It's Time for Lance Stephenson to Prove His Future Value

D.J. FosterContributor IMay 5, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 05: Lance Stephenson #1  of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball while defended by Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 5, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Perhaps no player in the NBA playoffs has more on the line than Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson

Stephenson's status as an unrestricted free agent this offseason has a lot to do with that, of course, but he also has plenty to prove before earning his next payday.

After starting off the season like he was shot out of a cannon, Stephenson has been wholly inconsistent during Indiana's late-season collapse. It's hard to believe that's a coincidence, as Indiana's offense can only really survive when Stephenson is being a dynamic offensive playmaker.

It's not all that hard to tell when Stephenson is engaged and confident. He gallops up the court, ready to make a flashy play. He looks to break down his man off the dribble. He flies in the face of bad numbers in transition. Even if Stephenson is sometimes reckless in these situations, the Pacers should be more than willing to accept some of the mistakes to get Stephenson's best.

Stephenson is the wild card, but teams that are willing to sign Stephenson to a long-term contract will want to see more consistency.  

With so many question marks around Indiana's future given its issues, Stephenson can't be an "unknown" come this offseason, especially if retaining him is going to force the Pacers into the luxury tax.

Here's what Pacers president Larry Bird told Shaun Powell of Sports on Earth about that tax line:

My owner will let me spend up to the (luxury) tax," said Bird. "Will he ever let me go over the tax if we had to? I don't know, but we don't even want to go there. We're going to do whatever we can to stay under the tax and build the best team we possibly can. With all the rule changes lately, it makes the playing field level with the big market teams. I like that. It gives us a chance although there will always be a couple of teams who'll always deal with the tax.

As Candace Buckner at USA Today reports, however, the Pacers might not need to dip into the luxury tax to retain Stephenson, as they can offer less money per year since they can offer a longer contract:

So, of course it makes sense that Stephenson — who becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer — would have a positive outlook regarding his future with the team.

Stephenson wants to stay with the Pacers, and his wish could very well come true.

Although the Pacers have roughly $60 million in salary committed for the 2014-15 season —including huge contracts belonging to Paul George and Roy Hibbert — when Stephenson hits the open market, Indiana can theoretically offer him a deal up to five years while still avoiding the NBA luxury tax.

Because Stephenson is one of the few unrestricted talents in free agency this year, he should have quite the active market. That may be particularly true after teams angling for Carmelo Anthony miss out and suddenly are staring at a bunch of cap space and not a lot of great candidates to fill in.

And there's a lot to like about Stephenson. He plays a position (shooting guard) that's been weakened over the years, and he's still just 23 years old. There's plenty of athleticism there to go along with an improving skill set. Chances are, he's not near his peak yet.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 3: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers dunks against the Atlanta Hawks in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2014 NBA playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 3, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

That's plenty enticing, but when you start creeping into the $10 million per year territory, potential isn't quite enough. While we've seen what Stephenson is capable of in spurts, the failure to do it over a full season is a little worrisome.

That's why this postseason is so critical. Stephenson has a chance to really establish his value on the biggest possible stage.

If he has the big games necessary for the Pacers to rebound and get past the Washington Wizards in the second round, his value will skyrocket. But if the Pacers continue to struggle and Stephenson only shows up in spurts? Perhaps the Pacers will wonder if investing so much in him going forward is the wise thing to do.

If you had to handicap it right now, though, it would seem like Stephenson is probably coming back to Indiana. The Pacers are able to go over the cap to retain him, and so it would certainly seem to make more sense to sign Stephenson when there won't be any substantial vacated cap space to replace his production.

And for what it's worth, Stephenson has been vocal in the past about wanting to stay with the Pacers.

Here's what Stephenson told Candace Buckner of USA Today

I wouldn't want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back," Stephenson said. "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.

Stephenson likely isn't the only one who thinks this group should stick together, but there will be vultures out there looking to pry him away from Indiana. To prove that he's worth being so highly sought after, both by the Pacers and other teams, now's the perfect time for him to make his impact felt.