AVON, Ind. (AP) — Paul George believes the Pacers will be a stronger title contender with Lance Stephenson — and all of his idiosyncrasies.
So on Saturday, George followed the company line and urged his friend and teammate to re-sign with Indiana.
For weeks, the Pacers have been speaking to Stephenson with a unified voice: They want him back to take one more shot at an NBA championship, something that seems much more plausible now that LeBron James’ departure has broken up the Big Three Era in Miami.
“It’s all on Lance’s plate,” George said as he took a break from the basketball pro camp he headlined in suburban Indianapolis. “I didn’t have to deal with this because I was a restricted free agent. It’s really up to Lance, but I will say I do want him to come back.”
He’s hardly alone.
Everyone from Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird to coach Frank Vogel to backup big man Lavoy Allen has stuck to the playbook since the offseason began. George, a two-time All-Star, joined the chorus Saturday, though he understands this is all part of the business.
When George signed a max deal just before training camp opened last year, Bird noted Stephenson was in the crowd and promised that Stephenson would be the next Pacers player to strike it rich. One way or the other, he will. Bird offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million contract. But now the Pacers are stuck in waiting mode.
Stephenson is seeking a more lucrative deal, and now that the logjam in free agency has broken, a decision might not be far away.
He remains one of the more intriguing free agents still on the market.
Last season, Stephenson blossomed into one of the league’s most versatile guards, rewarding the Pacers for their patience by averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 78 starts– all career bests. The Brooklyn, New York, native also was the best rebounding guard in the NBA and led the league with five triple-doubles.
But his breakout season was tainted by his behavior.
Teammates were upset when Stephenson was goaded into his second technical foul in a March win over Miami and again when he publicly challenged James & Co. during the playoffs. Stephenson also got into a practice scuffle with teammate Evan Turner during the playoffs and was even criticized by Bird, one of Stephenson’s biggest fans, after he blew into the ear of LeBron James during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat won the series in six games and some believe Stephenson’s actions could wind up costing him money, something that could help the Pacers keep their starting five together for another season.
“He knows we want him very, very badly,” coach Frank Vogel said Friday. “Hopefully, we’ll find a way to get it done.”
Bringing back Stephenson has taken on greater urgency with James going back to Cleveland.
Suddenly, Miami, which eliminated Indiana from the playoffs each of the past three seasons, doesn’t appear so imposing. And even though James is taking his talents to the shores of Lake Erie, posing a strong threat to the two-time defending Central champs, the Pacers may finally be in position to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000 — if Stephenson returns.
“It’s very important,” Allen said after re-signing with Indiana on Friday. “There were many games in the playoffs where he got us this team going and he carried us and everybody saw that.
Stephenson has been unusually quiet since free agency opened, even with his friends and teammates.
The Pacers haven’t budged from their original offer because it would probably put them over the luxury tax threshold, something Bird has repeatedly said the Pacers won’t pay.
Even George isn’t sure what Stephenson, his 2010 draft classmate, will do.
“I’ve talked to him a few times, and I know how stress stressful it can be. I don’t want to put any more on him,” George said. “Once again, we’ve got our plates full (with chasing a title) but we like our chances.”