The Indiana Pacers are an odd team. They went from world-beaters, looking dominant in the first couple months of the season, to downright miserable at times during the last couple of months. They struggled against the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, but then started to get things rolling again against the Wizards in the second round.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers looked like they were back to their old, dominant form. But then the Heat ramped up their defense during the fourth quarter of Game 2 and stole home-court advantage, something the Pacers fought for all year long.
Now the series is tied 1-1, and is still very much up for grabs by either team. Obviously, the best-case scenario for the Pacers this year would be to take down the Heat and make their first NBA Finals trip since losing to Kobe and Shaq in 2000. But what would the worst-case scenario for the Pacers be?
Salary Cap Issues
Ok, let's talk some numbers. The 2013-2014 salary cap is at $58,679,000. The current Pacers roster is at $67,182,414. For a small market team, that is a big difference, and a lot of money coming out of the owner's pocket.
Now the Pacers do have some salaries coming off the books this year that will help with the cap. Evan Turner is at $6.7 million this year, but has a qualifying offer attached for next year. If they make that qualifying offer, he becomes a restricted free agent. If you have watched Turner play the last couple months, you know that isn't going to happen. Lavoy Allen is at $3.1 million, but becomes a free agent this summer. Just right there, the Pacers free up almost $10 million in cap space and could revamp their roster for a run at the NBA Finals next year, as the Miami Heat look very vulnerable this year.
Well, not so fast. Two of the Pacers' best players, Paul George and Lance Stephenson, make the cap a little more complicated next year. The former already signed another contract, which will bloat his $3.3 million salary this year to $15.8 million next year. Lance is due for an upgrade as well, only making $981,349 this season, which after he will become an unrestricted free agent.
The Pacers already have $65,708,778 in committed money towards next year's salary cap, and that is before re-signing Lance. This is going to be tricky.
What's the Worst That Can Happen?
During the bad Pacers stretch towards the end of the season, we watched a lot of the negative of young Lance's game. He has a strong personality, over-gambled often on possessions, and tried to take over too much, despite having one of the 10 best players in the world, Paul George, on the wing with him.
However, that time was almost a blessing in disguise, as it started lowering Lance's market value enough where the Pacers could theoretically get him to sign for a lot less than what he would have commanded at the beginning of the season.
Although analysts have written many articles about Roy Hibbert and how he's the key ingredient for the Pacers success, Stephenson has really been quite the x-factor himself. Although his high confidence was a "negative" during the losing streak, it is now a big part of what makes the Pacers match up well against the Heat - he truly believes he is better than Dwyane Wade and plays like it. That's valuable. And even more important - people are noticing.
So, here is the worst case scenario for the Pacers - they lose to the Heat in the conference finals and Stephenson continues to play at this high level.
If that happens, the Pacers' window of opportunity might shut on them this summer. Shooting guard is easily the most shallow position in the NBA, which makes players like Stephenson and James Harden so valuable. Many teams this summer, the Hornets for example, will gladly overpay to get Lance on their roster for next year. If he commands upwards of $10 million on the market then the Pacers will be in a very tough spot to re-sign him.
If that happens and Lance walks, then the Pacers will be missing a valuable piece of this vaunted starting five. And it's not like their bench is good enough to make up the difference. Since they will already be over the salary cap, they will have trouble finding a player of Stephenson's caliber that they can sign and stay under the luxury tax threshold - projected to be at $77 million next year.
So as you watch the remainder of this series, watch for Lance. Although Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George's concussion might be the key to this year's series, Stephenson's play will be the key to the future of the Indiana Pacers.