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Pacers Free Agency: What would make Pacer fans thrilled this offseason?

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Surprise its Lance! But also the economics of signing a player to replace him.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers
Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) passes the ball to center Domantas Sabonis (11) while Cleveland Cavaliers guard Rodney Hood (1) and center Kevin Love (0) defend in the first half of game six of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest. The move that would make Pacer fans the happiest would be for the team to re-sign Lance Stephenson.

Indiana can theoretically do that because although they declined his $4.3 million team option, they can re-sign him to a cheaper contract later in free agency.

Based on Kevin Pritchard’s statement, the Stephenson move was purely for cap flexibility reasons -- meaning they might be open to re-signing him if they strike out elsewhere.

It’s important to remember Stephenson has a $5.3 million cap hold that the Pacers can only get rid of if they renounce him.

The economics of replacing Stephenson

Now let’s be real, the Pacers will be fine if they don’t re-sign Stephenson because they have the cap space to go after a much better backup shoot guard/small forward.

In a previous article I highlighted the different moves the Pacers can make to clear cap space but essentially it comes down to this: They’ll probably have at least $20 million in cap space and close to $35 million if Thaddeus Young opts out of his contract.

If Young doesn’t opt out (which I’m tired of speculating on; he’ll decide Friday or maybe even as I write this on Wednesday) the Pacers will need to use their cap space to replace Stephenson’s minutes off the bench and possibly to acquire another player to add to the rotation.

The front-runners to replace Stephenson are Chicago’s Marcus Smart, Memphis’ Tyreke Evans and Denver’s Will Barton.

Indiana might have to pay more Smart than they would for Evans or Barton. The Celtics can match any contract Smart signs. Boston has already extended him a qualifying offer of $6.1 million, making him a restricted free agent. If he takes that offer he can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

A major theme of this summer will be the lack of cap space and money available for free agents. Very few playoff teams (or more importantly, teams actually looking to improve their roster) have cap space.

A few of the playoff teams not over the luxury tax can offer the full mid-level exception of $8.6 million.

All of that was a long way of saying Smart, Evans or Barton may not get contract offers from a team for more than $8.6 million for two or three seasons. But unlike the other two, Smart has a floor of $6.4 million in terms of contract negotiation.

All three players might rather take a one-year deal to become free agents next summer, when there will be a lot more cap space around the league. But Smart would probably rather play one year in the comfort of Boston with a familiar head coach and teammates.

The Pacers will ultimately have to overpay to get a free agent like they’ve always done (see Monta Ellis and David West). But since most teams won’t be able to offer Barton, Evans or Smart more than $8.6 million they probably won’t have to go much higher than $10-11. This means they might have enough space to acquire two rotation players in free agency.