The most unpredictable and intriguing free agent of this summer's class could be Lance Stephenson.
Because Stephenson was a second round pick in 2010, the Indiana Pacers could lose a bidding war since he's an unrestricted free agent and just about to enter his presumed prime.
Larry Bird has publicly stated that the Pacers want to re-sign Stephenson, but doing so will be difficult because he figures to have several other teams aggressively pursuing him. Indiana has more than $50 million tied up in their four other starters -- Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill -- for next season, creating a significant salary cap/luxury tax dilemma.
Bird said Thursday night, after the conclusion of a draft in which Indiana traded their only pick (57th overall) to the New York Knicks for cash considerations, that he planned to negotiate a “very, very fair contract” with Stephenson. As those well-versed in the business of basketball know, where Stephenson is playing next season will be a result of what other involved parties -- agent Al Ebanks and the rest of the league -- think is a fair deal for the 23-year-old.
Stephenson’s age only adds to the allure of signing him. He was born in 1990, the same year as two 2014 second-round picks and he’s the same age as several other rookies. He’ll be in his fifth training camp before he turns 24.
For all his perceived faults, Stephenson has continually expressed loyalty towards the Pacers. He is aware that he is unlikely to find a better situation than he has in Indiana where he has established roots, personally and professionally, the staff largely laughs off his eccentric behavior and deep playoff runs are expected for several more seasons.
“The Pacers have made their position known on how they feel about Lance and we have made it clear that we have great respect for the entire Pacer organization,” Ebanks said via e-mail. “That respect and regard for the Pacers will serve as a yardstick as we explore the ideal situation for Lance.”
No matter how strong the mutual interest in between the Pacers and Stephenson, it’s money that determines most offseason decisions.
Indiana sits between $7 million and $8 million under the luxury tax threshold, but can create more room if they buy out Luis Scola. It would cost the Pacers about $1.9 million to buy out Scola's contract, but it would save them close to $3 million. Unless Bird and Co. pull off some arduous salary dumps, Indiana can only afford to offer Stephenson a starting salary around $10 million.
That sort of deal might be what Bird considers “fair,” but the rest of the league may have other ideas. There are a host of teams clearing cap space for guys like LeBron James, Carmeelo, Bosh and Wade and two different executives predicted in conversations that Stephenson could be a Plan B for a club that swings-and-misses on a superstar.
Timing will be key for the Pacers when negotiating with Stephenson, in large part because the list of interested teams figures to grow as free agency progress. They are well aware that they must strike quickly, which is why they have a full-court press planned to stroke Lance’s ego shortly after midnight.
Stephenson was a borderline All-Star in 2013-14, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. No player in the NBA had more triple-doubles. He was often the only member of the Pacers capable of jumpstarting a below-average offense.
He is known has ‘Born Ready’, but Stephenson has put in the work required to improve in each of his four seasons. He has been a mainstay at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during summers, while watching his shooting percentages (overall and from three) increase every year. Frank Vogel may have worried about his antics from time-to-time, but he never had to concern himself with Stephenson’s effort.
Valuable on both ends of the floor, Stephenson is most dangerous offensively when he has the ball in his hands. That fits well with Indiana’s current scheme, where George Hill is only a point guard because he’s the smallest player among the starting five. Stephenson logged a lot of minutes with the second unit, giving him the ability to operate as the main playmaker with C.J. Watson spotting up a lot.
Stephenson’s usage rate is lower (19.4%) than most would assume, even though he led the club in assists and was third in scoring. The Indiana roster wasn’t constructed to get the most out of him, but it has shown an ability to foster efficient productivity from the Brooklyn native.
Even before free agency began, a host of teams were either linked to Stephenson or mentioned as potential landing spots. The Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Charlotte Hornets have been most often mentioned.
There is varying legitimacy to reports linking the guard to those seven teams, but while speaking to a handful of executives over the last several weeks the Pistons, Lakers and Hornets were the clubs perceived good fits for Stephenson if he doesn’t re-sign with the Pacers. All three of those teams have the ability to outbid Indiana, which may be one of the main reasons why they are seen as a fit.
There is very little sentiment around the league that Stephenson cost himself a significant amount of money with his antics in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. “We could be talking about a few million over the life of a contract, but nothing major,” a source told me.
His flopping battle with Wade and infamous blowing in the face of LeBron were Internet favorites, but many decision-makers simply saw a vicious competitive streak. On a team that lost their way over the second half of the season, Stephenson was simply trying anything to get Miami off their game.
Stephenson would best fit on a team that has an established core, not a young, rebuilding team that may still lack an identity. That’s why the Pacers have had success with Stephenson, especially early this past season when George was a strong-minded MVP candidate and Hibbert a confident, Defensive Player of the Year favorite.
It all comes back to the Pacers, who are going to have to offer Stephenson an escalating contract even if they make additional room with a Scola buyout. The first contract he signed with Indiana was extremely team-friendly -- he’s made only $3.5 million over four seasons. He figures to make that much within a couple months in 2014-15.
A four-year, $50-plus million deal with a starting salary in seven figures that reaches around $15 million in 2018 will probably be the best the Pacers can do. West and Hibbert will come off the books after the 2015-16 season, allowing Indiana to offer an average salary around $12 million without having to pay him that much in the first two seasons.
Does Stephenson want to remain with the Pacers badly enough to take less money than he might be able to get elsewhere?
Will Indiana’s best offer be all they can offer without handcuffing themselves over the short-term?
Does Bird even truly want to bring the entire band back together for another run at that elusive title, or is he playing possum?
If the Pacers and Stephenson have been sincere in their desire to remain together, it won’t take long to find out if dollars and cents will keep them from doing so. The Pacers already have a dollar figure in mind and few have entered into a stare down with Bird and come out the winner.
Lance Stephenson is about to get paid, but by which team?