INDIANAPOLIS – Free agency begins Thursday, and the Pacers have decisions to make regarding Lance Stephenson, TJ Warren, Jalen Smith and Ricky Rubio.
Whom should they pursue? Whom should they let go?
I already laid out my argument for why the franchise should move on from fan favorite Lance Stephenson, who had a triumphant return to the NBA last season but would hardly receive any playing time next season. I’m sure everyone who reads that piece fully agrees with me and won’t argue about keeping him (kidding, because I know Stephenson is tethered to this city).
In addition to Stephenson, I still have thoughts on the other Pacers free agents, so let’s start with who I believe is the most important one: Warren.
More:Insider: It was fun while it lasted, but the Pacers and Lance Stephenson should part ways
Bring TJ Warren back
I can hear a few of you groaning and sarcastically saying “weeks and not months,” referencing Pacers coach Rick Carlisle’s comment in September 2021 on when Warren would resume playing.
More:Hopeful pacers TJ Warren can avoid missing extended stretch of time with injured foot
That wouldn’t be the case.
Warren, 28, missed the entire 2021-22 season and has played just four games over the past two seasons due to “consecutive stress fractures in his left foot,” by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The 6-8 forward returned to full “on-court activity with his teammates” toward the end of the season, according to team president Kevin Pritchard, but was officially ruled out with 12 games to go.
All of that in mind, Indiana should still make an effort to bring Warren back.
Yes, on the surface it may sound ridiculous, but considering Indiana’s lack of forwards and Warren’s scoring ability when healthy, retaining him in free agency is a low-risk, high-reward decision … at the right price.
Warren won’t command a huge pay day because he hasn’t played since Dec. 29, 2020, so I think a one year deal worth $ 5-8 million or a two-year deal worth $ 10-16 million d with a team option for the second year would be the perfect price point for a player who must prove he can still be a productive NBA player. Plus, of every team in the league, the Pacers have the most information about Warren’s left foot, making it far less of a gamble than a team on the outside looking in.
In his last healthy season in 2019-20, Warren averaged a career-high 19.8 points while shooting 53.6% overall, 40.3% on 3s and 81.9% at the free-throw line. Even if he’s not that version of himself, he still averages 15.5 points per game for his career, and would thrive next to a pass-first point guard like Tyrese Haliburton.
“The hourglass on this season, it’s just gotten too short,” Carlisle said of Warren’s return in March. But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten too short to see him play for the Pacers again.
Jalen Smith will be hard to keep
Fun fact: Smith was selected 10th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, two spots ahead of Haliburton.
Both are no longer with the teams that drafted them and were traded to the Pacers last season for very different reasons. Haliburton, viewed as a budding star, was the centerpiece in a deal that sent two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis to the Kings.
Smith, on the other hand, had the third year of his rookie contract declined by the Suns – which has only happened five other times in league history – and was shipped to Indiana in exchange for Torrey Craig and a second-round pick.
More:Why trade acquisition Jalen Smith is unlikely to be playing for the Pacers next season
Haliburton and Smith both shined with the Pacers, and Smith played the best basketball of his career. The 22-year-old averaged 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in 22 games with Indiana compared to 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 56 games with Phoenix.
However, Smith’s unique contract situation will make it tough for the Pacers to keep him in free agency. Since Phoenix didn’t pick up Smith’s third year option and he was traded to Indiana, the Pacers must now abide by the terms of his rookie deal, which means they can only offer him $ 4.67 million next season and $ 5.95 in the one after if he chooses to re-sign.
Obviously, a 6-10 forward who shot 37.3% on 3s with the Pacers would command much more money on the open market. So in order for him to stay put, Indiana has to really sell Smith on being a part of the team’s young core and the opportunity Carlisle and the coaching staff gave him to showcase his skills, which may have changed the trajectory of his career.
“Coach Carlisle, in my opinion, he’s a Hall-of-Fame coach,” Smith said in his season-ending exit interview. “Obviously with all of the players he worked with like Dirk (Nowitzki), one of the best players of all time, it was just an amazing thing just to be able to be under that coaching and be able to mesh with him and pick his brain here and there. “
Smith said he also enjoyed playing with teammates who were closer to his age, unlike in Phoenix, calling his time with Haliburton and Co. “an amazing experience.”
Was it amazing enough to turn down millions of dollars from another team? We’ll see, but you can bet that Indiana will play its hand – though handicapped by league rules – as best it can.
“This is a huge offseason, and a scary offseason,” Smith said. “Obviously, as a young player, you don’t want to make the wrong decision.… This offseason is gonna come down to a lot of thinking. A lot of late night conversations with my agency, my family, just trying to figure out the right path for me. ”
Ricky Rubio sign-and-trade
After Rubio was traded from the Cavs to the Pacers in a deal for Caris Levert, he didn’t play for Indiana due to torn left ACL he sustained in December, and the 31-year-old likely never will.
Indiana could bring Rubio back, but it doesn’t make much sense with all of the ball-handlers they already have on the roster.
The Pacers could still use him in a sign-and-trade to acquire another young player or asset rather than letting him walk for nothing. Since the Pacers have Rubio’s Bird rights, they can exceed their salary cap and offer him a contract worthy of his market value. This rule would carry over in a trade and allow other teams that are over the salary cap to make a deal for him that wouldn’t be possible if they wished to simply sign Rubio as a free agent.
An example of this would be Cleveland. The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd recently reported that the Cavs, who are over the cap, are interested in a reunion with Rubio. So as long as both sides match up the salaries in a deal, there’s a path for Rubio to get paid fairly and go back to his former team in exchange for another player and possibly a second-round pick.
Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: email@example.com.