Apr 24, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) shoots the ball against the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth quarter in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Pacers 98-85. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Lance Stephenson Question

“Lance being Lance” has been the NBA’s equivalent of baseball’s “Manny being Manny.”

Though Manny Ramirez is on his way out, at his peak he and Lance Stephenson have had plenty in common: Either provided instant, self-created, highlight-worthy offenseeven if sometimes they made foolish mistakes. But usually the good out weighs the bad. The antics are just antics, even if they are going the direction of distractions. (And obviously Manny is much, much better.)

But then comes a tipping point. Are the shenanigans just too much? Does the bad outweigh the good finally?

That’s what the Indiana Pacers have to decide with Stephenson.

Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent soon, and it won’t be as simple as choosing yes or no; Lance’s desires, the team’s plans, the salary cap and Herb Simon’s willingness to spend money will all factor in. Lance can bring a lot of the Pacers, but that doesn’t come without some strings attached.

Let’s start breaking it down.

Can the Pacers afford to bring Lance Stephenson back?

Maybe. He’ll be hitting the open market so there is a chance he’ll get offered more than the Pacers are willing to spend. However, they do have around $7 and 9 million to spend on Lance, depending on if they keep Luis Scola. Our own Tim Donahue breaks this down in depth and I would suggest looking into his work for much deeper in sight.

Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote that “there are lots of teams waiting around to see if the market starts in the $6 million–$8 million [for year one] range — a spot at which they might dive in.” According to Mike Scotto of Sheridan Hoops, GMs are expecting somewhere between $5.3 and $10 million for Stephenson’s starting salary.

If that in the case the Pacers can afford Lance’s contract, and possibly without letting go of Scola. However, there is a chance someone takes a stab at a higher offer in hopes that a change of scenery helps transform Lance into a more trustworthy number one threat.

So, yes, it seems likely the Pacers can afford Lance as long as no team makes him a offer well outside of that expected range.

What are the positives of bringing back Born Ready?

More than anything Lance’s offense is a good reason to bring him back. He averaged 13.8 points a game while racking up 20 double-doubles and five triple-doubles in the regular season. Lance knocks down around 35 percent of his 3-pointers as well.

A 14.7 PER  in the regular season may be average (ranked 144th), but within the Pacers offense that would third behind Paul George (26th) and David West (68th). It should be considered that his usage rate is around 19%, a low number for a guy who almost made the All-Star Game.

Despite some fans perception that Lance is selfish, his assist percentage is a team high 22.1%, meaning nearly a quarter of his teammate’s field goals are assisted by him. Lance may get compared to J.R. Smith, but he’s actually more like Jeremy Lin. He’s a shooter, but he certainly can make passes to get his teammates in scoring position. But Lance’s speed and size makes him something different, something not quite like either of those two. It isn’t easy to figure out exactly how good he can be when he’s rarely the top scoring option. He shares the floor with Paul George and David West, both have higher usage rates.

Unless the Pacers can find a replacement on the open market (we’ll get to that in a second), they’ll be hurting their already struggling (24th-ranked) offense. Lance’s one-man-fast-break abilities were needed at times when the Pacers had no other offense going. In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he scored 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting with 7 assists (3 turnovers) and 6 rebounds. The rest of the starters combined for 19-of-50 for 49 points. In that 87-83 loss, any help from the rest of the Five might have pushed Indiana out to a two-game lead, then who knows what happens then.

Indiana’s offense is better with him on the floor and he isn’t bad — actually sneakily good — on defense. He had the highest (in this case, bad) defensive rating of any of the starters, but that partially comes from the times when he’s leading the second unit and playing with poor defenders like Luis Scola.

And while maybe it doesn’t matter in the plus/minus, Lance can be damn exciting.

What are the negatives of bringing back the 8th Grader?

If you couldn’t guess from calling him the 8th Grader, like Jalen and Jacoby do on their podcast, there are some real issues with maturity with Stephenson. While I don’t think it was the end of the world how he acted in the Eastern Conference Finals, it did cross the line at times.

You can have a knucklehead doing knucklehead things, but he has to know when the right and wrong times are. You can’t go for too showy of a pass when the team is in a close game, fighting for the top seed like he did when he tried a no-look pass for no reason during a comeback attempt against New York. That’s just one play, but it makes you worry about decision making.

The other negative of bringing back Stephenson is the fact he’ll likely take up all of Indiana’s available cap space. Again, see Tim’s piece of the salary cap implications for a deeper explanation. What that means that the Pacers would be fielding roughly the same team they did this year, and possibly without Scola. You’d have a bench that was third worst in the league in scoring, and one or two weapons less if Evan Turner and Scola no longer a part of it.

That is a scary proposition for the Pacers.

OK, let’s say Lance is gone. What can the Pacers do with that cap space?

Taking a look at the field of available shooting guards, a thin position in the NBA, there isn’t a lot of options that can easily replace Lance’s scoring. Assuming Wade doesn’t opt out, Avery Bradley, Vince Carter, Nick Young and Rodney Stuckey are top guys potentially available.

Before comparing the numbers and such, I doubt there would be much interest in the aging Carter or Swaggy P. That potentially leaves Bradley and Stuckey.

Lance shoots around 6% better than those two due to the fact Stephenson doesn’t settle for mid-range like they do. Lance may not drive to the basket constantly, but he shoots nearly half (a 40/10 split between the restricted area and the rest of the paint.) As Zach Lowe points out Lance struggles in the mid-range and in pick-and-rolls, but he’s also more efficient with a lower usage rate than you might expect.

Bradley and Stuckey both would be fighting for the shots that Indiana usually allows David West to take. Bradley was a better 3-point shooter than Stephenson last season, but for the most part Stephenson is clearly a better player. The spacing issues that may come with those players might be an issue as well.

If Indiana went outside of any of those options, they could save money for sure but would most likely see a noticeable drop off.

So …

Yeah, I don’t know either. It seems likely Indiana will keep a hold of Lance unless someone makes a Brad Miller deal with him. If that is the case, the next question will be who, if anyone, is getting traded. There were obvious chemistry issues with Indiana and we don’t know if those are fixable with an offseason apart or if someone has to go. Right now I can’t imagine the plan is to stand pat and not make any roster changes.

Regardless of the consequences of keeping Stephenson, Indiana’s future with him is a huge question mark. Without the threat of it being a contract year, do Stephenson’s shenanigans get worse and cross over into something else? Or is all of that over-blown hyperbole. But of course the only reason any of this is up for debate is because of the talent level Lance already has and the possibility of growth (as a player, and maturity) from the 23-year old.

“Lance being Lance” can be very exciting while also being a headache. But the question really comes back to whether you think the bad Lance outweighs the good. For the Red Sox “Manny being Manny” was fine and well when they were winning and he was producing. But then came a point when his numbers started to fall off.

Manny was getting old, and so were his oddities.

But for Lance it is completely different. He’s only 23 and he’s getting better. Unless he goes off the rails, his best years are ahead of him.

That’s what makes the situation much more complicated than simply letting him walk knowing he’s only got a few years left Stephenson still has his whole career ahead of him. I don’t think for Indiana this is a matter of yes or no as much as it is if they can afford him, even if they know what the worst-case scenario maybe.

It is a strange place to be for the Pacers right now, but perhaps our own Jared Wade summed it up best.

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