Stephenson will hit unrestricted free agency this summer, where he will be met by an influx of hungry, deep-pocketed suitors bearing checks and promising additional fame. Among his admirers will be the Pacers, the team that facilitated Stephenson's rise from a brazen second-round draft pick to legitimate cornerstone with a pleasant edge.
The same team Stephenson doesn't want to leave.
"This is a great team—I’d love to stay," he told the The New York Times' Harvey Araton.
Remaining with the Pacers isn't that simple. Indiana is hamstrung by the same financial limitations all small markets face, detriments that won't disappear between now and free agency.
Constraints that could prevent Indy from retaining one of the most invaluable assets it currently has.
Gauging Stephenson's Value
Determining Stephen's exact value isn't easy.
The lines of potential compensation remain blurred this side of the CBA, more than three years later. Just know that Stephenson, who will earn just over $1 million this season, will net more.
According to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, much more:
Rival execs predicting Lance Stephenson will be worth between $7 and $9 million per season in a multi year deal this summer— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 29, 2013
That's not an unreasonable range considering how productive Stephenson has been (more on this momentarily). But it's also not a definitive one. Stephenson could see more, or he could wind up accepting less.
If he winds up accepting less, it will be for the Pacers. He won't be giving out discounts like Tootsie Pops on Halloween.
"I'm staying with the Pacers," he told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth in November.
While it's not unrealistic to envision Stephenson accepting a slight pay cut to remain in Indiana, his market may make the decision for him. Small differences are something he can stomach, but there will be a team that complicates things. That presents a drastically different offer.
It always happens like this. Teams force each other to make difficult decisions, and Indiana's is shaping up to be a doozy, maybe even an impossible one.
Stephenson is one of three NBA players averaging at least 13 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. The other two? LeBron James and Nicolas Batum, who are each earning substantially more than $7-9 million annually. Batum is the cheapest of the two, and he's bringing home nearly $11.3 million this season.
For the longest time, I've also compared Stephenson to Andre Iguodala. The two are eerily similar in skill set, able to impact both ends of the floor while also seesawing between off-ball and on-ball scorers and point forwards of sorts.
|Player||PTS||FG%||3P%||REBS||ASTS||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||PER||2013-14 Salary|
Via Basketball-Reference and ShamSports.
Not to say I speak for everyone, but I bet you didn't see that coming. Bothy Iggy and Stephenson are versatile players capable of having profound impacts. Teams with will pony up for that kind of double-ended talent. The Golden State Warriors sure did.
Because we should all be suckers for additional perspective, let's take a look at all players who are logging at least 30 minutes per game while also posting offensive ratings over 105 and defensive ratings under 100:
|Player||MPG||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.||2013-14 Salary|
Via Basketball-Reference and ShamSports.
First thing's first: Holy hell, Indiana. Four of the eight players on this list are Pacers. That's absurd.
Now, notice how much every other player aside from Stephenson is making. Save for Paul George and George Hill, he's the only one not earning eight figures annually. And I'm inclined to exclude George, since he's already the proud owner of a max extension that kicks in next season.
So, technically, Stephenson and Hill are the only ones taking home under eight figures, and at $8 million, Hill's pretty damn close.
This isn't to say Stephenson is worth Kevin Durant money—he's not. The CBA also won't allow anyone to pay him that much. But the average salary on this list is over $9.8 million, so that $7-9 million could be generously priced in the wrong direction.
How Much Can Stephenson Actually Be Paid?
All we need do is look at Larry Coon's CBA FAQ to find the answer.
According to Coon, the maximum starting salary for players who have been in the league for six years or less will be $13.7 million in 2013-14. Some team could offer Stephenson that coin.
Will they? Probably not.
That's more money than Iguodala signed for last summer. The current CBA punishes teams for overspending, preaching shrewd investing instead. But is it implausible to believe Stephenson could net $10 million to start? Not in my book.
Complicating matters will be Stephenson's free-agency status. He won't be a restricted free agent, so Indy won't have the opportunity to match any offer he receives. If the Pacers want to keep him, they'll have to sew him up before someone else does.
How Much Can Indy Afford to Pay Him?
This is a different, more loaded question entirely.
The Pacers won't be willing to dip into the luxury tax. Team president Larry Bird has made that perfectly clear. Leading into next season, that creates some issues.
Here's a look at Indy's salary commitments for 2014-15 (asterisk denotes non-guaranteed contract):
|Total w/o options||$65,846,933|
Assuming the Pacers retain Luis Scola, Orlando Johnson and Donald Sloan, they have more more than $65.8 million committed to 11 players next year. As Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster reminds us, the projected luxury-tax line for 2014-15 is $75.7 million. This theoretically allows the Pacers to offer Stephenson just under $10 million to start, right in the $7-9 million range.
But that number is bound to decline.
Foster also notes that George is eligible for a $3 million salary bump if named to this year's All-NBA team, which let's face it, is going to happen. This puts Indy's ledger at roughly $68.8 million, suggesting it can only afford to pay Stephenson under $7 million in 2014-15.
Not only is that below Mannix's $7-9 million forecast, it prevents the Pacers from potentially rising above it.
So, you know, uh-oh.
Understand this dilemma was unavoidable.
The market demanded George and Hibbert be paid handsomely, and while I'm also no advocate of Hill's contract, $8 million annually is hardly sickening. David West' three-year, $36-million contract on the other hand...
But whatever. No one can say the Pacers have been irresponsible with their money. There's that much.
This early in the process, Stephenson is also far from a goner. He could surprise us all, and take less. Make that "much less." At 23, that's unlikely, especially after George and Hibbert didn't do the same. That puts this all on the Pacers.
Dumping Scola's $4.8 million salary creates extra wiggle room, assuming that's possible. Unfortunately, even that may not do the trick.
Has Lance Stephenson played himself out of Indiana's price range?
"He has totally reinvented himself," said Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based basketball scout, of Stephenson, via Araton.
Reinvented himself to the point of a lavish contract outside Indy's means? If the Pacers are, in fact, unwilling to foot luxury-tax bills and Stephenson is averse to accepting well below his market value, then yes, that's exactly what he's done.