NBA PM: Indiana’s Free Agency Back-Up Plan

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Evan Turner is Lance Stephenson Insurance

Almost everybody in, around and covering the NBA loved the trade that Indiana made on Thursday to acquire Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen in exchange for the expiring contract of long-time Pacer Danny Granger. Indy needed bench scoring and frontcourt depth, and this move addressed both while also saving them some money this year (a prorated amount of the approximately $4.2 million difference between Granger’s salary and the two new players’ salaries).

But what people have been most excited about is that this trade does all that, yet doesn’t change the team’s ability to re-sign rising star Lance Stephenson this offseason. Since both Turner and Allen are probably headed for restricted free agency, the amount of cap space available to bring back Lance is literally no different than it was before the swap.

The problem, however, is that the chunk of change set aside for Stephenson might not be big enough. Anybody who follows the Pacers closely enough knows that, even before the trade, holding onto Stephenson was going to be challenging considering his impending unrestricted free agency and meteoric rise to the cusp of All-Stardom.

If the Pacers were a team that did not worry about luxury tax, particularly when they have the potential to be NBA championship contenders for the next half a decade, there would be zero concern about Stephenson’s contract. Indy has his Bird rights and could pay him whatever they wanted to, but Pacers owner Herb Simon is not now, nor will he likely ever be, a man who pays luxury tax, which means the team either pays Stephenson within their means, or they let him walk.

So the Pacers are in a bit of a pickle. They’re already committed to over $60 million in guaranteed money next season, and that’s for just eight players. To hit the league minimum 13 roster spots, even if they cut Luis Scola and his $4.9 million (about $1.7 million guaranteed), they still will only end up with something in the $8-10 million/year range to offer Stephenson, depending on how the contract is structured.

While that sounds potentially very reasonable, there are going to be a ton of teams with cap space this summer, and 23-year-old unrestricted free agents this talented simply don’t come around all that often. His salary barely cracked $1 million for the first time in his career this season, so there’s no chance he’s taking a hometown discount, and all of this has to make Pacers brass sweat a little bit when facing the frustrating reality of how hard it will be to re-sign this kid.

That’s where the Evan Turner trade adds an extra layer of protection for Indiana, because Turner’s impending free agency will work much differently than Stephenson’s. Assuming the Pacers tender a qualifying offer to Turner, he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, which means Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard can match any offer he may get. The reality of this is Turner’s future price tag is very likely going to be significantly lower than Stephenson’s. In other words, $8-10 million of cap space should be more than enough for Turner.

Obviously, there’s a good reason for that disparity in value since Stephenson is clearly a more tenacious and talented two-way player, but if Turner can learn some defense playing on the league’s best defensive team there is a real possibility that he could be a respectable long-term starter for Indiana should the Pacers end up getting priced out of keeping Stephenson. Turner will help this year, but he’s also insurance for the offseason, which is what makes this trade even more brilliant for Indiana.

Of course, it’s important to remember that Turner isn’t quite as good as we think he is—he’s an atrocious three-point shooter and defender whose stats this year are clearly inflated because of his situation in Philadelphia—but in that price range, he’s a respectable role player (with benefits) that would make losing Stephenson a little less painful and the recovery process a little less uncertain.

Keeping Stephenson is still the priority, and there are a lot of things Bird and Pritchard can do between now and July to ensure that they have the money necessary to hold onto him, but if he does end up elsewhere Turner’s services will be available to them. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a heck of a lot better than only having the option of pursuing other teams’ free agents, hoping to find someone as good as Turner.

Buy-Out Coming for Danny Granger?

On the other end of this trade, the Philadelphia 76ers were able to bring in Danny Granger, someone who for the better part of the last two years has been battling a seemingly never-ending series of injuries that have kept him off the court for long periods of time. He’s also 30 years old, which means there is a zero-percent chance that Sam Hinkie brings him back after his two-month audition in the City of Brotherly Love.

Actually, there’s an outside chance that those two months may not even happen, as Granger’s camp is expected to push for some sort of buyout from the Sixers. It’s not like Philadelphia is dying to integrate Granger’s 8.3 PPG, and while his veteran leadership could do wonders for some of the young kids on that roster, he’s not likely to be in a particularly nurturing mood after being traded from one of the league’s best teams to one of the league’s worst.

Unfortunately for Granger, the Sixers may not be all that interested in buying out the rest of Granger’s contract, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com. For starters, they have little motivation to pay him all that money to go play for someone else, but more valuable to Hinkie is that Granger has sign-and-trade potential this offseason, meaning the Sixers could actually end up with an asset or two in exchange for a player that might have walked away for nothing otherwise.

Playoff teams are certainly interested in Granger, however, and according to Stein, Granger would love an opportunity to latch on with Miami, Oklahoma City or San Antonio. In a buyout, however, he loses his Bird rights, but that’s something he’s probably willing to stomach if the trade-off is floor time on a playoff team.

Granger has made a lot of money from the sidelines the last couple of years, which was never his intention but is true all the same. He’d absolutely play for peanuts this year if he could work out a buyout with the Sixers, but if Hinkie still views Granger as an offseason asset, that probably isn’t going to happen. Smart GMs don’t close doors like that if they don’t have to, and so far Hinkie has proven to be a pretty smart GM.

Perhaps he can get another second-round pick or two in a sign-and-trade involving Granger this summer. Philadelphia collects those like baseball cards these days. Whatever the payoff, Granger is worth more to Philly on the roster than off of it, which could mean that he remains with the team, as unhappy as that must make him.


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