Keeping Lance Stephenson Critical to Indiana Pacers' Future

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Keeping Lance Stephenson Critical to Indiana Pacers' Future
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The volatility of free-agent swingman Lance Stephenson isn't restricted to cringe-worthy antics or the social media gold they provide.

There's a swagger in the 23-year-old's step, a knack for creativity one would expect from someone christened "Born Ready" at New York City's famed Rucker Park. Oh, there's also an incredibly deep bag of basketball tricks, which allow the versatile swingman to fill a stat sheet like few others in the NBA can.

That's why the Indiana Pacers must do everything in their power to keep the versatile free agent draped in blue and gold.

The offensively challenged contender needs Stephenson's rocky road skills to liven up their vanilla attack, as SB Nation's Paul Flannery explained:

On a team that struggled to generate offense, Stephenson is their one true creator. A playmaker for whom the word 'mercurial' was invented, Stephenson is capable of brilliant passes and bumbling turnovers, occasionally on the same possession. But he is their best passer by far, and beyond him, the Pacers offense is reduced to slow-developing post-ups, contested Paul George isolation jumpers and some of the worst entry passing anyone has ever seen.

The proof of Stephenson's worth lies in the production, or rather the lack thereof when he was made a sideline spectator.

With him on the floor, the Pacers put up a serviceable 102.9 points per 100 possessions this past season, via NBA.com, which would have ranked tied for 19th in offensive efficiency. Without him, Indiana managed a mere 98.3 points per 100 possessions, a number surpassed by every club other than the openly tanking Philadelphia 76ers.

That 4.6-point differential in offensive production was greater than even that of Pacers All-Star forward Paul George (4.4).

Stephenson was Indiana's Renaissance man, one of the NBA's finest actually. Only two players averaged at least 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists while shooting better than 49 percent from the field in 2013-14: Stephenson and league MVP Kevin Durant, via Basketball-Reference.com.

For all the headaches Stephenson left in his wake, his box scores rang even louder.

The cap-crunched Pacers have to find a way to keep him in the fold. There is no emergency backup plan to replace his production, and that fact wasn't changed by the four-year deal C.J. Miles agreed to with Indiana Wednesday, as first reported by Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star.

Miles is a floor spacer (46.6 percent of his made field goals in 2013-14 were triples), the type of player Indiana can throw on the perimeter and hope one of its creators can find when he's open. Stephenson doesn't need to be spoon-fed his chances. He'll generate his own looks or create ones for the players around him.

The Pacers won't find another player like him, not in their limited price range at least. They were hurting for table-setters as it is—56.0 assist percentage last season, via NBA.com, 26th in the league—losing the best one they had would be a crushing blow.

It's also, unfortunately, a very real possibility. Indiana tried to lure him back with a five-year, $44 million offer, but sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that Stephenson "believes he's worth much more."

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Granted, these aren't uncharted waters for negotiating season. Players have a rate in mind and teams have one of their own, and those numbers don't always mesh on the first try.

What's potentially problematic, though, is that the Pacers seem pretty set on their price, per Buckner:

And history suggests that no matter how big a Stephenson fan team president Larry Bird might be, Indiana isn't going to budge from that figure:

The signing of Miles seems to indicate the Pacers won't buck that trend, as Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling observed:

So, will Stephenson cave on his contract demands? It seems like that question has already been answered.

This is his first chance to strike it rich on the open market. A second-round pick in 2010, he's collected all of $3.4 million over his first four seasons, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

A jackpot payday seems headed his way, particularly with the way this free agency period has opened, as Buckner noted:

The market spoke loud and clear during the first day of free agency when guard Jodie Meeks reportedly earned a three-year deal worth nearly $20 million from the Detroit Pistons. The 26-year-old Meeks will earn roughly $6.6 million per year after averaging 15.7 points on 46.3 percent shooting but just 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 steals.

Stephenson, 23, is a more versatile guard than Meeks, averaging 13.8 points on 49.1 percent shooting, with 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists. The Pacers' offer averages $8.8 million and comes after he wrapped up his rookie-scale contract and was paid only $981,349 last season.

Of course, Born Ready looks more than ready to collect in any market.

He's really only been a part of basketball's biggest stage for two years now. He saw just 10.3 minutes a night in 54 games during his first two seasons.

In 2012-13, he proved he belonged on this level, averaging 8.8 points on 46-percent shooting to go along with 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists. This past season, he shattered those marks, offering a tantalizing glimpse into what the future might hold.

Teams will pay a premium for this type of production, particularly when there's so much potential for growth. He's not a perfect player by any stretch, but he's good enough to expect—demand even—a substantial raise.

"Is Stephenson worth $10-plus million per-year? His numbers definitely indicate that. His skillset and age, too," CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted.

Stephenson is also a hothead, a player whistled for the fourth-most technical fouls last season (14). He also reportedly fought with Evan Turner the night before Indiana played its first postseason game, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

When Stephenson and the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, his antics often served as a bigger talking point than the actual games.

They even earned him a reprimand from Bird.

"He said, 'Don't do it again,' so I'm not going to do it again," Stephenson told reporters of his talk with Bird. "He's kept me on the right path my whole career, and if he says something to me, I take it to heart."

There's risk involved in throwing major money Stephenson's way, but the potential reward makes it a worthwhile investment. 

As his agent Alberto Ebanks told Buckner, the NBA doesn't have a lot of players like his client:

You can find a lot of guys that can give you 20 points. You can find a lot of guys that will give you 10 rebounds every night. You can find a lot of guys that will give you six or seven assists every night. But when you find that player who can give you all those things any given night and who could make his club better … that's hard to find.

Obviously, Ebanks is doing his job and selling Stephenson with those words. Stephenson isn't a 20-10-7 guy. He's at 13.8-7.2-4.6. There's a big difference between the former and the latter, yet Ebanks' message still sticks.

Stephenson has value, and in this market, probably more of it than the Pacers are currently offering. As Grantland's Zach Lowe observed, there isn't an easy way for Indiana to bridge that gap:

Easy or not, the Pacers must find a way to pull this off.

Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan detailed a list of potential Stephenson replacements, and let's just say it isn't pretty: Trevor Ariza (who Brunner notes may be outside of Indiana's price range), Thabo Sefolosha, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Danny Granger, Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Morrow and Nick Young.

Which team will Stephenson sign with this summer?

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Where is the player that prevents the Pacers from suffering any slippage on that list? Who out of that group even approaches Stephenson's level of two-way contributions?

Don't bother spending too much time on those questions. The answers to both are the same: no one.

Antics and all, the Pacers need Stephenson. He's explosive in every sense of the word, but his on-court eruptions are more powerful than anything Indiana can find elsewhere on the open market.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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