Lance Stephenson was always going to be more than just a one-hit wonder, and the Indiana Pacers are now well aware of that. Unfortunately, that means they're going to need to pay the breakout shooting guard if they hope to keep him on the roster.
He rose to prominence with his hard-nosed defense against LeBron James and the Miami Heat during last year's postseason, but he hasn't backed off his developmental curve during the 2013-14 campaign. Even if he wasn't able to make the All-Star team in the Eastern Conference, Stephenson has continued improving and asserting himself as a leading candidate for Most Improved Player.
It's perfect timing, because his contract expires at the end of the season, leaving him as a restricted free agent.
There's sure to be interest in this shooting guard, even if it's unlikely the Pacers let him go unless the price rises far too high.
But is that even possible? Does he have enough value to this franchise that he's absolutely staying once he hits the open market?
Value He's Added in 2013-14
On the surface level, Stephenson has already brought quite a bit to the Pacers.
He's averaged 14.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, making him one of only seven players to rack up a handful of each stat during the average contest, per Basketball-Reference. The others?
That's obviously not a bad group to be a part of, and Stephenson's line only looks better when you remember that he plays elite defense and is shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 34.2 percent from downtown and 70.6 percent from the charity stripe.
Of those seven players, only LeBron and Durant have earned more win shares. Additionally, those two and Batum are the only three with a higher true shooting percentage.
One of the main reasons the Pacers have made the ascension to the top of the conference in 2013-14 has been the growth of the offense. And that's where "Born Ready" should get the most credit.
Paul George's improvement as a go-to scorer helped dramatically, but so too did Stephenson's ability to handle the rock. No longer was he a passive player in half-court sets, waiting for the transition game to offer him opportunities for offensive success.
Instead, Stephenson figured out that he could control the flow of a game, still attacking aggressively but also dishing the ball out to his teammates with high frequency. Not only did his usage rate increase from its 2012-13 level, but he's also seen his assist percentage rise from 16.2 to 23.0.
To put that in perspective, Nene has a 16.2 assist percentage this season, and Kirk Hinrich's 22.9 makes him the closest player to Stephenson in the rankings. Going from Nene to Hinrich in just one season is a big jump.
The ability to take pressure off George and provide the Pacers with a sorely needed shot-creating threat has paid large dividends. According to Basketball-Reference, Indiana is actually scoring an additional 6.6 points per 100 possessions when Stephenson is on the court.
While there are certainly flaws with on-court/off-court metrics, it should be telling that only David West has made more of an impact in terms of point-scoring efforts.
I believe the word you're looking for is "invaluable."
Potential for More Growth
Don't fret over Stephenson being snubbed from the All-Star team during his breakout season.
He'll have plenty more chances to earn that honor, especially because he's only going to keep getting better. Not only is the 2-guard just 23 years old with under four years of experience under his belt, but he also has a few weaknesses that can certainly be shored up over the next few seasons.
First, his three-point shooting.
Stephenson has connected on a career-best 34.2 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season, and he's taking three each game. It's just the latest time that both numbers have trended in the upward direction.
He missed all five three-pointers he took as a rookie, and his sophomore season only saw him connect on four of his 30 attempts. Then his game changed each of the last two years, as you can see below:
Not only has Stephenson continued to up his usage, but he's also shooting a higher percentage each year. That alone should offer hope that he can continue developing into a valuable marksman in addition to a player who's capable of crashing to the basket in spite of tough defensive attention.
But the 23-year-old's other major improvement is one that needs to take place between the ears.
As Jared Wade wrote earlier in the season for Eightpointsnineseconds.com, an ESPN TrueHoop affiliate, "Sure, there are still some head scratching moments and he still looks like an overeager puppy who chews up the couch cushion at times."
Stephenson has averaged 2.7 turnovers per game, which is by no means a scratch-your-head-in-bewilderment type of number. But it's the manner in which those cough-ups come, as Born Ready can often forget he's supposed to play in control, trying to make too much happen when the opportunity hasn't presented itself.
That video is from two years ago, but there's a reason for that—you wouldn't be able to tell if it weren't for shifting rosters. Stephenson still plays the same type of carefree basketball, and while it often works for him, it sometimes backfires.
Sometimes, the 2-guard just forgets to think.
Both of these flaws are correctable, and that's especially true for the latter one. Stephenson still has plenty of room for improvement, which is one of the major reasons the Pacers can't afford to let him go.
Unfortunately, though, they may not be able to pay him enough.
According to Spotrac.com, the Pacers already have $64,931,690 committed for the 2014-15 season, which doesn't leave them much space whatsoever. That said, they do have a way to get that number to drop a little bit.
Donald Sloan's salary is non-guaranteed next season, and Luis Scola is owed only $941,000 in guaranteed cash, per ShamSports.com. So releasing both of them could free up almost $5 million.
Why is this important? Because Larry Bird himself has hinted that Pacers management wouldn't go into the luxury tax next year.
"Would he (team owner Herb Simon pay the luxury tax)? I don't know," the Hall of Famer told The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz right before Christmas. "I do what he tells me to do. Right now, his thing is we can't pay the luxury tax. It's like Oklahoma City; we're in the same position. If Herbie came to me, sure, we'd definitely talk about it."
The exact total of the new committed salaries, after releasing Scola and Sloan, would be $60,055,974, which is well shy of the projected $75.7 million luxury-tax threshold. Fortunately, there's no chance Stephenson's price tag could rise above $15 million, so Bird Rights would enable the Pacers to go over the salary cap and still stay under the tax line when re-signing him.
During the beginning of Stephenson's breakout, he was being pegged as a seven-figure player by many, including Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix:
Some were even more bullish—B/R's Dan Favale, for example:
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.
As it turns out, Favale looks like he'll be correct. Well, the more correct of the two since Stephenson's value has only continued its gradual ascent.
Based on the level he's maintained well past December, Stephenson is now an eight-figure player, something that Sean Deveney of SportingNews.com confirms:
He has exceeded expectations this season and could well win Most Improved Player, but in doing so, he has upped his price tag. One general manager told Sporting News that Stephenson should expect a deal that starts, “in eight-figure land.”
Eight-figure land is $10 million, of course. That’s five years, $57 million. If the Pacers can’t give him that, surely a team with cap space will give him four years, $43 million. (Under NBA rules, the Pacers can offer a five-year contract, and other teams can offer four.)
If $12-13 million is the right price range—which I suspect it will be based on his development and the contracts that other shooting guards have signed over the last few years—the Pacers may not be able to afford him. Not because he'd push them over the tax threshold by himself, but because the bench would be even weaker than it already is.
The Pacers would be stuck trying to shed Chris Copeland's salary or getting rid of David West for minimal returns, solely for the purposes of clearing up cap space.
"We will try to sign Lance, but I don't worry about it. If Lance is not here, we'll get somebody else," Bird told NBA.com's Mark Montieth during an interview in early December.
That mentality was fine then, but it should've changed by now as Stephenson continues to prove just how integral he is to the offensive efforts.
Re-signing him, even when he costs the franchise eight figures per year, needs to be the top priority during the offseason. Yes, even if it means moving West to do so.
While West is a tremendously underrated power forward who has occasionally served as the heart and soul of both the offense and defense, he's already 33 years old. Born Ready was, well, born a decade earlier.
The Pacers' future rests in the partnership of George, Stephenson and Roy Hibbert. They need to act accordingly, doing whatever it takes to preserve the presence of that trio.