Should Indiana Pacers Let Lance Stephenson Leave in Free Agency?

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Should Indiana Pacers Let Lance Stephenson Leave in Free Agency?
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

While LeBron James' "The Decision 2.0" drags on, negotiations between the Indiana Pacers and free agent Lance Stephenson remain at a standstill.

The entire basketball world seems to hang in the balance while James continues to enjoy his summer employer-less. A few contracts and offer sheets have already been signed, but the major dominoes won't fall until the four-time NBA MVP makes his move.

Though the market for Lance Stephenson won't fully emerge until James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh sign new contracts, that may not matter to Indiana. Team president Larry Bird has said the team will not improve their initial five-year, $44-million offer made when free agency opened July 1.

And they shouldn't. If the team's all-out pitch—including a "biopic" of Stephenson's career arc and Bird's repeated profession of love for the former second-round pick—hasn't hit home yet, then he doesn't belong in the team's plans.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Lance listening in to Miami coach Eric Spoeltra's timeout was just one of his frustrating hijinks

Stephenson is a bundle of talent wrapped in bacon: flavor that tickles the taste buds but clogs the body's arteries. There's no telling if the team's chemistry will cause another implosion nine months from now, and it's fair to assume he will be a central figure if history repeats itself. The only difference is that while him blowing in LeBron's ear and taking notes from Eric Spoelstra only cost the Pacers $930,000 last season, that behavior could run them $10 million a year for half a decade.

There's a fair point to be made that the market for free-agent guards has already been skewed. Teams have struck some eyebrow-raising agreements with players arguably below Stephenson's pay grade:

Player 2013 PER New Contract Average Salary
Avery Bradley 12.80 4 yrs, $32 mil $8 mil
Jodie Meeks 14.75 3 yrs, $19 mil $6.33 mil
Shaun Livingston 14.52 3 yrs, $16 mil $5.33 mil
Lance Stephenson 14.72 4 yrs, $55 mil (offer) $8.8 mil

No, PER isn't a perfect tool to judge a player's dollar value. But if Avery Bradley is the highest-paid on this list then it's fair to say Stephenson will easily draw more than eight figures somewhere. Indiana can go over the salary cap (which it already is) to sign Stephenson because they own his Bird Rights. They can even go over the $76 million tax line now, and deal with getting under it later:

But the C.J. Miles signing (four years, $18 million) takes the Pacers dangerously close to it and within striking distance of the $81 million hard cap. And while Damjan Rudez's three-year deal for part of the mid-level exception doesn't count against the cap, luxury tax-averse Indiana probably wants to minimize the payroll altogether.

Even if Bird and Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard find it in their collective heart of hearts to pony up the dough at this point, they'll have to move the moon and stars to make it work. Or at least some combination of Luis Scola, Ian Mahinmi and Chris Copeland.

The financials are doable if messy.

What should the Pacers do with Lance Stephenson?

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It comes down to whether the team wants to blow up what little depth it has to keep the starting five intact with even the most minute shred of roster flexibility.

The downside of letting him walk is that you're downgrading the starting 2-guard spot with Miles while only adding Rudez and undrafted rookie Shayne Whittington to the bench. That's not terrible for a team that has made the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back years, especially after backing it's way there while playing dysfunctional basketball this spring.

Looks like head coach Frank Vogel will actually have to consider using Chris Copeland this season.

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