KRAVITZ: Pacers decline Stephenson's team option, plan to use the savings in free agency

Lance Stephenson warms up before Tuesday's game against Toronto.
Bob Kravitz

It's a risk, letting Lance Stephenson walk away after the Pacers Monday failed to pick up his team option. It's a risk, a largely unpopular risk with the fan base, because Stephenson is a completely unique kind of player, a bundle of exposed nerve endings, the ultimate NBA wildcard who can be brilliant one moment (usually at home) and awful the next (usually on the road). And let's be honest: The man is a whole lot of fun, both on and off the court. Good Lance, Bad Lance…you couldn't help but watch his every move.

Here, though, is why the Pacers made this move: Before declining Stephenson's option, they had roughly $15 million in available cap space to use in free agency, which officially begins July 1. By dropping Stephenson, who was scheduled to make $4.3 million next season, the Pacers will have around $20 million to spend in free agency. It's only a $5 million difference, but it could very well mean the difference between signing a free agent and coming up short.

Will a marquee free agent come to Indiana?

That's the $20 million question.

History suggests quite loudly that it's unlikely. The biggest-name free agent ever to sign here was David West, and he only became affordable because he was coming off knee surgery. West was also a different sort of guy, a married man, a family guy who was perfectly content living far from the bright lights, big city.

Team CEO Kevin Pritchard, though, thinks he can make a free agent splash, that given the Pacers' young and promising nucleus of Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, plus the addition of the gleaming new St. Vincent Center, Indiana will be more of a free agent draw than it has been in the past.

And if he can't bring any free agents to Indianapolis?

Well, he could still sign Stephenson July 5, assuming that Stephenson, who has struggled everywhere but in Indiana throughout his career, isn't grabbed by another franchise in free agency.

The chances that Stephenson will find a free agent home elsewhere are slim. He foolishly turned down a five-year, $44 million offer from the Pacers after the 2013-14 season, signing for three years and $27 million with Charlotte. After being dumped there, he bounced around, making stops with the Clippers, Memphis, New Orleans and Minnesota before returning to Indiana late in the 2017 season, where his presence and energy helped propel a flat-lining team into the playoffs.

The way the Pacers see it, Stephenson is more flash than substance, more crowd-pleaser than solid pro. That's especially true when you look at his home-and-away splits. At home, he averaged 10.6 points per game on 47.4 shooting, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists. On the road, he averaged 7.9 on 43 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

This was a cold, analytics-driven calculation. The Pacers looked at the rest of their roster and saw players whose production exceeded their paycheck. There was only one Pacer whose production came in lower than what would be expected from a player receiving $4.3 million, and that was Stephenson.

There's also the open question of what power forward Thad Young will do; he has until June 29 to inform the Pacers whether he will accept the team option which would pay him $13.7 million next year or enter free agency. Even if Young goes the free agent route, he could still sign an extension with the Pacers.

"We've had a few conversations with his agent, but at the end of the day, it's his decision,'' Pritchard said the night of the NBA Draft. "We'd like to have him back. We'd like to keep this core. I think he's exploring what he can get, but we don't have that indication either way.''

During his postseason press conference, Pritchard had glowing things to say about Young.

"If you just took Thad and said, 'Let's look at his points and rebounds and all of that,' you'd say he's a pretty good player,'' Pritchard said. "But then when you are around him, and what he did with his leadership this year and made sure we stayed together, he brings an inordinate amount of value.''

There's no question, Stephenson brought value to the Pacers, especially at home, where he was a fan favorite. This will not be a popular move, and the team's front office knows that. Every team needs a dog, a big personality, and Stephenson filled that role. But it's fair to wonder how long he would remain on what passes for his best behavior. Maybe the Pacers looked at Stephenson and viewed him as a ticking time bomb, a la Artest. Or maybe, and this is my bet, they just looked at the numbers and the possibilities in free agency and sent the mercurial guard packing – at least for now.

This will not sit well with the Pacers fan base. But if Pritchard and the team can grab a game-altering free agent with the savings, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

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