Is Lance Stephenson Playing Himself out of Indiana Pacers' Price Range?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 22:  Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers during the game against the Boston Celtics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 22, 2013 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 condition of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: 2013 NBAE  (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Indiana Pacers fans would be wise to cherish Lance Stephenson's ongoing evolution now, because he may not be around much longer.

Stephenson will hit unrestricted free agency this summer, where he will be met by an influx of hungry, deep-pocketed suitors bearing checks and promising additional fame. Among his admirers will be the Pacers, the team that facilitated Stephenson's rise from a brazen second-round draft pick to legitimate cornerstone with a pleasant edge.

The same team Stephenson doesn't want to leave.

"This is a great team—I’d love to stay," he told the The New York Times' Harvey Araton.

Remaining with the Pacers isn't that simple. Indiana is hamstrung by the same financial limitations all small markets face, detriments that won't disappear between now and free agency.

Constraints that could prevent Indy from retaining one of the most invaluable assets it currently has.

Gauging Stephenson's Value

INDIANAPOLIS - DECEMBER 20: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers controls the ball against the Houston Rockets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 20, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Determining Stephen's exact value isn't easy. 

The lines of potential compensation remain blurred this side of the CBA, more than three years later. Just know that Stephenson, who will earn just over $1 million this season, will net more.

According to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, much more:

That's not an unreasonable range considering how productive Stephenson has been (more on this momentarily). But it's also not a definitive one. Stephenson could see more, or he could wind up accepting less.

If he winds up accepting less, it will be for the Pacers. He won't be giving out discounts like Tootsie Pops on Halloween.

"I'm staying with the Pacers," he told's Mark Montieth in November.

While it's not unrealistic to envision Stephenson accepting a slight pay cut to remain in Indiana, his market may make the decision for him. Small differences are something he can stomach, but there will be a team that complicates things. That presents a drastically different offer.

It always happens like this. Teams force each other to make difficult decisions, and Indiana's is shaping up to be a doozy, maybe even an impossible one. 

Stephenson is one of three NBA players averaging at least 13 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. The other two? LeBron James and Nicolas Batum, who are each earning substantially more than $7-9 million annually. Batum is the cheapest of the two, and he's bringing home nearly $11.3 million this season.

For the longest time, I've also compared Stephenson to Andre Iguodala. The two are eerily similar in skill set, able to impact both ends of the floor while also seesawing between off-ball and on-ball scorers and point forwards of sorts.

Exhibit A:

Iggy vs. Stephenson
PlayerPTSFG%3P%REBSASTSSTLSOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.PER2013-14 Salary
Via Basketball-Reference and ShamSports.

Not to say I speak for everyone, but I bet you didn't see that coming. Bothy Iggy and Stephenson are versatile players capable of having profound impacts. Teams with will pony up for that kind of double-ended talent. The Golden State Warriors sure did.

Because we should all be suckers for additional perspective, let's take a look at all players who are logging at least 30 minutes per game while also posting offensive ratings over 105 and defensive ratings under 100:

Cost of Two-Way Players
PlayerMPGOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.2013-14 Salary
Kevin Durant37.812198+23$17,832,627
Paul George36.511394+19$3,282,003
DeAndre Jordan35.311597+18$10,986,550
Serge Ibaka32.211199+12$12,350,000
Lance Stephenson35.210798+9$1,005,000
Roy Hibbert30.310793+14$14,283,844
Joakim Noah32.310897+11$11,100,000
George Hill31.711198+13$8,000,000
Via Basketball-Reference and ShamSports.

First thing's first: Holy hell, Indiana. Four of the eight players on this list are Pacers. That's absurd.

Now, notice how much every other player aside from Stephenson is making. Save for Paul George and George Hill, he's the only one not earning eight figures annually. And I'm inclined to exclude George, since he's already the proud owner of a max extension that kicks in next season.

So, technically, Stephenson and Hill are the only ones taking home under eight figures, and at $8 million, Hill's pretty damn close.

This isn't to say Stephenson is worth Kevin Durant money—he's not. The CBA also won't allow anyone to pay him that much. But the average salary on this list is over $9.8 million, so that $7-9 million could be generously priced in the wrong direction.

How Much Can Stephenson Actually Be Paid?

