Have you heard the latest about Lance Stephenson? Yeah, you probably have. There has been no shortage opinion generated by the most polarizing of the Pacers, but the reality is he sits atop the franchise’s priority list heading into the offseason. Every other move Larry Bird makes will depend first upon what happens with Stephenson in free agency.
With that being the case, let’s take a stab at separating fact from fiction, as it pertains to Stephenson, in light of the comments offered by Bird and coach Frank Vogel in their year-end press briefing Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
>> The Pacers should just let him walk
This is the strangest of fictions, because there is no logical substance to the argument, only emotion. By any measure, Stephenson is the second-best player on the team, its best shot-creator and playmaker. While he lapses into old, bad habits, Stephenson was a substantially better player in 2013-14 than the previous year and there is every reason to believe he will continue to improve.
“He has the ability to be a multi-year All-Star at some point,” Vogel said. “He’s got to make sure he puts it all together. Obviously, helping your team win is a part of that.”
Yes, his personality on and off the court can be difficult for teammates to handle, but he is one of the few regulars who can be counted upon to play with passion, edge and aggression on a night-in, night-out basis. Granted, it is occasionally misdirected but which would you rather have: a teammate who needs to calm down a little, or one who often lacks energy?
>> He cost himself millions in the playoffs
Keep in mind, the reports you’re reading about the market for Stephenson drying up and his value diminishing are being generated by the same folks who started the Vogel-is-coaching-for-his-job stuff a month ago, and some of the anonymous sources for those stories could very well be GMs who are trying to drive down the price for their own benefit.
That said, common sense dictates Stephenson did not help himself at all with his behavior. He did not play well enough to compensate for the playground mentality he brought to the conference finals.
>> He’s another Ron Artest, a ticking time bomb
This is a common comparison, but fundamentally flawed. Artest was a boxer, a fighter, a player who was truly intimidating to opponents because they quite literally never knew what he would do next, how far he would go to further his cause. Artest was very much a lone wolf who simply did not care who liked him or hated him as long as opponents feared him.
While Stephenson exhibits some of the same tendencies, he’s more of a Stephen Jackson type. In a disciplined culture with veteran leadership, he can thrive. Put him in a room with another knucklehead or two and he’ll spin out of control.
The Pacers’ culture isn’t as strong as they’d like, largely because they do not have enough veteran leadership, but neither do they have multiple knuckleheads to fan the flames.
>> He has Bird’s unequivocal backing
No one has been a more vocal or loyal supporter as Stephenson has developed, but Bird gave the distinct impression Monday that even he has grown weary of the behavior problems.
“I’m very disappointed that in Game 5, Paul George puts on a spectacular display, hit every key shot we needed, made every big play and then after the game everyone’s talking about all the nonsense,” Bird said. “To me, that’s not being a professional and that’s not what we want to be about here.”
Before Game 6, Bird told Stephenson to knock it off, but that had little effect as he provoked LeBron James by cupping his chin during a dead ball and flirted with early ejection with a ridiculous flagrant foul against Norris Cole.
>> He should be re-signed at any price
The Pacers currently have 10 players under contract for 2014-15 with salaries totaling roughly $66 million – a figure that would jump to $68 million if Paul George makes an all-NBA team. They’re already well over the projected salary cap of $63.2 million, and approaching the projected luxury tax of $77 million. The Pacers will not exceed the tax, so even if they filled out the final two roster spots at the bare minimum, that would leave them around $8 million as the highest possible starting salary.
Given the maximum term (five years) and raises (7.5 percent), that would lead to a five-year, $46.5 million contract. All things considered, that seems a reasonable, workable number.
To go higher, the Pacers could cut $3.9 million in non-guaranteed salary by releasing Luis Scola and Donald Sloan, but that would further thin an already undermanned bench and require them to have up to four players earning league minimum on the roster, which isn’t a recipe for success.
“I haven’t sat down with the owner and gotten to that number yet but that’s what it’s going to end up being,” Bird said. “There’s a price we’re going to and we’re not going over.”
>> A big contract would exacerbate his behavior
It certainly is possible the money could serve in Stephenson’s mind as an affirmation and give him license to continue the antics, if not expand upon them. It’s also possible the money would bring a greater sense of accountability and responsibility, although while typing that sentence I have to admit I chuckled.
Either way, money can have a profound effect on a player’s self-image (see: Roy Hibbert) and this is a factor the Pacers must consider strongly before making their final decision.
>> If he leaves, the Pacers would be screwed
They are not quite painted into a corner, but neither do they have much leeway. There is no potential successor on the roster. Evan Turner will also be a free agent and there seems little chance he’ll give a hometown discount to a team that left him out in the cold.
“What it comes down to is it’s up to him, whether he wants to be here or not,” Bird said. “I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”
As costly as it would be for the Pacers to keep Stephenson, it would be costlier still to lose him.