When the Indiana Pacers were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday night by the Miami Heat, attention quickly turned to the future of pending free agent and pest-sparkplug Lance Stephenson. Against Miami, Stephenson gained notoriety as a by-all-means-necessary antagonist of LeBron James and others, doing everything from blowing in ears to smacking guys in the face. No one much appreciated Stephenson's antics, and so a player who once looked like an essential piece of a title contender was suddenly faced with an uncertain future. It didn't help that teammate Paul George didn't give Stephenson a ringing endorsement in his post-elimination press conference, or that Pacers president Larry Bird apparently wasn't too excited about Stephenson's actions.
A few days later, it appears that the Pacers are a little higher on Stephenson than previously indicated. At Monday's season-ending press conferences, Bird and head coach Frank Vogel indicated that they want to bring Stephenson back if the price is right. From Michael Marot for the Associated Press:
''I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,'' said Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations. ''I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it.'' [...]
Despite all those problems, the 23-year-old Stephenson could be one of the hottest commodities in free agency after posting a league-high six triple-doubles during the regular season and emerging as the Pacers' top penetrator and energizer. That's why the Pacers want him back.
''Clearly, he's a free agent, and I'm certainly hoping that he's back,'' Vogel said, later acknowledging he played the role of team psychologist more this year than any previous year.
Indiana is expected to start the offseason $8 million to $12 million under next season's projected luxury tax threshold and already has its four other starters under contract. Bird has made it clear the Pacers will not pay the luxury tax.[...]
''We've talked about it briefly, but I haven't sat down with the owner (Herb Simon) yet,'' Bird said. ''There's going to be a price and we're not going to go over that.''
These statements make the Pacers' attitude toward Stephenson look a little more positive, at least in terms of the decision-makers in the front office. Both Bird and Vogel express their appreciation of Stephenson's talents and indicate that they want him to return, along with the rest of the team's core. Stephenson's cap figure was always going to be a major point of negotiations, even back when he was a candidate for the All-Star team.
Yet arguing that the basic facts of Stephenson's free agency haven't changed is a bit of a diversion, because past considerations of his eventual salary only really seemed to matter if he approached the max. When Stephenson looked essential to the Pacers' contender status, his return was dependent on a much different kind of outside offer. Not admitting that he's seen some sort of dip in reputation or relevance to the Pacers is an avoidance of the issue at hand, which is that Stephenson no longer looks like a sure thing for the future. Several months ago, the 23-year-old seemed likely to hold steady as a do-everything performer — now he could be the sort of player who gains a reputation as a malcontent and becomes nearly impossible to deal at a certain salary.
None of these points should lead us to believe that the Pacers will allow Stephenson to walk at any salary, or even at a relatively high yearly number of around $8 million. But it's very different for a team to say it wants to keep a player at the right number and for that same team to make keeping him an obvious priority. After the way the Pacers' season ended, with reports of discord involving Stephenson at the center, it's not as if this is a basic decision regarding a player's value. Everyone knows that Stephenson can be an incredibly effective player. The question is if all the other stuff — present issues, future questions, etc. — makes a great deal of financial creativity worth retaining him. The answer once seemed to be clear, but we (and even the Pacers) might not know the current response until other offers begin to take shape.
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