The Indiana Pacers decided to decline Lance Stephenson’s $4.36 million team-option, and that will make him an unrestricted free agent this summer. As expected, this was a move that was not received too kindly by many Pacers fans. It is essential to understand the context of the situation, though.
The rationale behind Indiana’s decision was to maximize their salary cap flexibility for free agency, as explained by Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard in a statement that was released with the team’s announcement.
“This was a very difficult decision, but as free agency begins on July 1, we want to have flexibility so that we can prepare for all of our available options.”
Soon after the initial report that came out about the Pacers’ decision with Stephenson’s option, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported that the Pacers are expected to target Tyreke Evans and Will Barton. The cost for either option would be considerably higher than Stephenson, but both are better jump shooters and can provide a legitimate playmaking impact.
While Indiana could first evaluate other options like Evans or Barton, WTHR’s Bob Kravitz reported that the “door is not closed” for Stephenson to return to Indiana in free agency. It could be an opportunity to allow the market to dictate Stephenson’s price or a method for the Pacers to eventually sign him to a highly non-guaranteed deal to keep his antics in check.
Stephenson had a solid season for the Pacers as he averaged 22.6 minutes, 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists off the bench during the regular season. The issues in his production occurred when he plays on the road, his struggles as a jump shooter, and when he would get too out of control with his antics.
Pacers head coach Nate McMillan consistently noted that he did not appreciate some of Stephenson’s antics throughout the regular season in post-game press conferences. While it could very well be that the Pacers want more cap flexibility or more reliable jump shooting, it probably doesn’t help that they have to worry about keeping him in check too.
"He does some good things, and then we have to...we just have to watch him carefully," McMillan said. "Some of those plays can cost you. He has to be able to control his emotions out there going down the stretch.
"You have to play this game the right way. You have to have a respect for the game and your opponents. At times I think he crosses the line. When we see that, I have to sit him down. It's as simple as that."
There is a level of value that Stephenson provides to the Pacers that goes beyond measurable means. It’s not often that someone who comes off the bench can get a crowd on its feet when he is about to check into the game or makes a crazy play like Stephenson does with the home fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"He has a genuine connection with the fans," Pacers guard Darren Collison said. "He plays hard, he's entertaining, and he openly admits this is where he belongs."
Another aspect to take into consideration is that Stephenson typically raises his game in playoff-like atmospheres. The Pacers probably would not have made the playoffs during the 2016-17 season if they didn’t finish the season with a 6-1 record after signing Stephenson. He gave life to the team and the crowd, which was enough to earn a spot in the playoffs.
“We have a lot of quiet guys,” former Pacers franchise player Paul George said. “A lot of guys that aren’t talkative or keep to themselves. It will be good to have a guy like Lance in our bunch. We all missed that edge that he brought. He lit a fire under me every night.”
Stephenson was one of the few positive playoff contributors for the Pacers against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016-17. He averaged an impressive 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists while shooting 50.9 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, and 75 percent on free throws.
While Stephenson was not quite as productive during the 2017-18 playoffs, he still averaged 10.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists while shooting 46.2 percent from the field off the bench. It is not easy to get role player execution in the post-season and Stephenson ended up outperforming his regular season production.
Regardless, while the entertainment value that Stephenson brings to the game is excellent and there is a real connection between him and Pacers fans, winning is what matters most to an NBA franchise. It is vital to not commit to something that isn’t undeniably the best possible option before identifying whether or not there is potential for improvement.
Stephenson statistically produced average overall offensive and defensive efficiency and was a net negative this year both in the regular season and in the playoffs. That production is certainly not irreplaceable. Sure, you may not find someone who gets the crowd going quite like him, but it is possible to find more efficient players and that translates to more consistency.
What’s next for the Pacers is a need to address the open spots in their rotation. They could potentially need to address their starting power forward spot depending on the decision that Thaddeus Young makes with his player option, and he has until Friday to submit his decision. They will also need to find solutions for their backup shooting guard and small forward spots.