Winning sure makes people happy.
The Indiana Pacers are enjoying their best start as an NBA franchise and four-year guard Lance Stephenson is showing vast improvement as he adds raw energy and now a refined shooting touch to one of the best starting fives in the league.
So, of course, it makes sense that Stephenson — who becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer — would have a positive outlook regarding his future with the team.
Stephenson wants to stay with the Pacers, and his wish could very well come true.
Although the Pacers have roughly $60 million in salary committed for the 2014-15 season —including two huge contracts belonging to Paul George and Roy Hibbert — when Stephenson hits the open market, Indiana can theoretically offer him a max five-year deal while still avoiding the NBA luxury tax.
“I wouldn’t want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back,” Stephenson said. “I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we’re a young group and I think we should stick together.”
Through five games this season, Stephenson is averaging 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Although it may be early, the numbers far exceed his career averages (6.7 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.3 apg). Even more appealing, Stephenson has fixed his inconsistent jump shot and is now shooting 53.8 percent from 3-point range.
While effortlessly stepping back into a starting role in the absence of veteran forward Danny Granger (strained left calf), who could be out two more weeks, Stephenson has formed a dynamic duet with George. Before Wednesday’s victory over Chicago, Stephenson and George ranked second in most points among Eastern Conference teammate duos behind only LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
In the final year of his rookie contract, Stephenson will make $1,005,000 this season but could become an in-demand free agent by the summer. Still, he has made his preferred destination clear while keeping his faith in the Pacers front office.
“The future holds itself,” Stephenson said, “and I think Larry (Bird) and the people upstairs will do anything to keep me here.”
That “anything” can even surpass what another suitor can use to woo Stephenson.
As the Pacers’ 2010 second-round draft pick, Stephenson is an eligible “Bird rights” player, which means he has spent at least three years with the same team. The “Bird rights” — named after team president Larry Bird during his playing days with the Boston Celtics — allows teams to exceed the salary cap by re-signing their own players. So, in theory, even with the eight guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season totaling approximately $60 million, the Pacers can use this exception to the cap and re-sign Stephenson with a “max” deal — which would be 25 percent of the salary cap. Since the 2014-15 salary cap will not be announced until next summer, the max is unknown.
Also because of the “Bird rights,” Stephenson can get a five-year deal from Indiana while other teams can only offer four years.
This season, Indiana is above the NBA salary cap set at $58.679 million but below the luxury tax level at $71.748 million. The team has traditionally operated under the tax threshold and can continue the trend even if it offers Stephenson a lucrative deal.
Recent cases with breakout second-round picks suggest Stephenson could become a wealthy man next summer. Goran Dragic, the 45th pick in the 2008 draft, re-signed with Phoenix for a four-year deal worth $34 million. Also, DeAndre Jordan, who was picked 10 spots above Dragic in 2008, stayed with the Los Angeles Clippers after the team matched his four-year, $43 million offer sheet from Golden State.
These are not direct comparisons but Stephenson, the 40th overall selection in 2010, can raise his stock if he maintains the current production.
In October, Bird declined to discuss the summer free agency and the futures of Stephenson and Granger — “I’m not concerned about Lance, I’m not concerned about Danny. I’m just concerned about the guys we have and how we’re going to play going forward,” Bird said in an interview with The Star.
Even so, Stephenson said that although he and Bird have not talked directly about the future, the president has shared encouraging signs with the player.
“(Bird) basically says it when he sees me, so I don’t think we need to talk about it,” Stephenson said, then revealed Bird’s message to him: “‘You’re next.’ He’ll say stuff like that.”