They came to the Indiana Pacers with two very different backstories: one a respected, iron-nosed veteran of the NBA trenches; the other a troubled kid with a checkered past and flairs for on-court theatrics.
Today, David West and Lance Stephenson have both proved theirs to be indispensable presences on a team looking to snag its first NBA championship since joining the league in 1976—a pair of disparately punishing forces capable of turning games on a dime and foes into feeble shells.
Unfortunately, with Stephenson slated to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Pacers might soon have to choose which of the two will be part of the team’s long-term plans.
According to ShamSports.com, Indiana’s 2014-15 salary commitments are slated to stand at just under $66 million—slightly above the salary cap and roughly $6 million below the luxury tax line, currently set at $75.7 million.
Being what some consider a small-market team, the Pacers have traditionally been reluctant to spend their way into tax territory.
How much their perspective has changed under the new CBA—with more shared revenue potentially coming down the pike and a team on the brink of title contention—is hard to say.
Here’s what’s easier to predict: Thanks to a breakout statistical season, Stephenson is guaranteed to fetch beaucoup bucks on the open market.
Back in December, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix intimated Stephenson is set to fetch something in the upper mid-level range.
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
With no noticeable drop in production since Mannix’s December 28 tweet, we can assume the clamor for Stephenson will remain somewhere in that neighborhood.
On January 2, our own Dan Favale took a look at what kind of accounting gymnastics the Pacers would have to pull off in order pay Stephenson fair market value. His conclusion: Should Lance land an All-Star berth—and the attendant $3 million bonus for next season—he might well price himself out of Indy altogether:
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.
Only Stephenson didn’t make the All-Star team. Which is bad for Lance, but potentially great for the Pacers.
Further helping Indiana’s cause: An interview Stephenson gave to USA Today’s Candace Buckner, wherein the Brooklyn-born swingman expressed his desire to reciprocate the good faith Indy management showed in drafting him in the second round of the 2010 draft:
I wouldn't want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back. I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we're a young group and I think we should stick together.
We know the skinny on Stephenson: 23 years old, a fantastically talented two-way player with a permanent, cornfield-sized chip on his shoulder and a beloved player who may well be willing to come back at a fair price.
So what about West?
As the ledger stands, D-West is owed $24.6 million over the next two years, with the 2015-16 season being a player option. At 33 years old, it’s hard to imagine anyone—particularly someone with West’s full-body mileage—turning down that kind of coin.
But the issue for the Pacers—financially speaking—isn’t with the 2015-16 season (West’s player option year), but next season, when they could very well graze against the aforementioned tax apron.
The Pacers could renounce Luis Scola and Donald Sloan, thereby saving a little under $6 million, but they’d eventually have to fill those roster spots anyway.
Whether Indy decides to pursue trade scenarios involving West will depend on how flexible Stephenson is willing to be. For instance, Lance could conceivably return at a discount, rendering whatever luxury tax the team pays negligible—particularly in light of the team’s glowing prospects.
If, however, the market compels him to demand something on the order of $10-12 million—hefty, perhaps, but by no means absurd—Indiana must decide whether keeping its core together and contending for a championship is worth paying the luxury tax.
Should that latter scenario come to pass, the Pacers might have little choice but to jettison West in lieu of Stephenson’s tantalizing upside.
To call it a tough one would be putting it lightly: More than any other single factor, West's arrival ahead of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season helped accelerate Indiana's culture of hard-nosed, no-nonsense basketball.
In parting with West, the Pacers wouldn't simply be losing a solid, veteran power forward. They'd be losing the beating heart of their very basketball being.
Unfortunately, looking for anything in the way of hard-set statistical evidence for choosing Stephenson—aside from the upside, of course—only compounds the underlying conundrum.
According to NBA.com, the Pacers have employed only seven five-man units for 50 minutes or more this season. One of those units—the starting lineup of Stephenson, West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and George Hill—has charted an overall net rating of 12.1 over a staggering 1,106 minutes.
To put that in perspective, the only other net-positive lineup on the list—George, Hibbert, Stephenson, Scola and C.J. Watson—is registering a plus-33.2, but in only 63 minutes.
The other five, 50-plus-minute lineups have all tallied net negatives.
The lesson: Indiana relies more heavily than just about any other team on its starting unit, meaning both Stephenson and West have been about as indispensable as it gets from a sheer chemistry perspective.
Whoever the Pacers pick, theirs is a future rife with potential and promise. And while logic might dictate they err on the side of youth and ceiling, how close they get to winning an NBA championship this season could give rise to a fair refrain from their fans: Do they really have to choose?
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 9, unless otherwise noted.