On December 27th, the Pacers were coming fresh off a 103-86 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, they were boasting the league's best record at 23-5, and the man they call Born Ready - recording 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in his team's most recent victory - was ready and willing to pinpoint precisely which free agent destination he was eyeing to take up roots, telling the New York Post:
"This is a great team. The future holds itself. I would love to stay here."
Through the ups and downs of the regular season and postseason, Lance Stephenson, at least publicly, steadfastly maintained his love-fest with Indianapolis. Following his team's elimination from the Eastern Conference Finals, the Brooklyn product, per usual, did not mince any words with USA Today about his desire to remain an Indiana Pacer:
"I wanna come back," he added moments later. "I love Indiana."
Assuming Stephenson's comments are genuine and not just posturing (Seriously, when has a free agent ever gone on the record stating, "I can't stand "X" city," or "I'm planning on jettisoning to a new team the moment free agency opens."?), the only question now is whether his love will actually be reciprocated by the Indiana Pacers.
During the aftermath of the Pacers' tumultuous end to the season, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that the runner-up for Most Improved Player may not have as many suitors as originally expected:
But here's the thing: Stephenson has turned off potential free-agent suitors with his unreliability -- ever since being snubbed for the Eastern Conference All-Star team -- as much or more than he's annoyed fellow Pacers. His free-agent market, according to the latest rumbles on the personnel grapevine, is already drying up. And it's not even June 1 yet.
It's pretty instructive to hear that the Dallas Mavericks, as ESPN.com has been reporting since Dallas' first-round playoff exit to San Antonio, do not intend to pursue Stephenson come July.
There is no doubt that both Good Lance and Bad Lance were on full display throughout the playoffs. Eventually, Bad Lance - the guy that inspires numerous NBA memes - had made enough cameos that Stephenson's recurring split personality syndrome became a nightly talking point on national broadcasts. Whether or not Lance's antics actually lowered his stock with whichever teams may be admiring his services from afar is yet to be determined. In an interview with SNY.tv, Stephenson's agent Alberto Ebanks indicated that his client will not be hurting for calls when free agency opens. According to Zagsblogs, during the course of the conversation Ebanks also, "reiterated Tuesday he plans to speak with other interested clubs."
Though he readily admitted his willingness to perhaps listen to other offers, Ebanks confirmed that Lance and the Pacers still hope to "get a deal done." Zagsblogs also reports that Lance's agent later praised the Pacers as a "quality organization" and then elaborated on the prospect of his client remaining in Indiana:
We are going to try to get a deal done. The communication has been there for the last four years with the Pacers and it has been beneficial for the Pacers and for Lance. I hope we can come to terms."
This news directly coincides with Larry Bird's recent remarks at Monday's end of season press conference where after admonishing Lance for some of his "nonsense" he also expressed his desire to keep the Brooklyn product in a Pacer uniform stating, "I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it." The Pacers' President of Basketball Operations qualified his statement by adding, "There's going to be a price and we're not going to go over that."
For good reason, Bird did not go public with the team's self-imposed price tag for Stephenson, but it would not be far-fetched to expect that whatever the final threshold is will be determined both by financial considerations as well as some rumored reservations. According to a report from ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Mike Wells the Pacers are apprehensive to over invest in Born Ready:
Despite Stephenson's tantalizing talents, sources said there are many in the organization who don't think it's a good decision to give him a rich, long-term contract, given the way he has acted during the season.
As many have reported, the Pacers are expected to be somewhere between $8 million and $12 million below the newly projected luxury tax line this offseason. Unwilling to pay the punitive tax, the front office will need to be fairly resourceful if they hope to retain Stephenson and fill five to six other potentially abdicated roster sports.
Readying for Born Ready may not bring the same shine and drama as the highly touted Summer of Love, but it should, at the very least, provide an interesting case study in whether quantitative data (player productivity and advanced metrics) or qualitative data (conduct and chemistry concerns) truly has the greater impact on terms of contract. Regardless of whichever side wins out, if the team that lands Lance Stephenson this summer can consistently reap the benefits of the player that helped propel the Pacers to a 23-5 start and stifle the player that made headlines for blowing in LeBron's ear there is no doubt that their money will be well spent.