Pressure's on Peja now

Updated: February 26, 2005, 1:23 PM ET
By Scott Howard-cooper | Special to ESPN.com

It's all for the best, really. Chris Webber gets away from the burden of supposed leadership, and gets a new role in a shift more dramatic than the contrast of Sacramento and Philadelphia, and the Kings don't have to worry about coming up with another new reason for not winning in the playoffs. Just not being good enough will finally have to do.

Webber, Matt Barnes and Michael Bradley to the 76ers for Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson and Brian Skinner is about so much more than jolting rosters. It wasn't a trade, it was a relief. The Kings dodge the oncoming problem of Webber putting their salary cap in a strangehold -- $20.2 million in 2006-07, $22.3 in 2007-08 at age 35 at the end of the season -- and Webber doesn't have to, well, be Webber anymore.

Chris Webber
Throughout his career, Webber has felt the intense glare of expectations.
Talk about a real payday. He didn't get the Isiah Thomas teaming that had always held an appeal, from Zeke's days as Pacers coach when Webber was a free agent to Thomas' today as Knicks personnel boss, and didn't get ticketed to an immediate championship contender, and it was still all good. He got a lot of other things he wanted.

He got Allen Iverson.

Not Iverson specifically. Webber got someone, anyone, of high profile and high salary. And high demands.

Webber won't have to be The Guy anymore. He wasn't always the best player on the Kings, most notably while dragging his surgically repaired leg through the second half of last season, but he was always the one in the crosshairs. It helped that he knew it all along. It just didn't make it go away.

His relationship with Sacramento fans had long ago become starcrossed, from the perceived slight about the lack of nightlife in the city to the sense he never really wanted to come back after re-signing as a free agent, to the injuries. Those 122.7 million pieces of expectation didn't help either. He had bought pressure with the max contract.

There were still many supporters in town, and a lot of his charity work was genuine. Except when the fallouts would come, annually, he was the one needing the hard hat. Even during his 2004-05 of great improvements, all the way to 21.3 points, 9.7 rebounds. 5.5 assists and 36.3 minutes and improved mobility. He wasn't explosive like before, but this was as good as anyone had the right to expect.

And still all that good will couldn't save him. The most telling comment from Geoff Petrie, the Kings president of basketball operations, was that the deal wasn't prompted from a desire to get away from Webber's contract. He said it was about getting better on the court, and it wasn't such a big leap from there to see that Sacramento decided it was better off with three role players than the guy posting All-Star numbers.

That made everything official. Webber had been a goner since the end of last season, after his return stagnated the offense, and the Kings only needed him to get good enough to move, because no one was going to take bad health and a bad contract. The Kings were conceeding, finally, there was no championship coming with this group. It was about the chemistry and the offense working better without the leading scorer. But he and Peja Stojakovic got along just fine, right?

The Kings naturally say they are happy with the deal, but neither Sacramento or Philadelphia is the real winner. Webber is.

He gets Iverson. He gets the chance to let someone else dominate the spotlight, be the one at the core of every talk-radio debate, and be the focal point of the offense. Think about it. Chris Webber gets to be a complementary player.

That hasn't happened since Golden State 1993-94. There was great attention all along -- the Michigan years, the draft-day trade, winning Rookie of the Year -- but the Warriors also had Chris Mullin and Latrell Sprewell and Tim Hardaway in place. Webber, he just had to fit in.

In Washington, he had to be at the forefront. In Sacramento, he had to be at the forefront. He got the credit and the blame, and he brought a lot of each upon himself. And every time he tried to put himself in a leadership role, it didn't work. It wasn't in his personality. Even this season, he talked about making the Kings his own, even demanding it, and then one of the first things he said after Cuttino Mobley came in trade for Doug Christie was that he, Webber, wouldn't have to be as vocal because Mobley could handle a lot of that.

Peja's playoff struggles are like a tattoo now, always with him.
In Sacramento, he got a lot of talk about whether the Kings could ever get past (fill in the year) and the Lakers or the Timberwolves or the Mavericks or the Spurs and win the championship. In Philadelphia, he has people talking about whether the trade makes the 76ers favorites to take the division. He'll do fine, if he can stop laughing.

Is this heaven?

No, it's the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, back in the old country, he leaves behind a final struggle for Peja Stojakovic. Whatever frustrations Webber had with Peja about approach and fighting through tough times, and vice versa, Webber gets the final word, in a way. He leaves and Stojakovic inherits the pressure.

This, historically, is not a good thing. His playoff struggles are like a tattoo now, always with him. Stojakovic, a great shooter, was a lifetime 46.8 percent from the field his first six seasons and 41.3 those same years once the postseason arrived. Only one time, 2003-03, has he broken 41 percent. Four of the times, he was at 40 or less.

He has said he wants to be traded and he has played in a funk much of the season. And now he really steps into the lion's den. Another bad playoffs, now as the No. 1 option, scars him for good. A good team with Mike Bibby and Brad Miller and some sign of depth, yes, but he stayed and Webber didn't so he gets the ticking ball now.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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