Stephenson, a tantalizing talent who led the league in triple-doubles (5), showed signs of immaturity during the playoffs with his antics toward LeBron James, leaving several executives split on his free agency value.
The general consensus is Stephenson could command a yearly salary ranging from the $5.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception to as high as $10 million.
The mid-level exception indicates concern over Stephenson’s maturity level, while the $10 million mark reflects his pure basketball talent as Larry Bird, Indiana’s President of Basketball Operations, noted.
“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” Bird said. “As a basketball player, you can’t find much more talent than what he has.”
According to league sources, Stephenson’s agent – Alberto Ebanks – believes his client’s value is closer to the $10 million range.
When asked if that’s the number he will be looking for, Ebanks told SheridanHoops, “I won’t be negotiating his contract through the media.”
Ebanks praised the Pacers as a first class organization and remained hopeful the two sides can come together on a new deal in the coming weeks.
Bird made it clear he wants Stephenson back as part of the future in a resounding way during an exit interview.
“He’s a free agent,” Bird added. “He can talk to any team he wants and I think, when it comes down to it, it’s up to him whether he wants to be here or not.”
Stephenson, who has a close relationship with Bird, wants to return.
Consider this, Stephenson has left the bench several times when subbed out of a game to visit the “Bird Cave,” which is located next to the stands and just outside the locker room tunnel, to talk with Bird during games.
Bird took a chance on Stephenson, drafting him 40th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft after the New York Knicks passed on the hometown former Lincoln High School prodigy with preceding back-to-back picks.
In case you’re wondering, the Knicks selected Andy Rautins (38) and Landry Fields (39) with the preceding picks.
While some have suggested Stephenson will look for the highest payday, Ebanks noted his client has a “competitive spirit” and wants to contend for a championship as well.
“We’re going to talk to the Pacers and see if a deal can be done there,” Ebanks said.
For any deal to be reached with Stephenson, the Pacers would have to part ways with Evan Turner.
As a result, several league sources believe Turner will not return to the Pacers next season as the team will ultimately fail to extend Turner his $8.7 million qualifying offer. Turner was the only member of the Pacers who never got off the bench in their Game 6 elimination loss to the Miami Heat.
With that in mind, several executives offered their insight on Stephenson’s value.
One general manager whose team is under the salary cap believes Stephenson’s upside at 23 and talent will ultimately negate concerns over his maturity level.
“He probably hurt himself at some level with his immaturity during the playoffs,” the general manager told SheridanHoops. “However, clearly his talent is evident so I expect a team to make him a fairly significant offer probably in the range of $8-10 million (per season) for three years. On talent alone, he probably gets $10-12 million (per season) for three or four years.”
On the other hand, one Eastern Conference general manager was discouraged by Stephenson’s playoff antics such as blowing in the ear of LeBron James.
“Mid-level at best,” the general manager told SheridanHoops. “If the season ended at the All-Star Break, $6-8 million. Now, $4-6 million.”
Two agents told SheridanHoops they believed a three-year, $18 million offer would be realistic.
“Long enough for security for Lance, short enough security for the team if he fails or they need to move him,” one agent said.
An Eastern Conference scout also weighed in on the debate.
“Teams will be interested, but cautious at the same time,” the scout told SheridanHoops. “Worst offer he will get is a full mid-level exception, which is about four years, $23 million. I would say the best offer is probably around $8-9 million per year, but it might not be a four-year offer.”
Sources say the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls are two teams to keep an eye on in the Stephenson sweepstakes.
The Hornets could offer Stephenson a lucrative contract, with the franchise only on the books for $42.6 million, in an effort to upgrade at shooting guard over Gerald Henderson.
Coach Steve Clifford molded the Hornets into a defensive force. Stephenson would enhance that force and provide another playmaker capable of getting his own shot off the dribble or creating for others, taking pressure off Kemba Walker in the process.
The Bulls are on the books for $63 million, but can amnesty Carlos Boozer’s $16.8 million salary to reduce that number to $46.2 million.
Coach Tom Thibodeau loves defense, and Stephenson is one of the league’s best two-way players at shooting guard.
Signing Stephenson would give the Bulls another playmaker – something that shouldn’t be overlooked with Derrick Rose returning from another knee surgery and D.J. Augustin entering unrestricted free agency this summer.
Will Stephenson be the next J.R. Smith? A player with evident talent, but lacking the self control to fully enhance it while causing his team more headaches than he’s worth.
That’s the question executives are debating with free agency looming nearly a month away.
When the dust settles, I see Stephenson remaining with the Pacers, thanks largely to Bird’s belief in him, on a three-year deal worth roughly $22.5 million.