The Indiana Pacers are preparing to stave off elimination and even the Eastern Conference Finals during Game 6 Friday night in Miami. One key cog to their Game 5 triumph: Lance Stephenson.
But Stephenson is also in the midst of the best year of his four-year career. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game during the regular season — all career highs — as well as 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in the playoffs.
Stephenson is basically auditioning for every team in the league, as he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer and is expected to be a hot commodity. Now it’s on the Pacers to lock up their talented young shooting guard.
Sports Illustrated laid out a number of avenues Indiana can go down to retain Stephenson, including tendering him a five-year deal with increasing annual raises, which is one more year than any other team can offer. That would be overpaying to keep Stephenson, which is not exactly the typical Pacers style.
By handing out a deal worth $10 million annually to Stephenson, the team is betting heavy on Paul George as becoming a legitimate NBA MVP candidate. He’ll have to be, as the team won’t be as able to provide the core five with expensive weapons off the bench.
Via SI’s Rob Mahoney:
How much is too much to invest in this core? Indiana has already made a substantial bet on George’s development, but a pricey deal for Stephenson would amount to doubling down. With no other star apparent waiting in the wings, committing big money to Stephenson would bank on the notion that George could become Indiana’s badly needed superstar shot creator.
That in itself isn’t an absurd proposition (as evidenced by George’s 37-point explosion in Game 5 against Miami), but it illuminates just how small the margin for error is for a team that loses its way whenever straying from its starting five.
The team could also elect to let Stephenson walk and get overpaid elsewhere. Then the Pacers are risking Stephenson taking his game to another level — for another team — and perhaps seeing their own team, which has reached the Eastern Conference Finals a second straight year, take a step backwards.
Then again, Indiana might not even have a choice. Stephenson could take the most lucrative offer that’s on the table and ignore whatever his current team offers to follow the money. Then there’s the fact that some teams won’t want to deal with on-the-court tactics, some teams will be scared of the alleged fight he had with teammate Evan Turner or the late-season drop in production.
The Sporting News suggests Stephenson should still have plenty of value on the market.
In the big picture, of course, Stephenson still will have significant value on the market, and even with the questions around him, he could still reap a big payday in the offseason if a team is enamored of him—one source pointed out that few saw Tyreke Evans as a $44 million player until the Pelicans handed him that payday last summer.
But he has become somewhat toxic in the eyes of those giving out contracts in the league. Just two months ago, the question was not whether Stephenson would get $40-million-plus, but simply a matter of which team would give it to him and whether the Pacers would match.
What to do? Hindsight is 20-20, so signing Stephenson to a rich deal only to see his production even out would draw plenty of criticism and perhaps stymie the Pacers’ rise in the East. Letting him walk to see him emerge as a superstar elsewhere: equally painful.
If retaining Stephenson puts more pressure on George to be a LeBron James, Kevin Durant-esque superstar, the choice is easier. Those two MVP candidates are once-in-a-lifetime players, and while I’d take George on my team any day of the week, I wouldn’t bet on George reaching those same heights.
Stephenson is a sporadic player who looks like an All-Star one game and doesn’t even appear in the box score the next. To overpay a player like that is a major risk, especially for one who happens to be a contender and is typically strapped for cash. Perhaps the money can be spent elsewhere, unless Stephenson is willing to accept a lesser offer to remain with Indiana. I doubt that’s the case, so I doubt he’s a Pacer beyond this series.