- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON -- Sacramento Kings forward Ron Artest, attending Tuesday night's Game 6 of the NBA Finals, told ESPN.com that he's "99 percent sure I won't opt out of my contract" this month to become a free agent July 1.
Although he left that one-percent sliver of wiggle room, Artest has been insisting for weeks that he wants to play out the final season of his contract with the Kings -- at nearly $8 million -- before thinking about free agency. He has also expressed hope that Sacramento will consider a contract extension, but the Kings have yet to show a willingness to go that route.
There likewise remains a chance that Sacramento could again seek to trade Artest -- most likely after July 1 once his contract status is made official -- even if he bypasses free agency. The Kings seriously explored the market for Artest in conjunction with the league's annual February trade deadline, most notably in talks with the
The Los Angeles Lakers are already widely expected to revisit past trade interest in Artest after repeatedly losing the toughness battle in this series to Boston, although making trades with teams from the same division -- especially teams that have the history L.A. and Sacramento share -- are complicated to say the least.
Artest has a June 30 deadline to notify the Kings whether he plans to play out the final season of his contract or opt for free agency. But putting free agency on hold for one more year could conceivably increase trade interest in the 28-year-old, since Artest would be playing next season on an expiring contract.
"My agent [Mark Stevens] wants me to have a chance to prove that I can win games [in Sacramento]," Artest said. "So we are not considering opting out.
"Next summer can be a bigger [free-agent] summer for me if the Kings win big, which is ... anything else is a failure. I really don't want to be considered one of the best wing defenders of all-time and not have a ring."
Artest is one of a handful of high-profile veterans whose decision to either play out his current contract or opt for free agency is highly anticipated this month. Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal has already said publicly that he will bypass free agency with two years and $44 million left on his Pacers deal, while Washington's Gilbert Arenas says he's headed for the open market. Others who will soon make their choice include Golden State's Baron Davis, Miami's Shawn Marion and Elton Brand of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Kings far exceeded most preseason forecasts by posting a 38-44 record under rookie coach Reggie Theus. Artest had one his best statistical seasons -- averaging 20.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 57 games -- and has claimed often in recent weeks that the Kings would have been right there with the eight 50-win teams in the West if not for the injuries suffered by leading scorer Kevin Martin and ex-Kings guard Mike Bibby as well as the 27 games Artest lost to injury and suspension. Artest missed the first seven games of the season serving a seven-game league ban after a no-contest plea to infliction of injury on his wife.
That was the latest transgression in a career full of missteps -- a list that most notably includes Artest's suspension for the remainder of the season for his role in the infamous Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers brawl in November 2004 -- but Artest has been actively working to address doubts about his reliability. He is heavily involved with the NBA Players Association's humanitarian efforts in Africa and elsewhere abroad, signed on this season as a spokesman for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and has volunteered in recent weeks to do television work for the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs, who are likewise operated by Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof.
Artest also revealed that he reached out to USA Basketball officials this month in a bid to be considered for this summer's China-bound Olympic team before Team USA director Jerry Colangelo announced last week that the plan to conduct tryouts before picking a 12-man squad was being scrapped.
If he changes his mind in the next two weeks and opts for free agency, Artest is realistically looking at a tight free-agent market that would leave him relying on the Kings to participate in a sign-and-trade if he wants an annual salary at or above his current $7.4 million. To sign in free agency with a contender such as the Lakers, Artest would likely be looking at a contract that starts at the mid-level exception, which was $5.4 million this season.
Artest described fellow Queens native Odom as a "longtime friend and idol of mine."
"I've known him since I was like 9 years old," Artest said.
As for Bryant, Artest said: "Since Kobe did that interview with me [on Fox's Best Damn Sports Show, Period], I find myself rooting for him."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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