To find his team in April, you needed a magnifying glass and a search party -- fifth place in the Central Division of the NBA with a 28-54 record, out of the playoffs and out of sight.

Finding Cleveland Cavalier owner Ted Stepien these days is easy: look for the nearest free agent.

"If you're a businessman, you can either stand still or roll the dice. I gamble," says Stepien, in his 13th month as the team's owner.

Stepien, 55, has collected high-priced free agents recently as though they were mere corporate recruits for the National Advertising Service Inc., of which Ted Stepien is president. "It does $90 million a year. That's No. 1 in the world," says Stepien over lunch in the Competitor's Club lounge, owned by, of course, Ted Stepien.

His offseason has been one long free-agent spree. He got center James Edwards (Indiana) for $700,000 a year. He got guard Scott Wedman (Kansas City) for $700,000 a year. He got guard Bobby Wilkerson (Chicago) for $350,000 a year. He tried to get guard Otis Birdsong for $900,000 a year, but Kansas City reacted by trading him to New Jersey.

"It is lucky for us that there were available free agents," says Stepien. "We decided to be zealous."

Because of his free-agent economic theory of "I Demand and Others Supply," Stepien has been criticized.

He has a payroll of more than $4 million. And that's for 13 players, all with guaranteed contracts. Only 12 make the roster. His vault may be as empty now as the Richfield Coliseum was last year, when the Cavaliers averaged 5,475 per game, the lowest attendance in the NBA.

"If I stood pat with last year's team, we would do nothing this year," he says. "I know I can afford what I'm doing. In my books, I haven't made any mistakes. The mistake is that some media people underestimated me. I'm trying to build a winner here and (former Cavalier owner) Nick Mileti traded away all of those draft chocies. We don't have a No. 1 pick until 1988. We must get the players some way."

Mileti didn't trade all of them. Early last season, Stepien spent draft choices instead of cash. He traded away so many future picks so unwisely that the league imposed an unprecedented embargo on further Stepien trades without its consent.

"I think he probably means well," said Joe Axelson, the NBA's vice president of operations. "He is not doing anything illegal, but there is a concern for the ripple effect around the league because of the salaries he is paying. I don't think he has a lot of friends among the other owners right now."

Said Red Auerbach, the president of the Boston Celtics, "Sometimes, some owners -- without mentioning any names -- try to be like a (New York Yankee owner George) Steinbrenner. They try to do the same things he does, to get the publicity, but in smaller towns. It just doesn't work."

It seems that ever since Stepien came into the NBA he has been questioned. He is spending money liberally in a league where a reported 18 of 23 teams were losing money before Stepien ever started buying free agents.

"I've been called in to (NBA Commissioner) Larry O'Brien's carpet a few times. He wanted to talk to me about some moves I have made. In one year, I bet I knew the inside of that office better than any other owner in the league," said Stepien, speaking as though he were the defendant who had beaten the prosecution.

Stepien defends himself with a businessman's tact.

"Other owners shouldn't be critical of me. I have a 20,000-seat arena that sits in a cornfield. We were last in the league in attendance last year. I don't like that.

"So I try to turn it around and strengthen my team and my franchise. Why should others be critical? I wasn't jealous of Red Auerbach when he gave Larry Bird, an unproven rookie, $650,000 a year for three years. I wasn't critical of Jerry Buss when he paid Magic Johnson $25 million for 25 years. I'm not mad. I'm not jealous. It's the absentee owners I don't like.

"No one can tell me how much a player is worth. James Edwards was the best center available to us. If he had been in the college draft, he would have been the top center picked. He may be the 11th or 12th best center in the league, but we needed him and we went higher with our offer.

"I think if you really pinned down other owners, they would agree that what I have done is all right. More owners who are winning must be aware of the owners that are losing. It can't be a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

"If Red Auerbach had done what I have done, it would have been accepted, applauded even."

Now, Stepien -- a former University of Pittsburgh basketball player ("I was a scorer") -- is in the process of forming a cable network for the Cleveland area. It makes him a bit like Ted Turner. Still, it is Steinbrenner with whom the Cleveland owner is most often compared.

"I have always admired him. George Steinbrenner saw a $20 million market and took advantage of it," said Stepien. "But I think I'm more of a quiet, reserved type. I hear Steinbrenner can really explode."

Perhaps the most crucial difference between Steinbrenner and Stepien is that only one has a winning team.

"With the team we have now I think we can realistically finish second in our division," said Stepien, whose team finished 32 games behind Milwaukee in 1980-81. Only Detroit lay guttered behind the Cavaliers in the Central Division. "We have to make the playoffs. If we make the playoffs, then I will know that what I have done was right.

"I am not a winner until I make the playoffs," Stepien said.