Lately, placing Lance Stephenson on ‘triple-double watch' is becoming the rule for his game rather than the exception. On seemingly a nightly basis, the combination of his elite-level speed, athleticism, and court vision translates into yet another gaudy stat line that is practically unimaginable for most second round draft picks. At this point in the season, as crazy as it may sound, there is no doubt that the 40th pick in the 2010 draft is capable of stuffing a stat sheet. Yet, while it is rather astounding that Born Ready is leading the league in triple-doubles, the improvement of his overall game is what is going to potentially grab the attention of rival GMs next summer.
In fact, according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, league executives are already pegging Stephenson to be handsomely rewarded in free agency for his efforts this season:
Rival execs predicting Lance Stephenson will be worth between $7 and $9 million per season in a multi year deal this summer— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 29, 2013
From this insider information, the question that immediately comes to mind is not if Stephenson deserves a pay increase, but rather if the Pacers will be able to be the team that cuts him the check.
According to HoopsHype, the Pacers already have an estimated $65.7M committed in salary for the 2014-2015 (Note: this figure projects Paul George's max extension to start at $15.8M next season and assumes he will be eligible for the pay bump under the 27% max criteria). Tim Donahue of 8points,9seconds notes here that the luxury tax threshold is projected to increase to $75.9M next season. If so, that, of course, would mean that the Pacers would have approximately $10.2M to pay Lance Stephenson and fill their other roster spots potentially vacated by Danny Granger and Rasual Butler (Note: The Pacers have team options on the contracts of Donald Sloan and Orlando Johnson which combine for $1.8M).
Consequently, assuming that the luxury tax line does, in fact, increase, it appears that the Pacers will be able to make Stephenson a contract offer right in line with the $7-9M figure rival executives expect him to earn in free agency. However, paying Born Ready the high side of that estimate will come at a cost - leaving only $1.2M to complete their roster.
However, as Vice President of Basketball Operations, Larry Bird noted in an interview with Mark Monteith at Pacers.com, all of these estimations could be moot if the Pacers decide to shed or add salary before the NBA's trading deadline in February:
Q: "The question that gets asked the most by fans now is, how do you keep Lance? Are you confident you can re-sign Lance? That you'll have the money to do it?"
A: .... "I don't know what's going to happen this summer. We want to keep him and he wants to be here. This is the best environment for him. We will make him a great offer, an offer that I think is very fair. If you look at our books, how does anyone know what's going to happen in the summer. How do they know we're not going to make trades or have more money or less money. We will try to sign Lance, but I don't worry about it. If Lance is not here, we'll get somebody else."
Bird is right. There is no way for media members, analysts, or fans to be sure of exactly how much money the Pacers will have able to spend next summer (who knows... they might even be willing to pay the luxury tax). Yet, if for some reason the Pacers cannot pay the $7-9M price tag for Born Ready, fans and the NBA community will undoubtedly be aware of just how difficult it will be to "get somebody else" capable of replacing Lance's skillset in free agency.
This season, he has improved his per game averages in points (13.8ppg), rebounds (6.8rpg), and assists (5.2apg). Over the summer, he added another facet to his game by hiring shooting coach extraordinaire, Hal Wissel. The fruits of that labor helped to bring his shooting percentages up to 48% from the field and 37.5% from long range. While he has exhibited the ability to dazzle with outlandish dimes, Stephenson has also shown he is much more than just flash. According to the NBA's Player Tracking data, Lance Stephenson creates 12.1 points from assists per game while scoring 13.8ppg - meaning that he is responsible, on average, for approximately 26% of the Pacers offense. Although the team's collective rebounding has dipped this season, Lance has been a bright spot. Per NBA.com/stats, no guard in the league posts a higher percentage of rebounds per chance than Born Ready, corralling 67.8% of his opportunities per game.
From these numbers alone, he should, at least, be in the conversation for the league's Most Improved Player award, and, perhaps, even make a legitimate push for one of the reserve spots on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
With this level of improvement, there is no question that Lance is probably already catching the eye of rival teams looking for a player with upside that can impact the game with his passion, athleticism, and unlimited energy. In fact, in their ranking of 2014 free agent shooting guards, HoopsHype ranks Stephenson at No.2 (behind only Dwyane Wade), noting:
"Will be hard to keep for the Pacers if he keeps improving."
In 2010, Larry Bird did not hesitate to draft Lance Stephenson with the Pacers' 40th pick in the second round. This summer, in 2014, the team will have to be just as bold and decisive, because if the Pacers do not cut him a check another executive most assuredly will. For now, Lance Stephenson has voiced his interest in staying with the squad that took a chance on him, telling the New York Post:
"This is a great team. The future holds itself. I would love to stay here."