Larry Bird has a number in mind for Lance Stephenson, but will another team price him out of the Pacers' market? (Photos: Icon SMI)

Larry Bird has a number in mind for Lance Stephenson, but will another team price him out of the Pacers’ market? (Photos: Icon SMI)

20130429-135523.jpgAround 12:01 a.m., just as soon as July 1 arrives, Larry Bird will phone Alberto Ebanks and midnight madness will begin.

Ebanks is the agent for the Pacers’ most important free agent, Lance Stephenson, and when the market opens Tuesday, his client’s price may well be determined by how many other phone calls he takes.

“That’s the way you’re supposed to do it,” Bird said of the 12:01 a.m. call, something that has become a traditional opening parry into the NBA free agent market. “Lance wants to be here. They’re not going to rush the decision. I told him I will call his agent Tuesday morning and go from there and see what happens.”

Stephenson isn’t the Pacers’ only free agent. The team is not expected to make a qualifying offer to Evan Turner, allowing him to become unrestricted. Lavoy Allen and Rasual Butler also hit the marketplace. Bird has expressed interest in retaining Allen for frontcourt depth.

But the hub of the team’s offseason plans, the domino that will set everything else in motion, is Stephenson. With $64 million in guaranteed salary already committed to eight players, a mandate from ownership not to exceed the projected luxury tax of $77 million, and the certainty he must sign at least four players in addition to Stephenson to fill out the roster, Bird has his hands full.

He could clear an additional $3 million by releasing Luis Scola, whose 2014-15 salary is only partially guaranteed, but to do so would further reduce the roster numbers while effectively waving the white flag on last summer’s blockbuster deal that cost the Pacers a first-round pick, Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green.

“I’ve got a certain amount I’m going to pay him and I’m not going over that, I do know that,” Bird said. “But it’s going to be a very good contract. Whatever you hear, whatever you see, I know what I can do to make it work and it’s a very fair contract.”

Though the Pacers clearly want Stephenson back, and both the player and agent have said their preference is to return to Indiana, a number of factors could weigh to Indiana’s disadvantage:

  • As a fourth-year player with his best years ahead of him, Stephenson is very much a rare and hot commodity in the NBA free agent world, where successful first-round picks can be locked up for five years and extended for another five without ever hitting the market (see Paul George, drafted in 2010 and currently under contract through 2018-19);
  • There are slim pickings at shooting guard, with Dwyane Wade the biggest name but Stephenson among the best of the rest, thus driving up his leverage;
  • Though the Pacers have the advantage of being able to offer a five-year deal, there are a handful of teams with the cap room to make Stephenson a better four-year offer in terms of average salary, including the Charlotte Hornets, who have made little attempt to mask their interest.

It’s expected the Pacers will be able to offer a deal that begins in the area of $8 million, and that would mean commitments of $57 million to the starting five in 2014-15 and at least $62 million in 2015-16. That would also mean a bargain-basement bench, with roughly $20 million divided among at least eight players.

Are they truly willing to make an investment of around $50 million over five seasons for a young player whose behavioral issues played a role in the team’s second-half collapse, not to mention served as a major distraction during a six-game loss to Miami in the conference finals?

The last time they faced a similarly difficult decision, Bird was on hiatus during the summer of 2012, leaving Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard the choice of either awarding Roy Hibbert a max contract, or allowing him to sign a comparable deal with Portland.

Convinced Hibbert was still a young player on the rise, they chose to pay, and Hibbert’s production has declined in each of the two seasons since.

What would be their options if Stephenson leaves?

They would still be over the projected salary cap of $63.2 million, but would have three exceptions available:

  • The full mid-level exception of approximately $5.3 million;
  • A trade exception of $4,281,921 from last season’s Danny Granger deal that expires Feb. 20, 2015;
  • A trade exception of $1,121,520 from last summer’s Miles Plumlee deal that expires July 27.

That would afford them at least some opportunity to find a replacement starter, if it comes to that.

PACERS SET SUMMER CAMP ROSTER

A number of veterans including last year’s top pick, Solomon Hill, will participate in the team’s rookie and free agent camp beginning Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Hill will be joined by Allen, Donald Sloan and 33-year-old Roger Mason Jr., who has played for seven teams in 10 NBA seasons, most recently Miami last year.

Also on the roster are guard Eric Atkins of Notre Dame, guard Frank Gaines of IPFW and guard Jake Odum of Indiana State.

After practices Tuesday through Friday, the Pacers will travel to Orlando for summer league play, which begins Saturday against the Nets.

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