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The Courtship of Lance Stephenson

What happens when a rare, young, and volatile talent hits the NBA free-agent market?

Lance Stephenson’s free agency should be a mega-event. He’s just 23, with solid two-way skills at a position where talent is so scarce, Klay Thompson’s agent will be able to keep a straight face when trying to wring a max-level extension from Golden State.1

And Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent. Players this talented almost never hit the market unfettered so early in their careers, and when they do, crazy stuff tends to happen. Gilbert Arenas’s sooner-than-usual unrestricted free agency resulted in a massive contract from Washington and panicked rule changes in the collective bargaining agreement.

Any team with cap room and some guts could try to persuade Stephenson to be a fixture on the wing for the next half-decade. Rebuilding teams can’t even use the excuse about not wanting to splurge in free agency ahead of schedule; Stephenson’s age makes him a natural fit on any team at the start of its upswing. Nabbing Stephenson comes with the bonus of snatching a crucial piece from an Eastern Conference heavyweight, leaving Indiana capped out and without any means to sign an equal talent.

Come on, people! Stephenson is the gleaming big-screen TV on the old Wheel of Fortune carousel of otherwise crappy prizes. Just drop the cash and you might be able to have him!

But the chatter around Stephenson’s free agency is quiet, for two reasons:

1. He’s a difficult personality. Executives on some teams with the requisite cap room recoil in horror at the very mention of his name. Teams with minor burbling locker-room discontent are hesitant to toss in another volatile personality. Stephenson’s embarrassing antics in the Eastern Conference finals inflamed the perception of him as a rogue loon whose “personality” will nearly cancel out all the good he might do on the floor. And the question lying just underneath those (legitimate) concerns: What happens when a guy who should be on his best behavior in pursuit of his first giant NBA paycheck actually gets that paycheck?

2. It’s hard to tell exactly how good Stephenson is, and how good he might one day be. This is the challenge of player evaluation — separating out a player from his current roster and figuring out how he might do in a different place, with a different role and different teammates. Stephenson can fade into a limited role within Indiana’s killer starting lineup, and he played almost all of his minutes in lineups that struggled to space the floor.

He looks like a ball-dominant scorer, but Stephenson actually used just 19 percent of Indiana’s possessions2 while on the floor this season. If a five-man group divided possessions evenly, each guy would soak up 20 percent; Stephenson’s usage rate was very low for a borderline All-Star.

He drove the ball to the rim only about 4.2 times per game, according to SportVU tracking cameras, a mark right around those of so-so penetrators like Patrick Beverley, Nate Wolters, and Shaun Livingston.3 He’s a good 3-point shooter, but not a great one, and certainly not one other teams fear when he’s away from the ball. Opposing defenders were willing to take an extra step or two off of Stephenson to clog the lane:

BEALNAIL

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Watch the tape, and his pick-and-rolls appear to have a go-nowhere quality — especially when opposing teams have their big man drop back into the paint to contain Stephenson’s drive. Presented with that obstacle, Stephenson sometimes pulls the hoops equivalent of nonsense conversation to buy time — hesitation bounces, head fakes, meaningless crossovers, dribbles that somehow result in him going backward.

All that fancy stuff resulted in a heap of ugly turnovers. Stephenson coughed up the ball on 24 percent of the pick-and-rolls he finished, a mark that ranked 145th among players who ran at least 50 of those suckers, per Synergy Sports.

He doesn’t have a reliable midrange jumper to shoot over those big guys, like Chris Paul’s sniper shot from the right elbow, which means there is no in-between on his pick-and-rolls. They either lead to crazy drives or nowhere.

His assists in the half court are mostly unspectacular. He rarely got into the teeth of the defense for drop-off passes that led to juicy shots at the rim; the Pacers, after all, ranked 27th in shot attempts within the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Stephenson is a highlight reel in transition, but his dimes in the half court were mostly run-of-the-mill stuff any competent ball handler could manage — pocket passes to David West and Luis Scola for midrange jumpers, post entries, and skip passes around the perimeter. A full one-third of Stephenson’s assists came when throwing the pass from behind the 3-point arc on the right wing, per SportVU data provided exclusively to Grantland.

