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08-09-2004, 02:24 PM

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08-09-2004, 02:42 PM
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Analysis: NBA teams face dilemma when stars want out

On call around the clock, everyone works the phones these days.

Players, agents, general managers, owners - the NBA is awash with cell signals bouncing across the globe like a wayward ball kicked out of the rack, from any number of NBA outposts across the country to across the globe.

And a good number of the sudden inquiries includes the Kings.

Peja Stojakovic has made public a trade request, becoming the third NBA All-Star performer to do so this summer. But will it be a three-for-three sweep of demand and deliver?

Already in a summer as wild and wacky as NBA front-office folks can remember, Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O'Neal in effect forced their employers to move them, with the looming threat of discord hanging in the balance.

McGrady, entering the last year before he can opt out of his contract and vowing to leave the Orlando Magic, was shipped to Houston. O'Neal, frustrated and furious in the belief Kobe Bryant appeared to be running things in Los Angeles, insisted he wouldn't report back to the Lakers and was traded to the Miami Heat in a blockbuster deal.

Now there's Peja.

"This is an enormous dilemma, when a player like Stojakovic asks for a trade," Magic vice president Pat Williams said. "What do you do? You don't want to give in to the player. You don't want your fans to have that feeling. You don't want to get involved in a bad trade.

"History shows that you sometimes get the lesser of the deal when you make a trade involving a (star) player like this. Trust me. The Kings will get phone calls. It's the business now. And championships are made in the summer now. It's what you do in the offseason that sets the tone."

For NBA executives outside Sacramento, it's smart business to make those calls to gauge interest. And for Kings executives, it is good business to listen, at least.

Every NBA team reportedly looked into the O'Neal situation because he is a unique talent. Stojakovic is a rare shooter in a league starving for field-goal accuracy, though. Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie and club owners Joe and Gavin Maloof insist Stojakovic isn't going anywhere.

That hasn't slowed Stojakovic, however. Much like McGrady and O'Neal, Stojakovic has used the media to have his desires heard on a higher stage in an apparent well-orchestrated ploy.

This is how it works in today's NBA, executives say. If a player doesn't like his current situation, he goes public. He uses his agent for an even louder voice, where the agent sometimes comes across as the bad guy.

The screws are tightened to try to force an issue, such as Stojakovic's agent, David Bauman, saying Friday of the Kings, "They're going to realize Peja is dead set on this. We're putting a ton of pressure on the Kings and the Kings' owners."

Stojakovic is generally guarded in talking to members of the media he doesn't know. This situation is different. If he didn't go public last week to reporters from across the planet in Serbia and Montenegro, other NBA teams wouldn't have learned of his wishes, and the Kings wouldn't be fielding calls like the return desk at department stores after Christmas.

While in Serbia on Friday, the forward even spoke to a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, via a cell phone, and expressed his interest in the Bulls. And he said the right things to intrigue the franchise, sort of a verbal cover letter, "I love Chicago. The Bulls are a great organization, and I especially like the fact that Scott Skiles is the coach there. ... He is a great man and a great coach."

It works both ways. Bulls executive John Paxson played the same publicity card, expressing a mutual interest.

"Yes, I called and expressed an interest, but I haven't talked to Geoff Petrie about it," Paxson said. "So it was a one-sided phone call. Certainly, if a player of his caliber was available and he would be interested in Chicago, we'd obviously owe it to ourselves to take a hard look at it."

Petrie doesn't operate this way. He doesn't use the media to lobby for players, nor has he gone public much to maintain his stance of keeping Stojakovic.

"He's probably one of the last guys I'd want to trade," Petrie told The Bee. "It's too speculative to make a prediction about what will happen. It's one of those things where you don't know how it's going to go."

And one thing about Petrie. When deals are crafted or consummated involving the Kings, they are done behind closed doors, with players coming and going seemingly out of nowhere because there was never any speculation in the media. That includes the addition of Chris Webber in 1998, the Mike Bibby trade in 2001 and the Brad Miller acquisition last summer.

