INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Pacers couldn’t keep waiting around for Lance Stephenson to make up his mind.
So on Friday, they went to work. The two-time Eastern Conference runner-ups announced they had signed three free agents — backup big man Lavoy Allen, swingman C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez, a sharp-shooting forward from Europe.
Coach Frank Vogel hopes all that is just a precursor to re-signing Stephenson, who led the NBA with five triple-doubles last season.
“It’s a process. The ball is in his court,” Vogel said. “It’s a waiting game until we see how some of the other dominoes fall.”
Indiana has offered Stephenson a five-year deal worth $44 million, but the shooting guard believed that he could land a more lucrative deal when some of the biggest names available in free agency — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh — decided where to play. James’ decision to return to Cleveland may finally break the free-agent logjam, and give Stephenson more leverage to get a bigger contract.
While Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird and Vogel have made it clear they would like Stephenson back, they also realize that the Pacers must find more scoring punch — with or without Stephenson — after the Heat eliminated Indiana in the playoffs each of the past three years. James will now be with Central Division rival Cleveland, too.
Bird, who is trying to stay under the luxury tax, got creative.
By signing Miles to a four-year deal worth $18 million, the Pacers get a 6-foot-6, 210-pound experienced swingman. He averaged 10.6 points and 2.4 rebounds over the past two seasons in Cleveland and made quite an impression on Vogel during one big-time shooting performance during the 2013-14 season.
“After that happened, he (Vogel) stopped by and we were chatting and he said everybody is going to become C.J. whoever was on that team. C.J. Smith or C.J. Johnson or whoever,” Miles said, laughing. “He told me that was pretty much the way it was the rest of that season (at practice).”
Getting Miles also gives the Pacers a potential Plan B if Stephenson leaves.
“Hopefully, Lance returns, but C.J. has proven he can start if he doesn’t,” Vogel said.
Rudez thought he was going to get drafted six years ago after working out for several NBA teams. When his name wasn’t called, the 6-10, 200-pound forward returned to Europe to improve his shooting skills. Over the past two seasons, the Croatian played well enough in Spain to draw attention from the Cavaliers and the Pacers.
Bird called Rudez “one of the best shooters in Europe” after signing him to a three-year deal. Even Rudez knew the Pacers were looking for shooters.
“I’d heard that and that’s reason they came after me,” he said. “I’m hoping my transition goes pretty quickly.”
Indiana acquired Allen in a trade deadline deal with Philadelphia in February, but the 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward played sparingly after the move. The Pacers brought Allen back for the league minimum, shoring up their inside game with another strong defender.
That leaves just one big question for the Pacers: Will Stephenson be back to help last season’s No. 1 seed in the East complete the push to the NBA Finals?
“He knows we want him very, very badly,” Vogel said. “Hopefully, we’ll find a way to get it done.”