Peja buzzes, Clips lose one, but reportedly keep Cassell
The first two shocks in NBA free agency have come from Serbia.
Indiana forward Peja Stojakovic, widely considered a lock to re-sign with the Pacers, has verbally committed to join the upstart New Orleans Hornets in what arguably ranks as the boldest acquisition in club history. NBA front-office sources indicate that the Hornets have committed more than $60 million in a five-year deal to team Stojakovic's deft shooting touch with Rookie of the Year point guard Chris Paul.
The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, have swiped a player from their co-tenants in the Staples Center, but it's another Serbian instead of Clippers guard Sam Cassell. The Lakers on Saturday secured a verbal agreement from Clippers sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovic on a five-year deal starting at the $5 million mid-level exception and worth in excess of $30 million.
The deals can't advance past the stage of verbal agreement until July 12, when the salary cap is set for the 2006-07 season, signings and trades can be made official and exact contract values can be computed.
"The Hornets are setting their cap room aside for Peja, and Peja is taking himself off the market," Stojakovic's agent, David Bauman, said in a Saturday night conference call.
Bauman also represents Radmanovic and said: "The decision was obviously a tough one for Vlade. On the one hand, he had strong interest from the Clippers to entice him to remain. At the same time ... when Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson call your number at 6 o'clock on the morning of free agency, and you've got Vlade Divac, who's one of his idols, and Magic Johnson on standby, you tend to perk up and listen real hard and clear."
Los Angeles Clippers
The Hornets have never been known as offseason spenders with George Shinn in charge, but the much-maligned owner has hinted recently that he was chasing "a big-name free agent." To make that claim credible and hush the skeptics, New Orleans/Oklahoma City possessed two crucial advantages to tempt Stojakovic away from the Pacers -- more than $15 million in available salary-cap space and a coach who knows the player well.
Coach Byron Scott, who received a three-year contract extension from the Hornets earlier this week, played against Stojakovic in Greece before the 29-year-old made the jump to the NBA in 1999 and later worked with him in Sacramento as a Kings assistant coach.
"This was not just a money deal," Bauman said of Stojakovic's decision. "He chose this deal because he thinks the team has a chance to win."
The Lakers' cause was also undoubtedly helped by a Serbian connection to convince Radmanovic to switch locker rooms at Staples. Divac, a former national-team colleague of Stojakovic and Radmanovic and now a member of the Lakers' front office, can explain to Radmanovic better than anyone how badly they need a dependable shooter to help space the floor for Bryant.
Divac had been hoping to bring Stojakovic to the Lakers ever since leaving Sacramento in the summer of 2004, but that would require a complicated sign-and-trade arrangement because L.A. can't offer more than the $5 million mid-level exception. Radmanovic, like Stojakovic a 6-foot-10 perimeter specialist, was a more realistic mid-level target after averaging 10.7 points (on 41.8-percent shooting from 3-point range) and 5.7 rebounds in 30 games with the Clippers.
The Clips, craving a big forward who could stretch the floor for Elton Brand, dealt Chris Wilcox to Seattle on Feb. 14 for Radmanovic. They moved quickly to replace Radmanovic with Phoenix Suns forward Tim Thomas, who, according to multiple newspaper reports, has agreed to a four-year deal worth an estimated $24 million.
Re-signing Cassell and Radmanovic were the Clippers' top two offseason priorities. Cassell had said "it's looking pretty good" for the Clippers in an ESPNEWS appearance Saturday afternoon, and that appeared to be the case as the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday night that the guard had agreed to a two-year, $13 million deal with the team.
The 36-year-old, who has voiced concern about his ability to secure a two-year contract from the Clippers, recently hired veteran NBA agent David Falk.
Stojakovic averaged 19.5 points and 6.2 rebounds in 40 games with Indiana after the Kings sent him to the Pacers on Jan. 25 in exchange for the mercurial Ron Artest. But a knee problem limited Stojakovic to two games in a six-game series with New Jersey in the first round, and his sudden departure now hits Indiana even harder, leaving the Pacers with nothing to show for the Artest trade.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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