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Lance Stephenson assist-origination breakdown, courtesy of SportVU

That would seem unusual, and both Paul George and LeBron James, for instance, have more evenly distributed assist-origination charts:

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Paul George assist-origination breakdown, courtesy of SportVU

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LeBron James assist-origination breakdown, courtesy of SportVU

James Harden has a 33 percent cluster above the arc, but it’s in the middle, which is more profitable territory, and he’s also doing a ton of damage dishing from the elbow:

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James Harden assist-origination breakdown, courtesy of SportVU

It’s almost enough to convince you that Stephenson isn’t too dynamic a player. He got to the line only 2.6 times per 36 minutes this regular season, a piddling amount for a rumbling freight train. Hell, Stephenson isn’t even as productive in transition as he seems. He turned the ball over on 26 percent of his transition chances this season, per Synergy, one of the worst marks in the league.4

The Pacers’ stuck-in-gum offense needed Stephenson’s jolts of fast-break energy, but it’s unclear how much he really helped in the long run. He loves going 1-on-3, or even 1-on-4, and if just one defender can at least slow him up, another one often reaches in and pokes the ball away.

Stephenson probably led the league in the number of times an unseen defender trailing from behind reached in for a steal.

He zooms in without a plan, which means a lot of ugly jump passes and desperate wraparounds in the tight area underneath the basket. He loves going for all-in deep routes, like a quarterback throwing a bomb to a streaking receiver through double coverage. This may shock you, but lots of those passes end badly. Stephenson might be the league’s only player who committed multiple turnovers last season by tossing blind outlet passes backward over his head:

OVERHEAD

There are a ton of warning signs here, and they can trick you into thinking Stephenson is overrated. But look a bit deeper and you can find signals that Stephenson may be in the early stages of a breakout career. Those wild drives on the pick-and-roll happen a lot, and there is a method to the wildness.

On possession-ending pick-and-rolls in which Stephenson goes around the screen — meaning he actually uses it — he drives to the basket area nearly 45 percent of the time, a monster number relative to the league average, per Synergy. He took the same percentage of his shot attempts from inside the restricted area as LeBron James, per NBA.com, and he hit nearly 70 percent of them.

He is a creative player with an arsenal of tricks that compensate for his lack of a midrange game. He has a killer hesitation dribble; just when an opposing big man thinks his help duties are over and begins his retreat, Stephenson will blow by him:

He’s smart about faking toward a pick, getting the defense to commit in that direction, and then bolting the other way:

And when he gets into the lane, he has indeed shown that he can make the sorts of close-range passes that lead to the very best shots in the game.

Fans think Stephenson is selfish, but he’s not. He was probably Indiana’s best passer this season, and he’s especially good at reading the floor from the perimeter. He’s a step ahead in terms of understanding when a cutter will come open along the baseline, and he’s dynamite at making the extra swing pass from up top to a spot-up shooter in the corner.

He has also learned to cross up big men backpedaling to shut off his drive, and when he knows that defender is a ground-bound sieve, Stephenson will go right at his chest and bulldoze his way to the rim:

And remember: He’s playing within a peculiar context in Indiana. The Pacers don’t have a single big guy who can catch the ball south of the foul line and finish without a dribble; sometimes, their big men struggle to catch the thing at all. A lot of Stephenson’s assists lead to midrange jumpers because those are the shots West and Scola prefer.

Chris Paul’s assist-origination chart is even more perimeter-heavy than Stephenson’s:

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Chris Paul assist-origination breakdown, courtesy of SportVU

You can do outside-in damage when your bigs can run and jump. And Stephenson’s assist chart isn’t so dramatically different from those of other creative players that it should make a team blanch. About 42 percent of his dimes led to a shot attempted within 10 feet of the rim, a number on par with those of LeBron (45 percent) and George (44 percent), and not so far from Paul’s figure (49 percent), per SportVU data.5

Indiana’s driving lanes are always tight because the team doesn’t have a power forward with killer range beyond 18 feet. Its perimeter players have an awful habit of standing in the way, in no-man’s-land around the baseline, instead of spacing out to the corners. Stephenson is part of that problem sometimes; he loves to linger near the paint and cut in for offensive rebounds.

Plop him amid more shooting and with an explosive leaping big man, and Stephenson might become a different player — especially if he’s something like a no. 1 option. His driving numbers aren’t that low once you account for how many times he touches the ball. He’ll develop a midrange shot, and he has flashed a bullying post-up game in favorable matchups.

