Lance Stephenson is the Pacers’ fork in the road

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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 ShamSports.com, 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.

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.

Marcus Smart’s Celtics record 11 threes still not enough to beat Suns

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BOSTON — Devin Booker had 39 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and the Phoenix Suns overcame a franchise-record 11 3-pointers by Boston’s Marcus Smart and beat the Celtics 123-119 on Saturday night.

Smart shot 11 for 22 from 3-point range and finished with a career-best 37 points. His performance marked the first time in NBA history that a player made 11 or more 3-points in a losing effort, according to Stats.

Deandre Ayton had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Mikal Bridges added a career-best 26 points for the Suns, who have won four of their last five games.

Jayson Tatum scored 26 points and Gordon Hayward added 22 for Boston, which has lost three straight and six of eight.

Three years ago, Booker scored 70 points in a loss to the Celtics in TD Garden. He finished an assist shy of his first career triple-double.

The Celtics were missing two of their top three leading scorers – Kemba Walker (team-best 22.1 per game), out with left knee soreness, and Jaylen Brown (20.0), sidelined for the second straight game with a sprained right thumb.

Boston cut its deficit to 90-85 early in the fourth, but Dario Saric and Bridges answered with consecutive 3s. The Celtics had it down to 114-111 on Daniel Theis‘ breakaway dunk with about a minute left, but Bridges hit a jumper in the lane with 37 seconds to play.

Booker’s two free throws sealed it with 4.8 seconds left.

The Suns led 60-51 at halftime and answered – mainly behind Booker and Ayton – any surge by Boston. The lead never fell below seven in the quarter, with Booker scoring nine points and Ayton getting eight.

The loss of two key players showed for the Celtics in the first quarter when the Suns broke in front 26-10 before Boston’s bench helped spark a 15-0 run.

LeBron James gets ‘M-V-P’ chants in Houston

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Laker fans are everywhere.

Decades of stars and success — from Magic Johnson through Kobe Bryant — turned the Lakers into the biggest franchise brand in the NBA, the only thing that might rival it is LeBron James‘ brand. Combine those two and there seem to be loud, at points obnoxious, Lakers fans in every arena.

Case in point: LeBron James got “M-V-P” chants in Houston while the Lakers beat the Rockets.

LeBron called it humbling.

LeBron’s play this season — 25.5 points and a career-high 10.9 assists a game, playing his best defense in years and leading the Lakers to a West best 34-8 record — has him in the hunt for a fifth MVP award (although he’s not who we would vote for right now).

Expect to hear these chants in a lot more buildings this season.

Check out Stephen Curry the sideline reporter (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry, the most overpaid sideline reporter in the NBA.”

That’s how Curry was introduced on the Warriors broadcast Saturday night as he took over some sideline reporting duties while still out after fracturing his hand four games into the season. What else has he got to do?

Above you can see the best of Curry’s reactions, or check out his walk-off interview with Eric Paschall:

I’d say he shouldn’t quit his day job, but that job also pays a little better.

By the way, the Warriors ended their losing streak with a 109-95 victory over Orlando. D'Angelo Russell led the way with 26 points.