Dec 31, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA;  Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) dribbles the ball during the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 91-76.  Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY S
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

All we need do is look at Larry Coon's CBA FAQ to find the answer.

According to Coon, the maximum starting salary for players who have been in the league for six years or less will be $13.7 million in 2013-14. Some team could offer Stephenson that coin.

Will they? Probably not.

That's more money than Iguodala signed for last summer. The current CBA punishes teams for overspending, preaching shrewd investing instead. But is it implausible to believe Stephenson could net $10 million to start? Not in my book.

Complicating matters will be Stephenson's free-agency status. He won't be a restricted free agent, so Indy won't have the opportunity to match any offer he receives. If the Pacers want to keep him, they'll have to sew him up before someone else does.

How Much Can Indy Afford to Pay Him?

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - OCTOBER 9:  President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers speaks to the media during media availability as part of 2013 Global Games on October 9, 2013 at Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines. NOTE TO USER:
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

This is a different, more loaded question entirely.

The Pacers won't be willing to dip into the luxury tax. Team president Larry Bird has made that perfectly clear. Leading into next season, that creates some issues.

Here's a look at Indy's salary commitments for 2014-15 (asterisk denotes non-guaranteed contract): 

Pacers Salary Outlook
Player2014-15 Salary
Roy Hibbert$14,898,938
David West$12,000,000
George Hill$8,000,000
Luis Scola$4,868,499*
Ian Mahinmi$4,000,000
Paul George$13,701,250
Chris Copeland$3,135,000
C.J. Watson$2,077,000
Solomon Hill$1,302,840
Lance StephensonN/A
Donald Sloan$948,163*
Orlando Johnson$915,243*
Total salaries$65,846,933
Total w/o options$65,846,933

Assuming the Pacers retain Luis Scola, Orlando Johnson and Donald Sloan, they have more more than $65.8 million committed to 11 players next year. As Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster reminds us, the projected luxury-tax line for 2014-15 is $75.7 million. This theoretically allows the Pacers to offer Stephenson just under $10 million to start, right in the $7-9 million range.

But that number is bound to decline.

Foster also notes that George is eligible for a $3 million salary bump if named to this year's All-NBA team, which let's face it, is going to happen. This puts Indy's ledger at roughly $68.8 million, suggesting it can only afford to pay Stephenson under $7 million in 2014-15.

Not only is that below Mannix's $7-9 million forecast, it prevents the Pacers from potentially rising above it.

So, you know, uh-oh.

Too Expensive

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 11: Lance Stephenson #1 of the Indiana Pacers is interviewed after posting his first career triple double against the Memphis Grizzlies at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 11, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User e
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Understand this dilemma was unavoidable.

The market demanded George and Hibbert be paid handsomely, and while I'm also no advocate of Hill's contract, $8 million annually is hardly sickening. David West' three-year, $36-million contract on the other hand...

But whatever. No one can say the Pacers have been irresponsible with their money. There's that much.

This early in the process, Stephenson is also far from a goner. He could surprise us all, and take less. Make that "much less." At 23, that's unlikely, especially after George and Hibbert didn't do the same. That puts this all on the Pacers.

Dumping Scola's $4.8 million salary creates extra wiggle room, assuming that's possible. Unfortunately, even that may not do the trick. 

"He has totally reinvented himself," said Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based basketball scout, of Stephenson, via Araton.

Reinvented himself to the point of a lavish contract outside Indy's means? If the Pacers are, in fact, unwilling to foot luxury-tax bills and Stephenson is averse to accepting well below his market value, then yes, that's exactly what he's done.

*All stats used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and salary information via ShamSports unless otherwise attributed.


    Why Victor Oladipo Is the Top Shooting Guard in the East

    Indiana Pacers logo
    Indiana Pacers

    Why Victor Oladipo Is the Top Shooting Guard in the East

    Mark Wilson
    via NBA Analysis Network

    Faried Charged with Criminal Possession of Weed

    NBA logo

    Faried Charged with Criminal Possession of Weed

    Mike Chiari
    via Bleacher Report

    Stars Who Should Be Pissed at Their Front Offices

    NBA logo

    Stars Who Should Be Pissed at Their Front Offices

    Grant Hughes
    via Bleacher Report

    Odom Had 12 Strokes, 6 Heart Attacks During Coma

    NBA logo

    Odom Had 12 Strokes, 6 Heart Attacks During Coma

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report