People have been wondering what to do with Lance Stephenson for years. Now, an unrestricted free agent at 23 years old, coming off a breakout season, it still looks like no one knows what to do with Lance.
He tore up high school competition in Brooklyn, winning four straight city championships and finishing as the state’s all-time scoring leader and earning the nickname "Born Ready." After a year at Cincinnati, he made the jump to the NBA, landing as a second-round pick with the Pacers. It took a couple of years and a couple of incidents ranging from silly (throwing a “choke” sign at LeBron James during his second year) to ugly (an arrest for assaulting his girlfriend before even suiting up for Indy), but Stephenson turned himself into a vital player for the Pacers. So vital, in fact, that the team reportedly offered him a five-year contract worth $44 million.
Lance didn’t take that deal, and he’s still dangling out there on a free agent market that’s clouded over by the league’s megastars sitting in limbo. While no one seems to be able to peg Stephenson’s true value, thanks to a belief that the influence of the Pacers organization and Larry Bird in particular is what’s made Stephenson into a force coupled with his bizarre behavior throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, one thing is for sure: Lance deserves a raise.
The $1 million Stephenson pulled in last season is a pittance by NBA standards, even more so when you consider his robust and balanced stat line.
When Stephenson was locked in for Indy, he was something else. He topped the league with five triple-doubles, played 70 percent of the team’s minutes during the regular season, jumping to 77 percent in the postseason. For much of the season, Lance looked like the Pacers’ only capable creator in the pick-and-roll. Presumed superstar Paul George
isn't blessed with the court vision that Stephenson possesses, although both are turnover-prone (four turnovers per 100 possessions each, while Lance coughed it up on 18 percent of his possessions). While Lance is certainly not a rock when it comes to holding onto the ball, his tendencies to drive into a crowd or seek a highlight play led to a good number of his gaffes.
George Hill, the Pacers’ starting point guard, felt the heat all season, and while it was mostly due to his ghastly contract, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in 2014 while his offensive numbers took a dip. He wasn’t much of a threat to score, as he took 3.4 fewer shots per game than he did in 2012-13. His passing wasn’t all that threatening, either, as he assisted on a smaller percentage of made field goals than both Stephenson and George.
Without Stephenson's aggressive drives and solid three-point shooting, the Pacers already awful offense dropped by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, from 105.8 to 101.3. For a team that couldn’t score, Stephenson’s presence was all important.
While Indy’s vaunted defense actually got stingier with Stephenson hitting the bench, he still contributed 4.8 defensive win shares, fourth on the team. Paired with PG on the wing, the Pacers had the length and quickness to disrupt offenses before they could even get going, while Stephenson showed off the ability to guard three positions readily. He’s a beastly rebounder from the wing, so hungry to snatch up misses that he allegedly pissed off his Pacers teammates by stealing away boards. While Roy Hibbert, despite his late-season struggles, set the tone and established a defensive identity for Indiana, Stephenson’s pitbull attitude was nothing short of vital for Indiana.
What’s He Really Worth?
Obviously, the market for Stephenson is a bit muddled. While he hasn't accepted that Pacers offer, there haven’t been many rumors of teams making offers for the mercurial swingman’s services. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks are rumored to be interested, while some feel like the Charlotte Hornets could be a fit due to their need for some punch on the perimeter and their gobs of cap space.
Presumably, figuring out what to offer Stephenson is one reason no contract has materialized. Using a model developed by our own Bryan Mears for his article from last week figuring out what the Heat’s stars would be paid if the checks were dished out after the season, we can determine how much Lance was worth to the Pacers in 2013-14.
Bryan took two metrics used to determine player value, win shares and numberFire’s nERD metric, both of which determine how many wins (or losses) a player contributed to his team over the course of the season. He divided a player’s win shares or nERD by the team’s total wins, and then applied that percentage to calculate how much of the team’s payroll should have gone to the player in question.
Stephenson ranked fourth on the team in both win shares and nERD, so how much would he have netted himself based solely on his play?
|Total||% of 2013-14 wins||2013-14 Salary||Salary by production||Difference
|WS||7.4||13.2||$1,005,000 ||$8,796,395.00 ||$7,791,395.00 |
|nERD||3.4||6.1||$1,005,000 ||$4,064,818.00 ||$3,059,818.00|
Apparently, Basketball Jesus has caught onto our ways here. The five-year, $44 million offer clocks in at an annual figure right at what Lance produced last season. The Pacers likely are assuming Stephenson will improve, as Stephenson must think as well, so that offer is a bargain for the Pacers, while Stephenson can understandably view it as a low-ball deal.
Our metrics are not as kind to Lance. He came more than two wins behind the maligned Hill (5.6 to 3.4) and finished fourth on the team. Looking at it this way, a contract starting at a 400 percent raise seems fair, while backing the Brinks truck up with an 800 percent raise seems ludicrous.
Lance is extremely young and one of the brightest stars at a position that is as scarce as any in the league and possibly all of sports. Just take a look at the shooting guard ranks. After James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, the latter two having massive question marks next to their names, who comes next? Toronto All Star DeMar DeRozan and his very fair $9.5 million price tag come to mind, as does the recently dealt Arron Afflalo and his $7.4 million salary for 2014-15. After those two, Stephenson’s contemporaries are hard to find. Bradley Beal is on his rookie deal, Manu Ginobili and Monta Ellis are both on the downside of their careers and have already made their cash. Gordon Hayward makes for an interesting comparison, but he was a first round pick and is starting from a higher salary slot than Lance is.
These salary calculations aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to determining a player’s value, especially one like Lance. No one knows if he will take off and blossom into a superstar if he’s handed the keys to a team or if he’ll implode without the nurturing environment Bird has established for him in Indiana. Stephenson’s is just one of many riveting subplots in an already drama-filled free agency period.
Before the market is set, Lance might want to take another look at the offer Indiana reportedly has on the table for him. It might not get much better than that.