Lance Stephenson is the Pacers’ fork in the road


If the Pacers re-sign Lance Stephenson, they’ll have $5,305,000 to sign a free agent.

If the Pacers don’t re-sign Lance Stephenson… they’ll have $5,305,000 to sign a free agent.

Indiana will be over the cap even if Stephenson walks, meaning there’s minimal advantage to letting him leave – unless losing Stephenson is an advantage itself, which maybe.

Stephenson spent the Eastern Conference Finals trying to tweak LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra. Instead, he just ended up bothering his president and coach.

It reached the point the Pacers’ top player, Paul George, doesn’t sound certain he even wants Stephenson back. And Stephenson had already gotten on the bad side of a couple other teammates.

So what should Indiana do?

The Pacers can’t trade Stephenson before free agency begins, and then it can only be in a sign-and-trade. That would require Stephenson wanting to join a team that lacks the cap room to sign him outright, that team wanting Stephenson, that team negotiating a trade with Indiana and Indiana accepting. A sign-and-trade could be great – potentially the answer to all the Pacers’ problems – but there so many hurdles to that transaction, they can’t make a plan counting on it.

Without a first-round pick, Indiana has few means to better its roster otherwise.

The simple answer is just to re-sign Stephenson and hope for the best.

But another, though more complicated, option exists.

It involves creating cap room.

Stephenson has a hidden value, but the Pacers aren’t positioned to take advantage of it.

All free agents continue to count against the cap until signed or renounced. How much a free agent counts against the cap is based on the terms of his previous contract, but he always counts at a number higher than his previously salary. So, usually, that free agent amount is cumbersome to the team.

However, when a player was drastically underpaid before becoming a free agent, his cap hold can become a tool. That’s the case with Stephenson, who was still playing on the contract he signed four years ago as a second-round pick. Stephenson will count just $1,909,500 against the cap this summer until signed.

Let’s say Stephenson’s starting salary in his next contract is $9 million. That means Indiana can leverage an extra $7,090,500 in flexibility (the difference between his actual starting salary and cap hold).

But that $7,090,500 only matters if it contributes to already-existing cap space. E.g., a team at the cap line has no more ability to sign a free agent than a team $7,090,500 over the cap line. Both can use just the mid-level exception – exactly where the Pacers tand now.

So, how can they get below the cap?

Using the latest salary-cap projections and salary data from, here’s an example of a two-trade plan that would net Indiana its desired cap room:

Trade 1: Roy Hibbert to the Trail Blazers for Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland and Will Barton

Portland nearly signed Hibbert two years ago and only didn’t because it was clear the Pacers would match. The Trail Blazers clearly like him. Hibbert had a rough finish to the season, but he’s still an All-Star an All-Star and one of the NBA’s best defensive players.

Lopez fit well into Portland’s system, and he’s a solid starting center. But the Trail Blazers struggled defensively for most of the season, and in Hibbert, they’d get a chance at an upgrade without surrendering much in the trade. All they’d have to do is pay Hibbert’s salary, but they were already willing to do that once, and he’s progressed extremely well overall since 2012.

Trade 2 (and 3*): George Hill, Ian Mahinmi and Chris Copeland to the Warriors for Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic

In Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford, Golden State has searched for a backup point guard who would allow Stephen Curry to play off the ball. Hill is a high-end version of that player – and probably better than whomever the Warriors could sign with the mid-level exception. (Depending on how they feel about the luxury tax, they could still use the mid-level exception too).

Though he won’t push David Lee to the bench, Copeland is the stretch four Kerr desires. And Mahinmi is a ready-to-go backup center.

Golden State would add salary in the deal, but the talent upgrade should outweigh that penalty.

Perhaps most importantly, these bigger contracts might even make a trade for Kevin Love easier to maneuver. Mahinmi, Copeland and/or even Hill could make salaries match with Minnesota.

 *Technically, these would need to be structured as two separate transactions – Hill into the Richard Jefferson trade exception as its own deal. But that’s only a formality.

The Pacers would then waive Luis Scola ($940,946 guaranteed), Donald Sloan and Barton and renounce all their free agents besides Stephenson.

That would leave Indiana $12,695,605 in cap room ($13,876,155 if Paul George doesn’t make an All-NBA team) to pursue Kyle Lowry or Eric Bledsoe, a restricted free agent.

After signing a free agent with that near-max-level cap room, the Pacers could then go over the cap to re-sign Stephenson and use the room mid-level exception ($2,732,000) to fill out the roster.

What’s preferable, Indiana’s current starting lineup or this?

  • Kyle Lowry or Eric Bledsoe
  • Lance Stephenson
  • Paul George
  • David West
  • Robin Lopez

Of course, there’s no guarantee the Pacers could sign Lowry or Bledsoe. The best fallback point guards would be Mario Chalmers or Patty Mills – steep dropoffs who would mean Indiana takes a step back.

But at least the Pacers, without Hibbert (two years and $30,412,969 remaining on his contract) and Hill (three years and $24 million), would be leaner going forward. David West (two years and $24.6 million) could be jettisoned for space in other versions of this plan. Either way, coming offseasons would present new opportunities to upgrade.

Sticking with the status quo wouldn’t be so bad, and it seems that’s what the Pacers will do.

