by Kent Sterling
With two more wins against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals this discussion becomes academic, but the Indiana Pacers have earned the opportunity to take a swing at winning the first NBA title in franchise history.
And that means signing Lance Stephenson to a longterm deal that will make him quite wealthy.
Lest anyone forget, the Pacers won 56 games, the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and is in toward the end of their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Pacers core is young – Paul George is 24, Lance Stephenson 23, Roy Hibbert 27, George Hill just turned 28. All but Stephenson are under contract, as are David West, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Ian Mahinmi, and Solomon Hill.
George Hill is the subject of trade speculation because he is a point guard in title only, and his best role might be as a sixth man who can be plugged in at either guard spot. At $8-million a year he’s a good fit for that role. Fans and media clamor for a traditional floor general who is more adept at creating offense through his own dexterity and athleticism. That would be nice, but a name and method of acquisition would be helpful.
Everyone is a smart guy when recommending someone be traded, but the question of who comes back and how they might fit usually stops the conversation. Many teams, including those for whom they currently play, would love to have Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Russell Westbrook. None are going anywhere – not for what the Pacers could provide in return.
Two possibilities are free agents Kyle Lowry and Eric Bledsoe. Lowry is looking for $10M-$12M, and I have coveted Bledsoe forever. He is lightning fast, and his qualifying offer is only $3.7M.
Still, I like what Hill does for the Pacers, and while he does not bring the same offensive toolbox to the court as some of the elite PGs, he is a tough, proud, and long defender who knows how to win.
Let’s dispense with the procedural paragraph about who will not be back among the rest:
Evan Turner is a free agent the Pacers would have to exercise a qualifying offer of over $8.7 million to keep, and that will not happen. Rasual Butler, Lavoy Allen, and Stephenson are free agents. Butler is a capable and inexpensive piece, so bringing him back is a reasonable option, but the departing Allen will become the answer to a difficult trivia question on July 1 – a question so difficult, I can’t imagine what it might be.
Now, let’s tackle the big offseason question. Whether to keep Lance Stephenson or to let him walk away is being discussed passionately among NBA fans everywhere. It is so close to a 50-50 proposition that I could argue both sides and make sense.
The question isn’t whether Stephenson is worth the $10M he will command; it’s whether he is a good enough fit for the Pacers to warrant that kind of investment. Until last night, I was unable to get off the fence. Stephenson is dynamic as hell, creative, competitive, and confounding.
Last night, just past the halfway mark of the third quarter, Stephenson fouled and then took a menacing step toward Dwyane Wade. Immediately after that, and for the rest of the quarter, Stephenson picked Wade up full court. When asked after today’s practice why he did it, Stephenson said, “They were too comfortable…if you look at the numbers, they were playing much harder than us and much better than us. We needed to slow them down.”
Yes, yes, and yes. Was Stephenson right in blowing in LeBron James’ ear? I don’t care one way or the other. It was harmless, albeit a little odd. The cogent point with Stephenson is that with 5:48 left in the third, Stephenson said “ENOUGH!” and lifted the team up emotionally.
Is it also true that until that point in the third that Stephenson was part of the malaise rather than part of the solution? Sure, but that he was the change agent that corrected the mess is a mitigating factor.
Fifty-six wins is a solid standard, and there are 13 other teams in the East who would love to be on their way to Miami tonight. Whatever Bird does to help make the Pacers better, he needs to realize the bar is set pretty damn high already.