The Indiana Pacers’ run to the NBA Finals ended last week, losing to the Miami Heat in six games and sending them into the offseason with a few questions to answer. First and foremost, they have to figure out what they want to do with temperamental 23-year-old guard Lance Stephenson. When asked about Stephenson’s future with the Pacers, All-Star Paul George hardly gave him a ringing endorsement.
Stephenson, a Brooklyn native, attended Lincoln High School in Coney Island, and is arguably the most talented active NBA player born in the borough. The Pacers’ dismissal from the playoffs, and subsequent support-non-support of him, led some of our fans to clamor for Stephenson in Brooklyn:
— Greg Madhere (@GregMadhere) June 1, 2014
— Young Simba (@_JKane_) May 31, 2014
— nets nation (@redrumheel101) June 2, 2014
Also, the Nets should move Heaven, Earth and Deron Williams to bring Lance Stephenson back to Brooklyn. #teamlance
— Jason Zinoman (@zinoman) May 31, 2014
Stephenson also talked to Dexter Henry of NetsDaily about coming home to Brooklyn, saying “You can’t ask me that question, the future holds itself.”
Stephenson had a career season in Indiana even as the team spiraled after the All-Star Break, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 35.3 minutes per game, all career-highs, and improved his shooting across the board. At 23 years old, he’s an unrestricted free agent with a chance at his first payday, one that the Pacers likely won’t pony up as they try to avoid a luxury tax bill next season.
But Stephenson did not ingratiate himself to the league with his antics this postseason, which included (in no order) trash-talking LeBron James before their playoff series matchup, blowing in James’s ear in-game, tapping James in the face during a stoppage in play, and smacking Norris Cole in the face while going for a loose ball. Stephenson took center stage as the poster boy of a team in disarray, distracting from the series at hand and inevitably becoming the face of Indiana’s six-game loss to the Miami Heat. The shenanigans became so problematic that one NBA general manager told Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops he wouldn’t give Stephenson, likely headed towards an eight-figure annual salary, more than the mid-level exception.
It’s a fascinating question. Stephenson has a checkered, brutal past, but the Nets are no stranger to reclamation projects. King signed Gerald Green, roundly considered an NBA bust, after Green played overseas for two seasons, and Green turned in the best 31-game stretch of his career to that date. He is now a productive player for the Phoenix Suns. Andray Blatche, amnestied by the Washington Wizards after a long list of off-court indiscretions and on-court red flags, has had his two most efficient seasons ever in Brooklyn.
But there’s two major factors standing in the way. For one, free agency isn’t a bid for the fairest deal, it’s a bid for the best one. The NBA is a mix of 30 highly competitive franchises trying to present the best offer to a player. That’s why players get “overpaid”: they don’t take the offer that most fairly represents their value, they take the best deal available.
The Nets can only offer Stephenson the taxpayer mid-level exception, which would even be a discount beyond Stephenson’s allegedly plummeted value. They can’t accept a higher salary in a sign-and-trade, because any sign-and-trade would put them in luxury tax territory. That means they could offer him a starting salary of a little over $3.3 million, with modest raises over three years. There’s no substitution for your home borough, but there’s also no substitution for millions of dollars, which Stephenson would have to likely turn down on his first chance at a payday.
Secondly, giving Stephenson their tax-payer mid-level exception would eliminate all other options for the Nets with that exception, which would mean the certain dismissal of recent Nets reclamation project Shaun Livingston. Livingston, like Stephenson, may command more money on the open market, but that’s not a guarantee. Though Stephenson is younger and more talented, Livingston’s insertion into the starting lineup helped turn the Nets into a top-flight defensive team in 2014.
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The Nets will do their due diligence with Lance Stephenson, as always, but they’re armed with little more than $3 million per season. It’s always been the most likely scenario that one team will look past his playoff indiscretions and try to mold his talent at a premium. The Nets have gotten some surprising deals, like Andrei Kirilenko for the taxpayer mid-level exception last season, but I don’t see them striking gold with Stephenson this offseason.