Initial free-agency dominoes have already fallen, thrusting the Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson to the forefront of available and attainable talent.
Stephenson falls into that next tier, where the talent isn't as mighty but the payday figures to be equally substantial. He is among the most sought-after contingency plans, per Sporting News' Sean Deveney:
According to the source, the remaining serious suitors for Stephenson are expected to be Charlotte, Dallas — if and when the Rockets match the Mavs’ offer sheet for Chandler Parsons — and Indiana. Several teams mentioned in connection with Stephenson, including Boston, Chicago and the Lakers, have not been serious in their pursuit, the source said, while others could register late interest.
The Pacers have made an offer to Stephenson, worth $44 million over five years, but the feeling in Stephenson’s camp has long been that a little patience would pay off. As top names on the market continue to commit to teams, Stephenson has gained some leverage. No formal offers have been exchanged, it should be noted.
Parameters of interest have already changed. The market is drying up. After landing Chandler Parsons, the Dallas Mavericks likely won't have the scratch to obtain Stephenson, and they're not alone.
Other teams—like the Los Angeles Lakers and Boson Celtics, perhaps—will still give chase. Some of those clubs will be willing to levy their full means, courting Stephenson with dollar signs, hoping he sees potential in their cause, banking on this summer's biggest enigma being more boom than bust for years to come.
Imperfection reigns supreme when it comes to Stephenson, but his progressively polished two-way impact became something the Pacers could rely on.
Batum was the cheapest of that exclusive troika, earning just under $11.3 million. Making a hair over $1 million, Stephenson's 2013-14 per-game production came at an extreme discount. Even if he signs for $44 million over the next five years, his productivity, when pitted against those he joined last season, can be considered a bargain.
There isn't a guard with better rebounding abilities. Russell Westbrook, along with a few others, may rival his penchant for slinking into the paint and outjumping bigs and corralling long boards, but no one guard exceeds it.
That Stephenson can basically be used as a combo guard only boosts his value. He's a talented playmaker with the ball in his hands and served as Indy's secondary offensive catalyst for most of last season.
Commending him for co-piloting a 23rd-ranked offense is hardly smart practice, but many of the Pacers' problems were and remain system-related. They don't play to the strengths of an athletic, high-soaring Stephenson, who often fell victim to his team's failure and complete lack of interest in pushing the pace and running the break.
Place him inside a system that plays with more speed and allows for his explosive quickness to get out in front of defenders, and the results will be different. They will be better.
And yet Stephenson was still able to function within the Pacers' defense-first, clock-sapping design. For all the criticism he receives, he has a malleable motor that permits him to thrive on both ends of the floor, regardless of pace or structure.
Stephenson was one of just nine players to maintain a defensive rating under 102 while averaging more than 30 minutes per game last season; he was one of only five players to do the same while logging 35-plus ticks as well.
The Pacers weren't a team covering up for his defensive flaws, to be clear. Though he struggled when defending point guards, he held opposing shooting guards and small forwards to a combined player efficiency rating of 11.9 per 48 minutes—well below the league average of 15—per 82games.com.
Increased range on the offensive end has only amplified his worth. Stephenson was previously known for using his athleticism and ability to reach the rim and create scoring opportunities—and that's if you looked at him as a scorer at all. He's been coined "offensively limited" for most of his career.
Like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal noted in March, though, he's hit his stride as an outside threat:
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...
...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.
Improvements still need to be made before Stephenson is considered a lethal marksman, but he connected on a career-best 35.2 percent of his bombs last season while attempting a career-high 3.1 of them. That's progress.
In almost every facet of the game, Stephenson made progress.
And it's the expected progress he's tracking toward that makes him an intriguing catch for any team—the Pacers included—looking to strengthen its starting lineup with a fringe star.
There's more than one reason Stephenson hasn't been locked up just yet.
There's more than one reason why other players like Deng, Parsons and Trevor Ariza have been signed before him.
Stephenson is still a wild card. From untimely suspensions to questionable on-court tactics to ungovernable emotions, he has proven self-destructive on more than one occasion.
Plenty of issues were afoot during the postseason alone. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Stephenson fought with midseason acquisition Evan Turner leading into the playoffs—an account that was later dismissed by Turner himself:
Against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson's antics reached new levels of questionable and unruly and awkward. There was him blowing in James' ear, and there was his face tap of the King as well:
"Buffoonery," Ray Allen said when asked about Stephenson's theatrics, per the Indy Star's Zak Keefer.
"Yes I am," Pacers president Larry Bird said when asked if he was perturbed by Stephenson's actions, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt.
"It's Lance being Lance," Paul George would say, per Keefer.
Each one of Stephenson's actions were interpreted differently, either seen as inexcusably callow or harmlessly foolish. It's been that way since he entered the NBA. Debates are continuously waged, questions constantly asked.
Is Stephenson more of a distraction than he is an asset?
At the beginning of last season, there wasn't even hesitation in answering. Stephenson could be a one-man circus, but he was more constructive than destructive.
By the end of last year, tunes had changed, according to Deveny:
One league executive said the problems that have arisen—the public ones, remember, not the behind-the-scenes ones—with Stephenson will cut deep into his value on the free-agent market, and that a deal worth $7 million-$8 million per year is more likely to be Stephenson’s range now.
“You hear things, for sure,” one general manager told Sporting News this week. “Stephenson is a guy who has talent, but if you have a young team and you’re building up a culture, you have to consider that before you pursue a guy who might affect your locker room negatively. You have to do your due diligence."
This negative shift in stock is reflected in the Pacers' offer.
Five years and $44 million amounts to under $9 million annually on average. There was a time when it seemed Stephenson's price tag would inevitably rise above $10 million per year, and it still could.
But should teams like the Pacers and Hornets—and any other interested parties—invest eight figures annually in such turbulence? When his behavior both on and off the court remains unpredictable? When his past is peppered with controversy?
Calculating the Return
Recurrent shenanigans in mind, Stephenson's next contract and the team he signs it with will be determined by basketball.
Can he contribute effectively and consistently to a title contender?
That will be the question that matters most. It will be the only question that matters.
And it's one that comes accompanied by a wholehearted "yes."
Teams and critics are always leery when it comes relatively invalidated players working off contract years. Stephenson is both no different and dissimilar.
Last season's performance came during a contract year, but it came on a mostly no-nonsense championship contender that, admittedly, crumbled under a series of psychological fatuity.
But the team that is trying to become no-nonsense contender again—fragile as it may be—wants him back. That tells us, and others, most of what we need to know.
"Just playing ball," Stephenson said of his Eastern Conference Finals monkey business, via Keefer.
Hanky-panky dalliances and all, that's what Stephenson does: play ball. He does it pretty damn well, too—to the point where on- and off-court devilry will be seen as nothing more than minor disincentives to a worthwhile investment.
Salary information via ShamSports.