Appreciate the Indiana Pacers of today, because they could be gone tomorrow.
Young, disciplined, selfless and dripping with championship potential, it seems inconceivable that Indiana's run could draw to a close anytime soon.
Roy Hibbert is only 27. Paul George and Lance Stephenson are only 23. Only three players are over 30 on the entire roster. Danny Granger is healthy and playing. These Pacers are perched atop the Eastern Conference—and entire NBA for that matter—playing historically good lockdown defense.
See, they're set for years to come. This won't end. It can't end.
The Free-Agency Problem
This summer is going to be huge for the Pacers.
Both Stephenson and Granger will hit unrestricted free agency after this. Granger, who is earning a cool $14 million this season, is in line for a substantial pay cut. Stephenson, meanwhile, is bringing home just over $1 million this year, and he figures to command much, much more.
How much more?
More than the Pacers may be able to afford.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Stephenson can earn up to $13.7 million in the first year of his new deal. Asked previously if I could imagine Sir Lancelot netting that much, I answered "no." Now, after watching Stephenson continue to tear up the league and consistently be Indiana's second-best player, I retract that "no" and offer a more mysterious "maybe."
Punitive taxes and a thrifty trade market make it so teams aren't inclined to wager expensive risks. Well, most teams. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have never been ones to shy away from a bad contract.
Most organizations aren't willing to put themselves in that position. There is still risk involved with Stephenson, who has undoubtedly matured but is still a wild card when taken out of Indiana's effective structure.
And yet, Stephenson is putting up numbers that dwarf any and all personality flaws or risks. He joins LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Michael Carter-Williams and Kevin Durant as the only five players averaging at least 13 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.
Remove Carter-Williams, who, like Stephenson, is still on his rookie contract, from that list and the other three are all slated to earn well over $15 million next season. What's more, of anyone on that list—including Carter-Williams—Stephenson is the only one with a defensive rating below 100.
This is a strong, effective two-way talent we're talking about. Though he may not snag a max deal, he's certainly due to exceed what Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix projected he would get:
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
Between $7 and $9 million would be a bargain for Stephenson. A steal. A coup. Given the potential All-Star campaign he's having, it's a bargain unlikely to be brokered.
"I'm staying with the Pacers," he told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth in November, suggesting he would be willing to accept a pay cut. But that was one leap into stardom ago.
Accepting less is not out of the question. Indiana gave Stephenson his shot and helped transform him into the colorfully dangerous two-way talent he is today. He could be prepared to reward that, increasing Indy's chances of retaining him—just not by much.
Here's a look at Indiana's salary outlook for 2014-15:
Via ShamSports (* denotes non-guaranteed deal).
As I wrote previously, this puts the Pacers in a difficult position:
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 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 around $6.9 million in 2014-15.
Try telling yourself Stephenson couldn't easily negotiate a contract worth more than $6.9 million in its first year. You'll fail. Because it's going to happen. Stephenson, at worst, is going to be priced near $10 million annually, well outside Indy's present financial means.
Team president Larry Bird has made it perfectly clear the Pacers aren't willing to cross that $75.7 million luxury-tax threshold next year, intimating they'll have to explore alternative options.
Embarking on a series of salary dumps is a possibility, as is holding onto the fading hope of Stephenson accepting a low-ball offer. Or, you know, there's always Granger.
Stephenson is more costly than Granger at this point. Indiana's former No. 1 scoring option has battled injuries since last season, and is now bolstering the team's bench attack. While his play has picked up, and he figures to be cheaper, he could still land outside Indiana's price range.
Even if he doesn't, Bird and friends don't seem prepared to offer him a multiyear deal. Remember, it was Bird who criticized his work ethic back in December.
Said Bird to the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz:
He doesn't work hard enough (in the offseason). He's not a guy who'll push himself to the brink like a lot of our guys do. He works hard but he doesn't push himself. That's why he starts slow every year and he just works his way back. Now this year, he's been hurt, so it's a different deal.
That doesn't sound like a man leaning toward investing any more time or money in his fallen All-Star. It's not out of the question, but it's not likely, either.
Realistically, then, the Pacers could lose both Granger and Stephenson. What happens then?
The Bench Problem
Indiana's bench is already thin. Worse, it's pieced together with potentially temporary assets.
Luis Scola and C.J. Watson are locked up through next season while Ian Mahinmi and Chris Copeland could remain in Indy through 2015-16. Let me ask you: Do you see any combination of players there, or elsewhere on the roster, capable of stepping up in Stephenson's and/or Granger's absence?
Never mind any of them could become victims of cost-cutting moves aimed at retaining either Stephenson or Granger; there's no one on the bench with that much potential.
There's also no free agents the Pacers could afford who replace what they stand to lose, either. Not unless they make some financially driven adjustments.
One and Done?
Look, the Pacers are a good team. A really good team. The best team in the NBA, actually.
But not necessarily for much longer.
George and Hibbert aren't going anywhere, and they give the Pacers two legitimate superstars to build around. Moving forward with them is going to be difficult, though, as unwanted change sets in.
At least one of Granger and Stephenson is gone this summer. It would take an epic series of salary dumps for the Pacers to have enough cash for both.
Losing Granger won't be the end of the world since Indy was already so good without him. Being forced to part ways with Stephenson would be.
It's not as simple as creating wiggle room. The Pacers will obviously do what they can, but there are 29 other teams, many of which have cap space and bottomless wallets, who could pursue Stephenson. Even if the Pacers create enough room to keep Stephenson, there's no guarantee they want to pay him what others could be offering.
Hibbert and George are already being paid handsomely, limiting the Pacers' ability to offer long-term contracts even with cap space. Having that much money committed to three players for a small-market team like them is dangerous and generally taboo (see the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden).
Aside from Stephenson's future, there's the already skeletal bench to consider. Who in the second unit will step up? David West's age is an issue, too. He will turn 34 this August and is already showing dips in production.
Trouncing all other concerns is Stephenson. That's whom we keep coming back to.
Barring any significant, cost-cutting moves, or his decision to accept well below his market value (and then some), he's gone. Face it. The Pacers cannot afford him as is. And if he goes, so do these Pacers.
Coach Frank Vogel will still guide them to incredible defensive heights, and Bird has shown he can plug holes on the cheap. Plus, George and Hibbert. They will still be good. In a shoddy Eastern Conference, even great.
But these Pacers, the league-best Pacers, are on the clock.
"You think about what we're doing, us being No. 1 in the East," George said of Stephenson's All-Star candidacy, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "Him being the leader in triple-doubles in the league. It goes to show how big of a part he is to our team."
Too big to afford; too expensive to keep. Too vital to replace, disallowing the Pacers from extending their fairytale dominance beyond this season.