NBA executives say players who use the media to discuss trades might be helping their own cause but not that of the team they want to flee.

"Once a player goes public, it impairs the ability to get fair market value, because other general managers sense an urgency to get something done, and sometimes a fire sale develops," Portland Trail Blazers general manager John Nash said. "I think it's counter-productive to go public, but it happens all the time."

Last season, Nash's first with the Blazers, Rasheed Wallace let him know privately that he wouldn't re-sign as a free agent. He was eventually traded. Bonzi Wells publicly expressed a desire to be traded. It was mutual, and it happened.

Now it's Shareef Abdur-Rahim who wants out, with an agent in Aaron Goodwin who goes public.

"We are absolutely asking for a trade," Goodwin told the Portland Tribune. "I think they will oblige our request. If they don't, it becomes an ugly situation, because Shareef doesn't return to Portland."

Meaning a holdout? "Yes."

Goodwin also represents Gary Payton, the guard traded Friday from the Lakers to the Boston Celtics. Payton picked up his option to return, then contemplated a trade demand after O'Neal was shipped to Miami.

The Boston trade surprised Payton and angered the agent, according to Goodwin, who said Friday, "He could have been a free agent earlier this summer, but he made a commitment to the Lakers, and I feel that the Lakers should have made a commitment to him, and they didn't. That, to me, is wrong."

In Toronto, Vince Carter's agent, Mark Steinberg, told New York reporters last week that Carter wants to be traded, apparently to the Knicks, although Carter hasn't said so himself. Yet.

Still, Raptors general manager Rob Babcock told the Toronto Sun that he will not cower to any "third-party" sources.

"No one is going to force me to make a trade," said Babcock, who fields several calls per day from general managers about trade possibilities, Carter or others. "I'd be crazy (to worry about Steinberg's comments)."

Williams, an NBA executive for 36 seasons, said the stress of trying to maintain order and keep players happy can be enormous. Teams need to please fans, but the McGrady trade had to be done to avoid history repeating itself, he said.

"We were so badly burned by losing Shaq to the Lakers (via free agency in 1996), when we got nothing, and eight years later, we're still reeling," Williams said. "With McGrady, we did what we had to do."

And what do the Kings do when the NBA's second-leading scorer suddenly wants out? NBA executives said the first order is to see if things can be smoothed out, if the team wants to keep the player.

"I think what the Kings have got to do is try to resolve it," Williams said. "That would be their best situation. They've got to sit down with him and try to come to some conclusion."

And if Stojakovic doesn't budge? An even bigger dilemma. A player might be bound contractually, as Stojakovic is with the Kings for two more seasons and a third at his option. But a contract can't force a smile.

"You don't want to have a player to be unhappy and have his discontent affect the locker room or his own game," Nash said. "It's no different than working in a major company with offices all across the United States. If you want out of Houston to work in the New York office, but there's no opening, are you going to raise a ruckus or be professional? That's what teams have to worry about.

"But it's not easy to make trades. It's not like a rotisserie league."

NBA executives said it is imperative to exercise patience, logic and common sense when confronted by a star's trade request. Emotions can hurt, or even cripple a team.

Jerry Reynolds, the Kings' director of player personnel, said the team burned itself too often in years past with knee-jerk deals - before the Petrie era.

"You can't overreact, and one thing I know about Geoff, he doesn't overreact," Reynolds said. "This league has a lot of reactionary people, but he's not one of them. Geoff is like a chess master. A lot of guys in the league are playing checkers. He's playing chess."

For now, Stojakovic is an important piece to the game, a king among Kings. And he isn't the last NBA player seeking a trade, just the latest in a growing list.

"The bottom line is this," Nash said. "If a player wants flexibility to move, he shouldn't sign long-term contracts for security. He should sign one-year deals. ... It's as simple as that."

Or so it seems.