Lance Stephenson is 23 years old, possesses one of the most volatile (in a good way) skill sets in the entire league and plays heavy minutes on a title contender.
But regardless of what happens when these two juggernauts eventually butt heads in the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
Indiana is well aware, and would hate to lose him. Stephenson is incredibly important to everything the Pacers do, as well as who they are. But questions abound.
Just how vital is he? Can Indiana replace him with a cheaper alternative? If they head in another direction, will they fall back to the pack, despite parallel growth in Paul George (a much better player who functions the same way) and Roy Hibbert?
Indiana's Small-Market Dilemma
The Pacers built their team from the ground up, and for them to become a legitimate contender taking the route they did is unconventional. Three members of their starting five were selected between the 10th and 40th pick in three separate drafts (George, Hibbert and Stephenson).
Their below-average starting point guard (George Hill) was acquired in a draft-day trade for a mid-first-round pick. Their second-highest paid player is their second-oldest player; he's also an irreplaceable contributor, locker room leader and proverbial rock (David West).
Indiana's two All-Stars, George and Hibbert, have max contracts. Both deserve the money (due to certain bonuses George should be eligible for at the end of the season, the specific figures for his max contract are open-ended), but the organization has made it known on several occasions over the past few years that they're unwilling to surpass the luxury tax.
George and Hibbert are both young and improving at an unforeseen rate. Signing them long-term was wise. But it creates an unavoidable dilemma with Stephenson, and how the team handles his contract this summer could have crucial consequences on whether they're able to preserve their spot in the NBA's hierarchy.
As Zach Lowe pointed out earlier this season, the Pacers will try their hardest to keep Stephenson. But the other option, of course, is letting him walk:
Back to Stephenson’s future. There’s another alternative: swallow hard, let Stephenson walk, and use the mid-level exception (either the big one or the small one, depending in part on George’s contract) to find one or even two decent cogs on the cheap.
Pending George's max deal, which we won't know until the season's over, Indiana could have approximately $62 million (after buying out Luis Scola) tied up in just 10 players. If the tax settles on approximately $75.7 million, as Lowe states in his piece, Indiana would have very little wiggle room (if any) to give Stephenson the money he's capable of receiving on an open market.
Remember: Tyreke Evans—an older, worse-shooting version of Stephenson—just signed a four-year, $44 million deal last summer. He was also a restricted free agent, and didn't make as much money as he could have.
This should scare the Pacers.
How Rare Is Stephenson's Genius?
Stephenson is important, but several unknown elements must be accounted for before stating whether the Pacers can maintain their status without him next season. The most intriguing and important is: Will George, at only 24 years old, be even better?
The answer is: "probably." But who will become his secondary ball-handler at shooting guard? Can rookie small forward Solomon Hill be that guy? Can the newly acquired Evan Turner (also an unrestricted free agent at season's end)? How will the competition look? Will Miami disband?
None of these questions have answers right now, but what we do know is all the Pacers will lose is Stephenson leaves. Indiana scores 6.4 more points per 100 possessions with Stephenson on the floor. He’s second on the team in rebounds, pulling in 0.3 fewer boards per game than Hibbert (Stephenson's defensive rebound rate is actually higher than Hibbert's by 1.4 percent).
For the Pacers, only George scores more points. Stephenson and George have both tallied exactly 217 drives to the basket this season (making the former Indiana's per-game leader). George, the All-Star, is shooting 44.5 percent on his share, while Stephenson is at an unconscious 59.5 percent. His game teeters between aggression and belligerence, but maintains an awareness that there are teammates, and helping make their lives easier is generally a good idea.
Stephenson owns Indiana's third-highest PER (above league average for the first time in his career) and third-highest usage rate, all the while providing ingenious artistry in the open court and contributing for one of the best defenses NBA basketball has seen in quite some time.
Only a handful of players have ever averaged at least 14 points (on 50 percent shooting or higher), seven rebounds and five assists per game for an entire season. Almost all of them are either in the Hall of Fame or heading there soon.
Stephenson averages 14.2 points (49.8 percent shooting), 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The only player who did what he’s doing while 23 or younger? Magic Johnson. This is rare and amazing.
With sincere apologies to every candidate in the running (especially Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic), Stephenson will win Most Improved Player. He's a volcano unfamiliar with the word "dormant," ever drawn to the basketball like a Louisiana mayfly drifting towards a porch light.
Why The Pacers Would Survive His Departure
Stephenson's brilliance is less impressive to those who attribute at least some of his success to the stability provided by his teammates, coaching staff and organization.
Should Stephenson leave the only franchise he's ever known—the safe haven that continues to foster his development, and refused to give up on him time and time again—for a larger payday, it's possible, perhaps even likely, he struggles to handle a dramatic increase in nightly responsibility.
The Pacers are obviously better in their current form with Stephenson on the team, but the relationship is mutually beneficial. Replacing him will be hard for a variety of reasons, especially on the offensive end, where Indiana can struggle to score as it is.
But as incredible as Stephenson's been, he isn't totally irreplaceable. The Pacers defense is literally unchanged when he steps off the court (allowing 93.4 points per 100 possessions either way), and thanks to George, West, Hibbert, Frank Vogel and Indiana's infrastructure, the team is strong enough to withstand his possible departure for at least one more season.
The Pacers may not be favorites should Stephenson leave, but they'll still contend.
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