As we have made our way through nearly half of the 2013-14 NBA season, one bright spot has been the always entertaining Lance Stephenson. It seems Stephenson’s talent is starting to catch up to his bravado, as the third-year guard hailing from Brooklyn is averaging career highs across the board. Stephenson, who was anointed “Born Ready” by a Rucker Park MC, was a high school star who up until last year’s playoffs was known more for off-court issues than his on-court prowess. Stephenson was arrested twice before stepping foot in college, and he drew the ire of his organization when he was caught on camera making a throat slash to one LeBron James in the playoffs. But with the past behind him and a new contract in his future, what is next for the 23-year-old Stephenson?
There are a couple of things to take into account when figuring out what happens to Born Ready next summer. The first variable is Danny Granger. Granger is finally back from injury and while it might not be realistic to see Granger get back to All-Star form, you could see him start to cut into Stephenson’s minutes. Granger plays more 3 but Frank Vogel could always move Paul George back to the 2. If Granger goes through a renaissance, then the Indiana Pacers could be at a crossroads next summer when deciding to keep either Granger or Stephenson.
The next hurdle to keeping him would be money, which always seems to ruin the small-market fun. The Pacers have already expressed their intent to not go over the luxury tax, and with only $8 million to $10 million to spare, depending on if they want to pick up several team options, the Pacers do not have a lot of wiggle room to fill out the rest of the roster without going over the limit. You could see Mr. Ready getting a contract in the neighborhood of Tyreke Evans’ $43 million over four years, which puts the Pacers in quite the bind.
So what happens? I think the Pacers find a way to make it work. Granger is, or was, a great player. 6’8” wings are hard to come by and someone will be happy to have him, but he just does not fit with the Pacers’ current roster, especially with the emergence of Paul George. Stephenson’s versatility is something that is hard to replicate. The man is a living, breathing triple-double. Those are hard to find in the NBA, especially with players that play off the ball. Stephenson has not only brought up his scoring this year, but his rebounding and assist numbers have ballooned as well. Stephenson’s 5.2 assists per game lead the Pacers, and that, even more than his scoring, is where his value is found.
For Stephenson to truly take the leap from role player to borderline All-Star he’ll need to improve his shooting percentages from the three-point and free-throw lines. Stephenson has made steady progress each year in the league from beyond the arc, but at 35 percent on the season he can still do better. If he is going to continue to be a mediocre-at-best three-point shooter, then his production from the free-throw line has to improve. A common theme for players making the leap is an increase in appearances at the charity stripe, but we have yet to see that so far. Stephenson’s free-throw rate is a paltry 19 percent, compared to Evans who makes it to the line 35 percent of the time he puts up a shot. Then when Stephenson gets there, he is shooting 70 percent, which is nowhere near good enough for a guard of his caliber. If he can raise his proficiencies in these two areas, it becomes a no-brainer regarding which player to keep.
Having said that, keeping Stephenson could still get tricky with their cap troubles. There’s a chance Indy gets a discount, since Larry Bird and the Pacers were the ones to give him a shot, but it would be easy to see Bird making changes to keep a player that has been one of his projects since arriving in Indy. The most logical choice would be to move George Hill, who is eating up $8 million worth of cap space, and use Born Ready in more of a combo guard, ball-handler role.
But what if it does not work out in blue and gold? There are several other teams who could vie for his services:
With the recent departure of Luol Deng, the Bulls seem like a potential suitor for a shooting guard, especially if they have any reservations about Jimmy Butler going into the future. Stephenson could give more rest to Derrick Rose and be the dynamic wing player that Chicago has been looking to match with the former MVP for some time now.
The Jazz have a cool $20 million coming off the books next summer from only two players, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson. The Jazz will have tons of room to make moves, and will likely make their first priority bringing back some of their bigs, namely Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. After that they need to address a lack of scoring. Could Stephenson be the guy to infuse that into their lineup? If nothing else, it would be entertaining to see a team with Lance Stephenson and Gordon Hayward as options 1a and 1b.
Another team with plenty of money to spend, the Hawks seem like a good fit for Stephenson. A starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Stephenson, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford would be a legit rotation, especially in the weaker Eastern Conference. Born Ready could take pressure off Korver with his athleticism and play-making abilities, while Korver could mask some of Stephenson’s deficiencies from deep.
No matter what, the future is bright for Stephenson. Guys that stay on an upward trajectory at such an early age tend to pan out, and Stephenson has improved each year. Besides, Lance was born ready.