Lance Stephenson is averaging 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in the playoffs. (David E. Klutho/SI)
For weeks the Pacers have stood at a precipice. They outlasted the Hawks and survived the Wizards, though in neither case disproved their apparent vulnerability. Indiana's run through the Eastern Conference finals has unfolded in much the same way. Even after extending their season with a 93-90 win over the Heat in Game 5 on Wednesday, the Pacers will face elimination again on Friday and, if victorious, yet again on Sunday. At some point therein Indiana's season will likely end, as would befit an overmatched team threatening to unravel at any moment. The Pacers' season is alive only technically, and when it is soon finished, so too will be the basketball barrier between Indiana and salary-cap peril.
As tumultuous as these last few months have been for the Pacers, the extension of their season at the very least suspended a vexing offseason itinerary. To this point Indiana has opened its wallet to preserve its starting core: Point guard George Hill was given a five-year, $40 million deal when he became a free agent in 2012; center Roy Hibbert was re-signed for four years and $58.4 million after the Trail Blazers tried to lure him as a restricted free agent that same summer; power forward David West was re-upped on a three-year, $36.6 million deal in '13; and small forward Paul George landed a five-year, maximum rookie-scale extension in September. Next up, though, is shooting guard Lance Stephenson -- the most difficult of all five starters to price and a young talent hitting the open market at a particularly unfortunate time.
Because the 2010 second-round pick is neither a rookie-scale player nor one with three or fewer years of experience, Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Indiana, then, can't retain Stephenson simply by matching an outside offer. Other suitors will be free to entice him with overtures of pay or opportunity, though the Pacers can tender a five-year contract with higher annual raises while rival teams are limited to four. Depending on the 2014-15 salary cap, a max offer for Stephenson could approach $15 million in the first season. That would be a ridiculous overpay for the live-wire guard, but not out of the question during an offseason in which a number of teams are poised to have significant cap room and limited options for using it.
Indiana has a critical choice to make as far as where the Stephenson bright line should be. Is a starting salary of $10 million too much for a tantalizing player who can be erratic both between the lines and between his temples? Is $9 million too much to give Stephenson when the Pacers' roster is so clearly flawed in other ways? Final judgment on those questions and many others will be rendered as a function of deciding issues on an even larger scale. The fundamental concern facing Indiana is this:
• If the Pacers re-sign Stephenson to a deal for roughly $10 million per season, they could come close to the cap on a five-man core without an offensive superstar.
• If the Pacers let Stephenson go, the limitations of George, Hill and Hibbert would be that much more glaring and their deals that much trickier to build around.
The critical subplot in all of this is George's All-NBA candidacy -- an awards race that has very serious cap implications for the Pacers. George's extension was first reported as a deal worth $80 million to $90 million. Even those figures turned out to be conservative, as they were apparently calculated using the NBA's salary cap for the 2013-14 season rather than 2014-15. Next season's cap won't be announced until early July, but the latest projection is $63.2 million -- up nearly $5 million from $58.6 million this season and even higher than initially expected.
George's extension will be richer as a result, especially if he's selected to a second All-NBA team and eligible to invoke the Derrick Rose rule. In that case, George would technically be able to command 30 percent of the adjusted salary cap rather than 25 percent -- a potential difference of roughly $3 million in the first season of his extension and as much as $17 million over the life of the deal. George and the team struck a compromise at 27 percent, per Grantland's Zach Lowe, which pares down George's highest-case starting salary in that first extension season to around $15.8 million. There is a delicious irony, still, in the fact that the voting media Hibbert once blasted (with George's co-sign) for not watching the Pacers could now make Indiana's life more difficult by rewarding George (who fill find out soon whether he made one of the three teams). The Rose rule bump would bring Indiana that much closer to the dreaded luxury-tax threshold and complicate any potential deal for Stephenson.
What could save the Pacers from that trouble, however, is the sheer number of viable All-NBA candidates. If kept as a forward, George would compete for votes against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis. It might seem unlikely for George to crack the top six of that loaded group, though in an MVP race determined by the very same voters, George trailed only Durant, James and Griffin among forwards.
Regardless of George's contract specifics, the crux of the Pacers' offseason introspection remains the same: How much is too much to invest in this core? Indiana has already made a substantial bet on George's development, but a pricey deal for Stephenson would amount to doubling down. With no other star apparent waiting in the wings, committing big money to Stephenson would bank on the notion that George could become Indiana's badly needed superstar shot creator. That in itself isn't an absurd proposition (as evidenced by George's 37-point explosion in Game 5 against Miami), but it illuminates just how small the margin for error is for a team that loses its way whenever straying from its starting five.
Indiana's roster problems are as rooted in those core pieces as they are in its supporting cast. Hibbert can be a terrific defensive anchor, but he depends on players like George, Hill and West to handle their respective assignments and funnel opponents in a certain way. All five starters are useful offensive cogs, but together they yield underwhelming scoring marks and tend to struggle even more when even a single player is subbed out. A few better pieces off the bench would help. All told, though, this team walks so fine a line that every reserve is put at an inherent disadvantage. There is no predominant star to make life easier for lesser subs. Instead, there is only the delicate balance of a starting lineup that thrives as a self-contained unit and collapses with even the slightest compromise.
This is why the prospect of letting Stephenson go and the idea of overpaying him to stay are both so distinctly terrifying for Indiana. The Pacers remain quite good despite their impending elimination, but even roster stasis might require them to wade into luxury-tax territory for the first time since 2006. That's a tough ask for a team whose structure seems intrinsically limiting and whose players have sought to blame anyone but themselves. Yet to deviate from that structure by letting Stephenson walk could send this quality team (and likely Eastern Conference contender) into limbo. Perhaps worst of all is that Indiana only has the illusion of choice in the matter; it will ultimately be Stephenson who decides what course the Pacers take, as he could decline even a suitably fat contract offer for the opportunity to be a dominant ball handler elsewhere.
That's fitting, in a way, for a team that made do this season by putting the ball in Stephenson's hands and living with the results. Come free agency, Indiana will essentially do the same with the short-term future of the franchise at stake.
Photo credit: Andy Lyons, Ron Hoskins, Nathaniel S. Butler and Isaac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images.
Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.
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