But if Larry Bird decides this roster needs an overhaul, Stephenson’s ridiculously low cap hold gives him the perfect excuse to do it.

Through unpredictable season for Spurs, Popovich remains steady

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gregg Popovich is not changing how he coaches, not after 22 seasons leading the Spurs.

The NBA’s most tenured steward is always going to focus on defense. He’s always going to dismiss talk of his brilliance because “it’s just basketball.” And he’s not going to overwork his players even though an unprecedented rash of injuries has the Spurs battling for their playoff lives for the first time in two decades.

“At this point, he’s not changing,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s a formula that has worked quite well. They have great veteran leadership and they pass it along to the young guys. You see the young guys are growing. That’s why they’re so good.”

They’re not as good as they have been, but their impressive success this year is a testament to Popovich.

San Antonio has been without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season and Tony Parker, Rudy Gay and Danny Green have all missed significant time with various injuries. In all, the Spurs have missed 165 games as a team while battling everything from sprained MCLs to fractured wrists.

The injuries haven’t dramatically altered how Popovich manages the 82-game regular season.

“I think Pop did a great job overall, it’s not easy,” Parker said. “It was a tough one for him this year. Since I’ve been here, we have never had that many injuries. So, Pop did the best he could and I think overall he did a good job.”

Aside from All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, no Spurs player is averaging more than 28 minutes per game and veterans Parker and Manu Ginobili are averaging 20 minutes per game. Popovich has also been able to sit Aldridge, Ginobili and Pau Gasol for rest during the season.

Popovich was among the first coaches to sit players for rest rather than injury. He opted to keep Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green at home rather than have them play at Miami on Nov. 30, 2012. The action resulted in a $250,000 fine and sharp rebuke from then NBA Commissioner David Stern. The NBA changed its rules to allow teams to rest its players, but only if they listed in a timely manner who would be resting on their injury reports.

Popovich doesn’t have the firepower to repeat that mass seating now.

“It was hard to rest guys, limit guys’ minutes,” Green said. “We had some guys come back from injuries, that’s when he limited some of the guys’ minutes.”

But Popovich still has made sure players received their needed rest.

The 40-year-old Ginobili has provided the Spurs with a needed lift this month after sitting out eight games to rest. In Wednesday’s victory over Washington, Ginobili outran 31-year-old Ramon Sessions to a loose ball and then dove on it to save the possession.

“It just tells you that nobody has an excuse not to do it,” 37-year-old center Pau Gasol said of Ginobili’s hustle. “A 40-year-old does it, what about a 25 or 30 or 35 or 37 year old?”

Parker has not sat out any games for rest, but he did miss the first 19 games of the season after recovering from left quadriceps tendon surgery. Even before he lost his starting position to Dejounte Murray, Parker has spent a lot of time on the bench. Not that Parker has enjoyed the time off the court.

“For me personally, I’m just trying to get back to 100 percent it was almost too much rest,” Parker said. “I wish I had played more games, but it is what it is. Other guys, I hope they feel fresher. We’re going to need it.”

While Parker may not enjoy the rest, it seems to be paying off.

The Spurs have won five straight after losing eight of 11 games to drop into 10th place in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. San Antonio was in sixth place, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

The Spurs recently beat a short-handed Golden State team by 14 points. The Spurs played with energy that they haven’t shown since early in the season when they were third in the West.

That should help then down the stretch, and possibly into the playoffs. Being rested, healthy and playing good defense is a recipe that has yielded five championships in Popovich’s tenure and extended the careers of franchise stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

“Everybody’s bringing the juice,” Murray said. “We’re playing together on offense. I just feel like there’s more juice on defense. As I always say, defense, we’ve all got to be on the same page and be hungry and greedy on `D.’ We’ve got to keep going, we can’t get comfortable.”


Giannis Antetokounmpo to tell his story on 60 Minutes this week (preview clip)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up hocking wares — clothes, sunglasses, whatever — on the streets of Athens, Greece. He easily could still be living there, the tallest salesman in a poor part of a country with high unemployment and real challenges.

Instead, he is a multimillionaire living comfortably in the United States, and is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world — and still improving. In a few years we may well be saying he is the best player on the planet.

Antetokounmpo will be telling his story on the legendary television news magazine 60 Minutes this week, and the show released a clip. Check it out.

This is the best missed free throw to game winner you will ever see

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We’ve all seen this situation before at every level of basketball: A team down three points gets fouled in the final seconds and has two free throws, so the shooter aims to make the first free throw then miss the second and create a rebound he or a teammate can grab then throw back in to tie the game. It works about as often as an NFL Hail Mary — either the shooter makes the shot anyway or the defense gets the board — but what other choice is there?

Nobody has ever pulled it off as well as Paulinho Boracini of the Brazilian league team Cearense.

Intentional or not (and I lean not), he banked the second free throw off the rim toward the corner, ran it down himself and hit the game-winning three.

Damn. That’s impressive.

(If Boracini and Cearense sound familiar, you win the award for “watching too much Knicks preseason basketball” because they played New York in a 2015 exhibition.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo doubtful with ankle injury for Bulls game

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MILWAUKEE (AP) The Milwaukee Bucks say Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The All-Star forward got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.