Pacers close to acquiring Harrington from Hawks

Updated: July 25, 2006, 9:07 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The biggest name still available on the NBA free-agent market is Al Harrington.

Except that you'd struggle to find a team out there that considers Harrington available.

Harrington's return to the Indiana Pacers via sign-and-trade with the Atlanta Hawks, according to various NBA front-office sources, is widely seen as a done deal.

Perhaps the strongest indication that a formal announcement is forthcoming from Indianapolis is the fact that the Pacers' main competition for Harrington is no longer courting the versatile forward.

The Golden State Warriors, sources said, have conceded defeat in the Harrington chase, fully expecting the 26-year-old to join the Pacers in a swap with Atlanta that would net Harrington a six-year contract worth a tad less than $57 million.

It remains unclear who or what Atlanta would receive in the sign-and-trade arrangement, but the deal can be completed with the Hawks taking back recent or future draft picks -- or perhaps a moderately priced youngster, such as center David Harrison -- as opposed to significant salary. That's because of a $7.5 million trade exception Indiana created earlier this month by striking a sign-and-trade deal with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets involving Peja Stojakovic … after Stojakovic already had committed to sign a five-year, $60-plus million free-agent contract with the Hornets.

With a modest cash payment believed to be in the $250,000 range, Indiana persuaded the Hornets to participate in a sign-and-trade swap for Stojakovic instead of signing him outright. The Pacers signed Stojakovic to the terms he and the Hornets negotiated and shipped the sharpshooter (plus cash) to New Orleans/Oklahoma City for the rights to 1998 second-round draft pick Andy Betts, who likely will never play for Indiana.

Without the $7.5 million trade exception resulting from that maneuver, Indiana wouldn't be able to complete a sign-and-trade for Harrington unless the Hawks were willing to take back contracts in the same monetary range as Harrington's new first-year salary.

Harrington's apparent willingness to start that new contract in the $7.5 million range, meanwhile, is expected to return him to the team that drafted the 6-9, 245-pounder in 1998 -- and has turned that trade exception into one of the most valuable assets of this NBA offseason.

Harrington, sources said, initially told interested suitors he was expecting a six-year deal worth at least $66 million. For the Pacers to pay that much, Atlanta almost certainly would have to be willing to accept a package built around Indiana center Jeff Foster. But Foster, by all indications, is not part of the forthcoming trade.

Indy's unforeseen trade exception gets Harrington fairly close to his financial target and the team he likes best. Better yet for the Pacers, their new Ron Artest replacement is regarded as a topflight athlete capable of playing small forward and power forward.

When the free-agent period commenced July 1 and the Hornets secured a verbal commitment from Stojakovic within hours, it looked as though Indiana would lose its original Artest successor without compensation.

The Pacers have been busy on other fronts, as well, according to sources, in hopes of reducing future salary obligations wherever possible as they prepare to absorb Harrington's big contract.

They first rescinded a qualifying offer to shooting guard Fred Jones, suddenly making Jones an unrestricted free agent, and he quickly reached an agreement to sign with Toronto Raptors.

Indiana also agreed this past weekend to trade point guard Anthony Johnson, who has two seasons left on his contract worth a little more than $5 million, for a package of three Dallas Mavericks that likely will be whittled to one. Veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong is the only Mav expected to stick with the Pacers after the deal goes through. Young forwards Josh Powell and Rawle Marshall are prime candidates to be waived.

The Pacers also have shopped Foster (who earns $5.5 million next season) and guard Sarunas Jasikevicius ($4 million) this summer and might proceed with plans to move one or both to gain additional distance from the luxury-tax threshold.

"Obviously, Indiana, I'm more comfortable there because I've been there, I've been in the East," Harrington told ESPN.com earlier this month at the Vegas Summer League, making it clear then that he expected to wind up with either the Pacers or the Warriors.

"Going into free agency, obviously you think, 'I'm going to be at the bottom of the screen [on ESPN's Bottom Line ticker] like Ben Wallace and the rest of the guys.' But everyone's telling me to be patient, so that's what I'm trying to do."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics