The perception most people have about the NBA is that it, more than any other major North American professional sports league, seems to favor the larger markets. A lot of this comes from the NBA’s use of a soft salary cap. Popular teams in big markets like the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers can surpass the luxury tax threshold and pay any penalty because they generate so much revenue, but small market teams are struggling to get by. It also doesn’t help that many players crave the spotlight of the big markets and want to leave their small-market employers in the dust as soon as they possibly can. It’s the reason why a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder felt so compelled to break up a potential dynasty and trade James Harden a few years ago. They wanted to get something in return for Harden before his inevitable departure, so they jettisoned him to the Houston Rockets for pennies on the dollar.
The Indiana Pacers will face a similar decision this offseason with their explosive two-guard Lance Stephenson. Stephenson has come a long way in a short time. Since giving Lebron James the choke sign in a playoff series against the Miami Heat and becoming a national punch line, he now chooses to let his play do the talking.
This year, Stephenson is a leading candidate for the NBA’s most improved player award, putting up a remarkably well-rounded stat line almost every night. For the season, he is averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds and five rebounds. He is the NBA’s top rebounding guard and leads the league in triple-doubles. The former second-round pick is turning heads all over the Association.
For Indiana, the question is no longer, should we keep Lance around? But rather, how much money will Lance command? The Pacers and team president Larry Bird know that this is, quite literally, a million-dollar question. But how many millions?
At the start of the season, Stephenson was still considered to be a project player. The upside was there and some flashes of elite talent were shown, but it wasn’t really enough to command top dollar for his services. This season, however, the Pacers have been treated to heavy doses of Lance’s magic, not just small flashes of it. That is why a team with some cap room, the Chicago Bulls or the Orlando Magic for example, could throw wads of cash at Stephenson to entice him to jump ship.
As of right now, Stephenson’s value probably sits at around the $8 or $9 million dollar mark. However, after he hits the open market, an eight-figure per-year deal is likely. This puts the Pacers in a tough situation. Is Lance’s value to the team greater than the value of, say, David West or George Hill? That is what Indiana may have to sacrifice to keep Lance in a Pacers uniform, especially with Paul George and Roy Hibbert already playing on max deals.
One thing the Pacers do have going for them is Stephenson’s relationship with team president Bird. Larry Legend often talks to Lance and gives him mini-scouting reports before each game. Bird has always had Stephenson’s back. He scouted him and drafted him in the second round; he helped coach him up, and he believed in him. The respect between Bird and Stephenson clearly speaks volumes. But the real problem is that, most of the time, to the dismay of small-market franchises like the Pacers, money talks even louder.