He’s already a solid defender, and he has learned good habits in Indiana’s killer system. He stays close to corner shooters, cheats only off of guys who have earned that treatment, and generally sticks to the scheme. He’s tenacious, and he’s a freaking brute — a human cinder block with a measured wingspan north of 6-10, big for a shooting guard. The dude battles, and that counts for a lot in the NBA. Defense is unglamorous, and he seems to like it.

Stephenson conceded to me early in the season that he had occasional blips in his focus on defense, especially in recognizing when an opponent was about to nail him with a pick. That still happens; he’ll die on a screen now and then:

LANCESMUSHED

He can get a bit jumpy tracking his man, and Bradley Beal roasted him enough that Frank Vogel shifted George onto Beal by Game 2 of the Pacers’ second-round series against Washington.

But Stephenson is a good defender, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.

I feel like I’m at the end of a Shark Tank pitch: So, teams, who wants to dive in with this two-way shooting guard who might be kind of crazy?

If some team takes the plunge, the Pacers might be in trouble. George making an All-NBA team added another couple of million to their cap figure for next season. If the Pacers want to keep Scola — and remember, they gave up a ton to get him — they’ll only be around $7 million or $8 million under the tax before addressing Stephenson.

They can buy out Scola for about $1.9 million, saving themselves nearly $3 million, but they’d have to fill an extra roster spot. They could also use the stretch provision on Chris Copeland, or find a salary-dumping ground for a bit player like Ian Mahinmi. But those moves carry costs, both on the court and in real dollars. Regardless of the cap gymnastics involved, the Pacers can, if they wish, offer Stephenson about $10 million per season. But they can be outbid.

Let’s scour the list of teams with cap room and/or a need at the position to find the likeliest candidates for a Stephenson splurge:

Probably Out

Dallas: The Mavs will have cap room, but ESPN.com’s Marc Stein has reported that they aren’t interested, and that matches what I’ve heard.

Utah: For a host of reasons, no.

Orlando: The Magic are rebuilding, and Stephenson could be the heir to Arron Afflalo as the shooting guard who rises up with the franchise. But the Magic are unusually concerned with gathering high-character guys, and Stephenson would be a gamble for them.

Sacramento: Multiple executives from other teams have mentioned the Kings as a potential landing spot if Rudy Gay opts out of his contract, but that doesn’t appear to be Gay’s plan. The Kings just spent a lottery pick on Ben McLemore, and Yahoo! has reported that they might have their eye on a bigger target — Kevin Love.

Phoenix: The Love thing hovers over a lot of potential free agents as the domino that needs to fall first. Phoenix has a million extra first-round picks and an intriguing young piece in Eric Bledsoe, and may well try to suss out the Love situation before moving elsewhere.

And a lot of the Orlando “character” concerns apply here, even though Phoenix needs long-term wing help. The team is in a happy place after clearing out Michael Beasley and other toxins.

The Wild Cards

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers need to, like, field a team for next season, and they’ll have north of $20 million in cap space. Opening the vault for Stephenson wouldn’t take them out of 2015 free agency, since Stephenson isn’t going to command anything close to a super-max contract.

And here’s another wrinkle a lot of front-office guys are kicking around: We now live in a world where half the league enters each offseason with a ton of cap room, just as the cap is rising at a fast and unpredictable rate. Every team is trying to chart the cap and figure out smart ways to spend in this environment. A lot of executives are wondering if teams with room will try to use it up by offering mammoth one- or two-year contracts to “risky” players, and/or structuring deals so that the guaranteed salary declines each year.6 What if the Lakers offer Stephenson a one-year, $15 million contract, or a similar deal with incentives in Year 2?

Stephenson knows he’s considered a character risk, and will surely try to lock up as much long-term cash as possible. But it’s an interesting potential curveball.

But the Lakers already have a shooting guard, as well as loftier free-agency goals for the next two summers.

Atlanta Hawks: No one can figure these guys out, which means Danny Ferry is doing his thing. They have cap flexibility and a good roster, though they dangled Al Horford at last year’s trade deadline in a very targeted fashion, per sources around the league.

I love DeMarre Carroll, but any team starting him has a need on the wing. Look at this starting lineup: Jeff Teague, Stephenson, Kyle Korver, Horford, Paul Millsap. Hell, you can start Pero Antic at center and bring Millsap off the bench. Anyone in the East dying to face that team in the playoffs?

But Ferry comes from the Spurs tree, which means he prizes coachability and quiet workers. Mike Budenholzer is a shooting zealot, and Stephenson might not be a good enough marksman yet to pique his interest.

