Lance Stephenson might or might not be happy with the Indiana Pacers’ contract offer to him. But he has to be happy with the Charlotte Hornets’ contract offer to Gordon Hayward.
By doing nothing beyond waiting, Stephenson – the talented and erratic shooting guard who is testing free agency after four seasons of development and nurturing in Indiana – has seen the market change for good young wing players. Not necessarily his market to stay in Indianapolis, given Larry Bird‘s calculation of Stephenson’s pro & con bottom line: five years, $44 million, an average annual salary of $8.8 million. But the market overall, as determined by a pair of needy teams in modest-sized markets.
The Hornets’ decision to sign Hayward to an offer sheet for four years, $63 million (a max deal worth $15.75 per year) presumably has shifted things seismically not only for Stephenson but for Chandler Parsons, Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng.
Depending on what you read or believe, Stephenson already was displeased with the amount of Indiana’s offer and/or Bird’s one-price strategy.
Some reports claim Stephenson was simply disappointed by the Pacers’ number and wants to see what else is out there. Some claim he rejected that deal and is looking to leave. Among the teams said to have interest, from passing to strong, in Stephenson: Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Charlotte and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Taking the speculation to yet another level, there was word out of Texas that the Mavericks might deign to offer a smaller deal with Stephenson if he spurns Indiana yet miscalculates and grows desperate enough to accept a worse payday. Good luck with that.
We all know how the game goes from here: If Avery Bradley is worth $8 million a year to Boston with his limited offensive impact and Hayward is worth nearly twice that to Charlotte and Utah – the Jazz have been open about their intent to match anything Hayward signed – then it might seem, in sheer basketball valuation, Stephenson should be further to the right on the pay scale than what Indiana has presented. There are a couple of disclaimers though:
- The difficulty, or should we say near-impossibility, of attracting free agents to Salt Lake City. Epecially with the Jazz mired in the lottery. With a new, unproven coaching staff.
- Hayward’s restricted status.
Both of those point toward a player perhaps getting overpaid. A market that can’t dangle some mix of beaches, balmy weather, nightlife, lucrative endorsements and instant winning often has to show more money. And with RFAs, if the current team has expressed its intention to match, a rival can only fatten the offer in hopes of discouraging that.
Indianapolis isn’t a glamour market but it has gone to two consecutive East finals, with a breakthrough possible again next spring, especially if Miami has a break-up. Stephenson is unrestricted, which means that the team that overpays him will be the one stuck.
And stuck is an operative word, leading to a couple legitimate disclaimers about Stephenson and his value:
- The Pacers shooting guard has had an unusually patient and nurturing situation in Indiana. Bird has had his back from the start, drafting him in 2010 despite off-court incidents and behavioral concerns. The team’s veterans have encouraged and kept him in line for the most part. Even when Stephenson drove down his own value with some high-profile hi-jinks against LeBron James and the Heat this postseason, Bird wondered aloud if he should have spent more face time with the irrepressible player.
- Teams, including the Pacers, wonder what Stephenson might be like off the court once he has an eight-figure, multi-year guaranteed contract. He might take that as validation of everything – good and bad – he’s been doing, rather than a deal offered flinchingly in the hope that his maturity might catch up to his skill level.
Bob Kravitz, longtime columnist for the Indianapolis Star, urged the Pacers not to budge beyond the five years and $44 million they already have offered Stephenson. “Stephenson will never have as good a support system (read: Bird) as he has now in Indianapolis,” Kravitz wrote. “He will never find a group of teammates more willing (however grudgingly) to put up with his antics, both on the practice court and in games. He will never find a fan base more willing to embrace him, a fan base that loves him despite all his warts, much like Ron Artest, the former Pacers All-Star now named Metta World Peace.”
And yet, the one spinout other teams wouldn’t have to worry about that should concern the Pacers is Stephenson and his possible growing impatience with being the team’s “little brother.” He could well be Indiana’s second-best player in 2014-15 behind Paul George but his salary could be fourth- or fifth-highest on the roster.
One thing the Pacers can offer Stephenson that other teams cannot is the comfort zone he has at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, not just with the fans but in his eccentric “Bird Cave.” More pressing at the moment, though, for those who would consider him: caveat emptor.