Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird has said he'll do "whatever he can" to keep Lance Stephenson with the team next year, and Stephenson has said he wants to stay in Indiana. That's all well and good, but the roadblock for the Pacers and Stephenson isn't interest, it's money.
The Pacers don't want to go over the luxury tax next year or in the future, and that presents a big challenge in retaining Stephenson, especially considering how well he's playing this season.
Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, which means Indiana will basically have to set their price and hope he accepts.
Because teams won't have to worry about cap space being locked up for three days like it would be with an offer sheet for a restricted free agent, Stephenson should be hotly recruited by multiple teams right from the start of the offseason.
The Pacers will have about $67 million on the books (so long as Luis Scola's $4.8 million dollar deal becomes guaranteed) before factoring in Stephenson. The projected luxury tax line is $75.7 million, so if the Pacers want to stay under that line (and they do), Stephenson can be offered a deal starting at around $8 million next year.
There's a strong chance that number may be reduced, however. If Paul George makes the All-NBA team like he did last year, he'll be eligible for a $3 million dollar salary bump next year, which would cut the amount Indiana could offer Stephenson to about $5 million.
Would that be enough? Probably not. Keep in mind that Tyreke Evans got a deal starting at $10.3 million this offseason, and Stephenson is in the same neighborhood in terms of skills and production right now. Teams will be prepared to offer significantly more than that for a 23-year-old player on the rise who has played a significant role on a title contending team.
General managers can safely assume that if all things remain equal, Stephenson will almost certainly re-sign with Indiana.
Stephenson has a strong relationship with Bird, and the Pacers should be a winning team for a long time. More money on the table might be the only real advantage suitors have over Indiana in this race.
Multiple teams will have the ability to throw a big deal at Stephenson in an effort to poach him away from the Pacers, but only a select few teams can provide a good fit.
The Hawks might be a little closer to contending than they appear. The early returns on the offense under new coach Mike Budenholzer have been pretty good, and Jeff Teague just keeps getting better and better.
Although the Hawks probably need to address the defensive side of the ball first and foremost, adding Stephenson to the core of Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford, with Lou Williams coming off the bench as a sixth man, would make for a dynamite offense.
The Hawks could have right around $12 million in cap space if they decline the qualifying offers for Gustavo Ayon and Shelvin Mack, which might be enough to make Stephenson consider jumping ship.
Weakening an Eastern Conference contender while adding a missing piece on the wing could be a real win-win situation for the Hawks.
Teams that can't compete for the very best free agents, but are willing to throw plenty of cash to the tier directly below, represent the biggest threat for Stephenson's services.
The Bobcats are a downgrade from the Pacers as an organization in almost every conceivable way, but money talks.
Perhaps the presence of Gerald Henderson and Jeff Taylor on the wing would be enough to keep the Bobcats away, but if Stephenson keeps up his torrid start, he might be tough to pass up.
If Indiana is unwilling to go over the luxury tax to retain Stephenson, would a potential cash gain of about $3 or $4 million per year be enough to convince the young swingman to leave? That might be too much money to walk away from, even if Stephenson is a perfect fit in Indiana.
Even after matching a max or near-max offer on Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz should have room for a big free agent, if that's the path they choose to take.
Utah has a piece for the future at every position, but Alec Burks is probably the weak link on the wing.
Stephenson's explosiveness and "random offense" in transition could help spark a Jazz offense that rarely gets anything easy, and if his improved three-point shot is for real, he could also help space the floor better than Burks can.
The Jazz will probably be content to add a top prospect, retain Hayward and sit on the cap space for now, but depending on who they nab in the draft, Stephenson could be another young piece capable of accelerating the rebuild a bit.
Other Potential Suitors
There are a handful of other teams with enough cap to try and lure Stephenson away from the Pacers.
The Boston Celtics could clear some space and give Rajon Rondo a running partner on the wing, but shedding salary might be difficult at this stage.
If the Detroit Pistons opt for the cap space instead of matching the inevitable max offer sheet for Greg Monroe, perhaps adding an improved perimeter shooter and distributor like Stephenson could be an option.
This is probably pretty unlikely, though, as Stephenson will likely already have plenty of offers on the table by the time Detroit's space became available, which probably won't happen in the first place.
The Los Angeles Lakers will have plenty of cap space this offseason, but my guess is that they'll be aiming a littler higher than Stephenson. It seems out of character for the Lakers to have to overpay for anything, and Kobe Bryant should have the shooting guard spot locked down for the time being.
The Milwaukee Bucks could throw quite a bit of money at Stephenson, particularly if they didn't give a qualifying offer to Ekpe Udoh, but the fit is shaky. O.J. Mayo is on the books through the 2015-16 season, so going after a true small forward might make more sense.
The Philadelphia 76ers are another team with max cap room, but this feels like more of a slow rebuild than an instant reload. If the 76ers could get two high profile free agents, maybe, but just Stephenson alone probably wouldn't be enticing enough.