Chicago Bulls: They’re reportedly deep into the tunnel of Love, and they’d need to use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer to open up the requisite space. Jimmy Butler is entrenched at shooting guard, but that brings up a larger point: The wing positions are basically interchangeable on most teams. Butler and Stephenson are both long and strong enough to guard most NBA small forwards; Stephenson at least made LeBron work for it in the conference finals until the Pacers rolled over in Game 6.

The two together could be terrifying, and Stephenson is a more advanced ball handler, capable of easing the load for Derrick Rose — something in which the Bulls should be very interested now.

But the Bulls are looking at other options, and Stephenson is likely too combustible for their taste. They’d love to find a better shooter, especially with Butler’s plateau as an offensive player last season.

Milwaukee Bucks: O.J. Mayo flopped, and the team needs a shooting guard who can help Brandon Knight run the show. Stephenson is young enough to be a long-term rebuilding cog.

But the Bucks had some dicey locker-room issues last season, and the team’s new owners are preaching patience. The Bucks are probably fine being bad again next season, doing the rebuild thing slowly.

The Sign-and-Trade Possibilities

Denver Nuggets: Denver is looking at zippo cap flexibility until July 2016, and it has a bunch of interesting players on movable contracts. The Nuggets just seem ripe for … something. Stephenson has a good relationship with Brian Shaw, and Randy Foye isn’t the long-term answer at shooting guard. Both teams need to be careful about the tax implications of engaging in a sign-and-trade, and the odds are always against a complex deal coming together. It’s unclear if the front office is interested, regardless of Shaw’s feelings.

New Orleans Pelicans: Lots of rival executives mentioned the Pelicans, but it’s hard to see a match on either side.

The Best Possibilities

Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan is talking big, and the Bobcats have money to spend. Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are nice players, but MKG is in the midst of a full-blown shot reconstruction, and Henderson can’t reliably shoot from deep or create off the bounce.

Stephenson would provide some juice for an offense that needs it, as well as ensure that Kemba Walker isn’t overburdened. He just spent four years learning a defensive system that isn’t much different from what Steve Clifford runs. Charlotte got a taste of winning, and they’re hungry for more.

Detroit Pistons: Welcome to the job, Stan Van Gundy! The Pistons need anyone with some offensive skill on the wing, and they’ll have about $12 million in cap room even accounting for Greg Monroe’s cap hold. Stephenson’s off-the-bounce skills would ease Brandon Jennings into more of a hybrid role after a miserable season, and Van Gundy likes fighters.

But you can bet that Detroit is weighing the risk of adding a thorny personality into what was a sour locker room last season. Still: Don’t be shocked if they make a play.

Indiana Pacers: The Pacers’ issues with Stephenson are well documented. He stole rebounds from teammates to inflate his own stats, he went on some haywire vengeance tour after the coaches left him off the All-Star roster, and everyone with the team grew tired of his on-court circus act against Miami.

But he’s a skilled 23-year-old player, and if he bolts, the Pacers would have no ready means to replace him. They could split the full midlevel exception between two wing players, but go that route and you’re paying combinations like Jerryd Bayless–Nick Young.7

And this is a two-year team now for the Pacers. Both West and Hibbert have player options for the 2015-16 season, and if they exercise those, they’ll be free agents in July 2016. The team will have to find a successor for West soon. The league expects the tax line to rocket up to $81 million for 2015-16, and Indy players have no potential bonuses that could screw up their cap figure, according to several league sources. The Pacers could pay Stephenson $10 million per year, duck the tax in each of the next two seasons, and go forward building the next iteration of the team.

Indiana has three bold deal-makers in Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh, and Kevin Pritchard. It will shock no one if they pull something unexpected to sort this out and accelerate any transition they think is necessary. Trading Hibbert probably isn’t off the table, and unloading George Hill’s contract would give them some breathing space and the chance to search out a more dynamic lead ball handler.

Stephenson should fit any long-term picture the Pacers have of themselves; they know him best and he’s comfortable there. But price could be an issue. Indiana is hoping Stephenson has cost himself some money, and there are lots of teams waiting around to see if the market starts in the $6 million–$8 million range — a spot at which they might dive in. The Pacers would outbid that, but it takes only one daring team to take a leap and smash that market apart.

Objectively, in basketball terms, some team should do it. But the non-hoops issues are what make Stephenson the most interesting free agent of the summer. 

Filed Under: NBA, Indiana Pacers, Lance Stephenson

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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