What Is Lance Stephenson Worth?

So far the free agency market has been fairly active, with teams not hesitating to spend money on mid-tier players while the heavy hitters wait on Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to make their decisions. Numerous bit players have managed to secure multi-year deals with good money. You would expect those deals to all come with the caveat that one or more years are unguaranteed, but several lack even that bit of insurance for teams.

Shaun Livingston turned a year of successfully masquerading as a shooting guard and doing a bunch of wily veteran stuff (without ever having to shoot) into a 3 year, $16 million deal to back up Stephen Curry. Avery Bradley landed a hearty 4-year,  $32 million deal to hang around in Boston in spite of his injury history and dubious offensive role (when he hits 40% of his 3s for the next decade forget I mentioned this…). The Wizards paid dearly, and will be doing so for a long time, to hold onto Marcin Gortat. Finally, a tie for the most perplexing signing goes to the Pistons and Magic for signing Jodie Meeks and Ben Gordon, respectively, to multi-year, multi-million dollar deals. Somehow the shooting guard market is even more ridiculous than I predicted.

We are witnessing a true seller’s market for the first time under the current CBA.

A few of the more talented players are still on the market. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have all yet to make their move, though it is assumed that they are leaving room room for Pat Riley to improve the roster before re-signing. Melo is still meeting with teams, and the 2nd tier of free agents – including Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, and Trevor Ariza – haven’t signed their next contract. They will surely reap the benefits of early signings setting a high bar for their future contracts.

One player’s value remains difficult to determine, however. Lance Stephenson was expected to be one of the most sought-after players in this free agency class, but the Pacers’ poor play during the 2nd half of last season and Stephenson’s moping on the court have clearly affected his value. So far only Indiana has been known to have offered him a contract. It has been reported to be a 5-year, $44 million deal, but Stephenson is seeking offers from other teams to at the least gain leverage in his talks with the Pacers. He has not had much success so far in these efforts.

In a world in which Meeks is landing $7 million a year this seems a bit odd, but Stephenson has has perceived attitude problems that make teams wary to bring him on board. Every time he was visibly upset when Frank Vogel pulled him in the playoffs for routine rest is coming back to bite him now.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t talented. He is a force of nature in more ways than one. His raw athleticism makes him a strong defender on the wing when he is locked in, and he is strong enough to deal with the likes of LeBron for at least parts of a game. That athleticism and strength manifest themselves in transition offense as well, where he can get the ball and hurtle across the court and down the lane before anyone has a chance to do anything about it. Those same skills led to over 7 rebounds per game – fantastic for a guard.

Outside of transition opportunities his offensive value is tougher to determine. In Indiana Lance had to contend with two huge post players occupying the paint, and that makes it a lot harder to determine what his true value is on that end if he lands with a team with a more modern system. He is a decent ballhandler, and can be a good secondary option on the perimeter or operating bench units with score-first point guards. If he can get to the basket his finishing is very strong, topping out near 70% at the rim in the last two seasons.

His shooting value remains an enigma. Two years ago he started taking more 3s, and over the last two seasons he has been an average or slightly below average shooter from long range. Again, in an actual NBA offense built for 2014 he may be able to get more open looks and make more of a noticeable impact in the box score, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much effect that will have aside from a probable uptick in shots at the rim (which would admittedly be huge for a guy like Stephenson).

A lot of the pieces are there for Lance on the court, but it’s not easy to paint a clear picture due to his role on the Pacers. Combined with the perceived attitude issues, this makes it tough to place a dollar value on him, and teams are being cautious.

There are middle-ground options available. A team with the cap space, but no desire to take on the long-term risk Stephenson represents, could sign him to a huge (max?) 2-year deal and hope that he doesn’t burn the place down during those two years. If he keeps relatively quiet and builds on what he has started in Indiana he could represent great value for a team that employs the big money/fewer years strategy. Of course, they also run the risk of losing a very valuable player at the end of those two years, or spending big money spinning their wheels.

Some team will likely make an offer in the 4-year, $40 million range, which is where the market is likely to end up. He may be difficult to peg, but a contract in that ballpark would represent decent value for the player he already is.

One interesting wrinkle to the proceedings has been Indiana’s signing of C.J. Miles. That move closed a significant amount of the space that had been kept available to re-sign Stephenson below the tax, and may signal a desire to move on from his antics. The Pacers’ front office could just as easily be waiting to reach an agreement before pulling off a cost-cutting move elsewhere, but if Indiana has decided to pull itself out of the bidding some team may end up getting a steep discount on a solid two-way player at the league’s weakest position.