Is Lance Stephenson an All-Star?
Indiana shooting guard might be NBA's most improved player
Updated: January 22, 2014, 12:33 PM ET
By Kevin Pelton | ESPN Insider
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
If Lance Stephenson makes the All-Star team, it could complicate things for Indiana.
When All-Star reserves are chosen next week, the most interesting question coaches will answer might be the fate of Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson. Stephenson made his pitch to fans with a YouTube video, but the better argument came in last Thursday's nationally televised win over the New York Knicks, which served as a 150-minute Stephenson infomercial. As TNT broadcasters Reggie Miller and Chris Webber argued on his behalf, Stephenson scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting.
Stephenson's backers can note he's in elite company. On the strength of a league-high three triple-doubles, Stephenson is one of four players in the NBA averaging at least six rebounds and five assists per game. Two of the others are MVP favorites Kevin Durant and LeBron James. (Never mind that the fourth player, Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, is unlikely to be an All-Star in the Western Conference.)
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Looking deeper, Stephenson's All-Star case shows more holes. He doesn't shine by advanced statistics. Stephenson is fourth on his own team in PER (15.7), behind certain All-Stars Paul George (22.6) and Roy Hibbert (17.3), but also forward David West (16.5), who isn't getting any buzz for a third All-Star appearance.
And while my wins above replacement (WARP) metric has him ahead of West (3.5 to 2.6), largely because Stephenson is able to log more minutes, it also puts Stephenson sixth among East guards behind Kyle Lowry (7.5), John Wall (5.7), Kemba Walker (5.0) and likely starters Kyrie Irving (4.5) and Dwyane Wade (3.9). Worse still, a full 12 East frontcourt players rank ahead of Stephenson.
The issue is that the Pacers' deep lineup -- the biggest factor working in Stephenson's favor when coaches vote, because they tend to reward players from the league's best teams -- makes his life easier than many of his East counterparts. It's rare for wing players who use plays at a below-average rate (Stephenson is at 19.4 percent, just below the 20 percent average) to make the All-Star team. Per Basketball-Reference.com, only two players (Ray Allen in 2011 and Andre Iguodala in 2012) have done so in the 2000s.
On a lesser team, Stephenson would surely be a larger part of the offense, but at the cost of his efficiency. Turnovers remain an issue for Stephenson, who has committed them on 17.2 percent of his plays, a below-average rate for a point guard, let alone a combo one.
It's also worth noting -- as Per Diem predecessor John Hollinger did repeatedly -- that many of the worst All-Star selections in recent memory, such as Mo Williams in 2006 and Wally Szczerbiak in 2002, were a product of coaches rewarding the best teams rather than the best players. Stephenson's selection is likely to hold up better, but it would result from the same line of thought.
There's a stronger case for Stephenson to follow teammate Paul George as Most Improved Player. After going from deep reserve to starter a year ago, he has taken another leap forward this season to put himself in the All-Star discussion. Stephenson spent much of last season staying out of the way on offense, using just 14.2 percent of the Pacers' plays. Not only has he increased his involvement this year, he also has become more efficient by improving his accuracy on 2-pointers beyond the rim from 28 percent to 36 percent, per NBA.com/Stats.
Stephenson's other numbers are up across the board, fueling his rise to nightly triple-double threat:
Stephenson: Marked Improvement
Year Usg TS% Reb% Ast% Win% WARP
2012-13 .152 .530 7.3 4.5 .438 1.2
2013-14 .194 .565 10.6 6.8 .542 3.7
The strongest competition for Stephenson might be former teammate Miles Plumlee, whose Phoenix Suns will face Indiana tonight on ESPN. After playing sparingly as a rookie in Indiana, Plumlee has blossomed into a starter after a summer trade.
A potentially costly honor
As much as the Pacers would surely love to see Stephenson recognized as an All-Star (his coach, Frank Vogel, has been stumping on Stephenson's behalf with other East coaches before they cast their votes), it could prove costly down the road. The bargain four-year contract Stephenson signed as a second-round pick (he's making just over a $1 million this season) is almost up, and he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Using the last five years' worth of free agency, I attempted to predict first-year salary (adjusted for increases or decreases in future years) as a function of their stats the previous season. Seven factors ended up having a statistically significant relationship with salary: my wins above replacement metric, minutes per game, points per game, height (a positive), age (a negative), whether the player was a restricted free agent (surprisingly, restricted free agents made more than expected based on their stats) and whether the player was an All-Star the previous season. Together, they explain more than 70 percent of the variation in player salaries.
Lance Stephenson, Paul George
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Could Stephenson follow George as the league's Most Improved Player?
Because these factors match up better with the square root of salary -- that is, salary grows exponentially with improvement in these factors more than it does on a consistent, linear basis -- it's difficult to put an exact dollar value on an All-Star appearance. But when Stephenson's current stats are plugged in (projected to a full season), the model suggests his value would be about $8 million on the open market. If he makes the All-Star team, however, that figure jumps all the way to $12.4 million.
If that seems like a significant difference, consider the history of free agents coming off All-Star appearances. In the past five years, only one All-Star free agent (38-year-old Steve Nash) has signed for a starting salary of less than $10 million. To find another All-Star who immediately hit free agency and made less than $10 million the following season requires going back to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who got five years and about $50 million after playing in the 2005 All-Star Game.
Naturally, Stephenson isn't a good match for superstars like LeBron James and Chris Paul who also were coming off All-Star selections. But including other statistics should account for this distinction, and an All-Star berth still seems to matter. A lot. After all, offering Stephenson eight figures as a free agent sounds far more palatable if teams with cap space can tout adding a 23-year-old All-Star to their fans.
Stephenson's value is crucially important to Indiana because the team is butting up against the tax line and team president Larry Bird has vowed that the Pacers will not be taxpayers. How much room Indiana will have available depends on where the tax falls next season (which also will determine George's contract, as Zach Lowe has explained). Based on the current projection of $76.7 million, the Pacers would have about $11.5 million available to offer Stephenson if they waive Luis Scola, which would save them $3.9 million in non-guaranteed salary.
So an All-Star berth could make retaining Stephenson difficult. The good news for Indiana is their $11.5 million will go farther than other teams', because they can offer Stephenson larger raises (7.5 percent annually, as compared to 4.5 percent, a difference of about $1.4 million over four years) and a fifth guaranteed season. They've also earned Stephenson's loyalty by taking a chance on him when other teams were scared off by his trouble off the court.
Still, if Stephenson is a winner when All-Star reserves are announced, it could be the Pacers that lose in the long run.