in basketball purgatory Sacramento on a 3-year, $57 million deal (fortunately for Hill, the Kings seem to be much less Kangz-like with their recent moves and draft picks) after he had declined an extension with the Jazz during the season for worth $80 million over four years. Teague meanwhile left the Pacers after just one season for the Timberwolves on a nearly identical 3-year, $57 million contract as the Pacers preferred to look elsewhere as they begin to rebuild.
Stephenson was nearly an All-Star in 2014 and led the league in triple doubles with five (which seems so small after last season’s MVP race) but also got into a fight with teammate Evan Turner, who was acquired for Danny Granger at the deadline, during a practice and became most well known for blowing into LeBron’s ear during the conference finals. He was also seen as one of the problems for the Pacers fraying chemistry down the stretch.
“There were issues with Lance not making the All-Star team,” Vogel told ESPN.com. “The addition of Evan kind of screwed him up. Evan’s a great guy. The moves totally made sense. They just messed us up a little.”
Stephenson was an unrestricted free agent the summer after the 2013-14 season and the Pacers tried to woo him with a personal movie and offered him a 5-year, $44 million contract when free agency opened. Stephenson and his (now former) agent declined the deal, thinking that the Pacers were low-balling and he would be able to find a better contract elsewhere.
“I wanted to stay there but they gave me a deadline where I had to choose,” Stephenson told the IndyStar when he returned as a Hornet. “So there wasn’t no time for me to make a decision. They gave me a deadline (before) how long it (was) going to take for them to go somewhere else. I had to make a quick decision and me and my agent decided we would see what other teams (were) talking about.”
Stephenson never found a better offer as he ended up settling for a short-term 3-year contract for $27 million with the Charlotte Hornets that had a team option on the final season as the Pacers quickly moved on to other free agents, signing C.J Miles and Rodney Stuckey.
After Stephenson had the worst 3-point shooting season in history in his first and only season with the Hornets, he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies halfway through the 2015-16 season and though Stephenson had some success, the Grizzlies declined his team option and didn’t bring him back.
Stephenson found little interest on the open market as he hit free agency again this past summer and ended up making the New Orleans Pelicans on an unguaranteed contract to start the 2016-17 season, but he was let go after just six games after injuring his groin. Once recovered, Stephenson signed a 10-day contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but after six games he an injured ankle and was not retained by the Wolves.
After playing for five teams in three seasons and his career prospects looking grim, Stephenson was given a lifeline by Bird and the team he now knows he never should have left in the first place. Stephenson signed a 3-year, $12 million deal and immediately looked like his old self once he was back in a Pacers uniform, providing a spark to an inconsistent Pacers team that went 5-1 to end the season to make the playoffs.
“I’ve been on so many teams,” Stephenson told reporters after he returned, “it felt like seven years ago. I’ve been in five different places since I left here. … It makes you stronger, it makes you smarter, and it humbles you also.”
Stephenson will in all likelihood come off the bench for the Pacers this season, but the real test for whether the curse is done with him will be if his humility from his struggles for three years outside of the organization remains with Lance as the team rebuilds.
None of these players have had a steeper decline in their career post-GQ-photo than Hibbert. Hibbert was an All-Star and the best rim protector in the league in 2014, but in the playoffs he became a laughingstock on the Internet as he had multiple scoreless games, even matching his zero points with zero rebounds on one occasion.
Hibbert, always prone to inconsistency, seemed to lose all confidence when the Pacers signed Andrew Bynum and fed him the ball in the post more in two games off the bench than the Pacers ever looked for Hibbert inside. Bynum’s time with the team was short, lasting only those two games before succumbing to injury, but Hibbert’s game never fully recovered. Rumors also swirled that George slept with Hibbert’s fiancé and that was causing his poor play (George denied these rumors in an Instagram post of him, Hibbert and Hill fishing together).
Hibbert’s fall was quickened by a rapidly changing league that was going smaller and faster and spread the court with all five positions. Pero Antic forced Hibbert outside his comfort zone in the first-round against the Hawks by forcing Hibbert to defend him at the 3-point line and Hibbert became a liability instead of the lynchpin to the league’s best defense.
After one more so-so season with the Pacers, Bird lost his patience with Hibbert and after failing to get Hibbert to decline his player option by letting him and the world know his role would be limited next season, Bird traded him away for a 2019 second-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Hibbert played one season with the Lakers and started 81 games but scored just 5.9 points per game and was no longer able to make nearly as much of a difference on the defensive end. Hibbert played the first few months of last season as the backup center for the Hornets before being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. Hibbert never played a game for the Bucks before being traded to the Denver Nuggets a few weeks later where he played garbage minutes in only six games.
The 2-time All-Star, 9-year NBA veteran is now still a free agent and if he finds a team, it may just be on a minimum contract as centers like Hibbert are becoming more and more obsolete as the NBA continues to evolve. The argument could be made that Hibbert deserves the “most-cursed” title on this list.
In the summer following the photo, George broke his leg while playing in an exhibition for Team USA. While George would eventually come back better than ever, the lost season in George’s prime would end up making George ineligible for the Designated Player Extension (George needed two of the past three seasons on one of the All-NBA teams, but in the first of those three seasons George played in only a handful of games due to his leg) that would have allowed the Pacers to offer George a massive $200 million plus extension this summer that may have made George more likely to stay.
Instead the Indiana Pacers likely started to lose George as soon as Bird decided to move him to power forward the year after his injury despite him seemingly having no interest in playing the position. Bird’s other failed additions like Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey and Al Jefferson combined with disappointing overall team performances also likely added to George’s discontent, but it all started with the photo and then the injury. George went from saying that one day he wanted to pass Reggie Miller to being destined for the Lakers in a span of just two years.
George seemed to lament being the last guy left from those teams before Stephenson returned as player after player was either traded away or left of their own accord in free agency.
“That team is gone,” George told ESPN.com of that group. “It happens. Players move on, organizations move on. You deal with it. You keep playing.”
George is actually the only reason the GQ photo exists in the first place. Originally GQ approached just George, but George asked if the entire starting unit could join him for the shoot. GQ obliged.
“They reached out to me to do some GQ, and I thought it’d be cool to get the whole starting five in it,” said George the day the picture was released.
With the way George handled his exit and his role in the creation of the curse (only half-joking on the latter), it may be a long time before most Pacers fans can look back at these teams and remember the good times fondly.
While you can claim that other factors actually led to the Pacers demise that season and beyond like the trading of Granger, the failed addition of Bynum, the league evolving overnight or the team’s crumbling chemistry, the Curse of the Photoshoot has struck a few more teams in the years since the Pacers GQ photo.
The Seattle Seahawks made the same R&B cover photo mistake that the Pacers made and lost Super Bowl XLIX to the New England Patriots after quarterback Russell Wilson threw at interception at the goal-line in the closing moments.
The Golden State Warriors had what appeared to be a JC Penney’s catalog shoot during their historic 73-win season, but lost a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers that season.
The New York Giants added to the curse and its rapidly growing list of victims last year with their boat trip picture before quickly losing to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.