Forward thinking: Stojakovic is the Pacers' man late in games and in their big-picture plans
By Ailene Voisin -- Bee Sports Columnist
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, March 17, 2006
Story appeared in Sports section, Page C1
INDIANAPOLIS - Peja Stojakovic left Sacramento with secrets from the past two seasons stored safely inside the ancient walls of Arco Arena, exact location never to be disclosed. He always chose his words as carefully as if he were measuring the distance on a three-pointer. He never revealed the extent of his back injury, never discussed his discontent with his diminished role in the offense, never explained why he stopped sprinting between baselines. He never really explained why, after the promise of three All-Star seasons, his career stalled and sputtered on the edges of a plateau.
Was it him? Was it the Kings?
Sell It Yourself
Was it simply time to say goodbye?
"As much as I was connected to the city," Stojakovic said late Wednesday, allowing at least a peek into his thoughts, "I felt kind of this year, that my time with the team was over. You can't connect the city with the team.
"People were incredible there. But sometimes things have to happen. Teams have their runs. We had a great opportunity and didn't accomplish our goal. Then I hurt my back, hurt my hand, and the team wasn't doing well. With my injuries ... people didn't believe I was injured."
In other words - and for so many reasons - it was simply time to say goodbye. The fans were frustrated, the building was a morgue, the exits becoming gridlocked well before outcomes had been decided. The Kings needed a makeover of players and personalities - the Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic nucleus a miserably failed experiment - and Peja desperately needed a career boost as well. He sensed it. Everyone sensed it.
"The great thing about this league," said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, "is that dynamic changes can happen quickly, and can happen in a very positive way for multiple teams involved in a trade. And this has been a good trade for both teams (though) a little harder to evaluate it from our side with Jermaine (O'Neal) not being available."
Ron Artest, his prior bad acts a far less juicy conversation piece these days than his on-court contributions, has transformed the Kings into a steely-minded club that looms as a scary postseason opponent. The muscular small forward with the multi-layered game has fulfilled all of Larry Bird's promises; offensively and defensively, there might not be a better player in basketball.
But Carlisle is right. Both franchises benefited from the trade. The Pacers with Artest were grinding to a halt, emotionally as well as offensively. The Artest-0'Neal pairing was just another ill-fated marriage. Thus, besides easing the locker room tension, Peja also provides the Pacers with the long-sought perimeter shooting and adequate defense, along with someone who, with the proper push from people in high places, is eager to expand his one-on-one skills.
So no regrets. The Kings gave him his first chance, the Pacers offer him his next challenge.
The Pacers, in fact, are offering a lot of what he wasn't getting in Sacramento, including the ball in the fourth quarter.
"Coming down the stretch," observed Pacers point guard Anthony Johnson, "you know it's going to be Mike Bibby and Brad Miller playing off each other. Here, partly due to the fact that Jermaine is out, Peja is going to be our No. 1 option. And when you know you're going to get the ball, that's half the battle right there."
Adapting to Stojakovic's presence and the recurring problem with injuries to key players, Carlisle, an excellent tactician who favors a methodical, isolation-type offense that has been known to provoke grumbling from some players (all those not named O'Neal), is gritting his teeth but espousing a more free-flowing, uptempo system. Backdoor cuts and crisp ball movement are becoming common sights around Conseco Fieldhouse, as is the sight of Peja taking a handoff at the high post, settling behind screens and launching with his familiar, rhythmic stroke. And the longtime Kings small forward has been doing more than shooting jumpers. At the behest of Bird and Carlisle, he is aggressively attempting a variety of low-post moves, step-throughs and spinning, reverse layups. His one-on-one game is improving.
"We're working with him," said Carlisle, "and we feel he has the ability to develop footwork, create his shot more effectively. There's a lot of room for expansion in his game."
Then there's Bird's long-term plans for Peja: Re-sign the eight-year pro, who can become a free agent this summer, and alter the roster to accommodate his abilities. The plan is to build around Peja, refining an offense that utilizes O'Neal at the high post, a la Vlade Divac and Miller, and improve quickness in the backcourt. "I didn't get Peja to let him get away," said Bird. "As we move forward, he's a key player for us."
Clearly, this presents the greatest challenge since Peja's unproven rookie season, and is the first time since 2003-04 that he has been the featured performer - given the late opportunities and expected to convert. Yet during a lengthy conversation, he insists he is determined - and, yes, once again eager - to duplicate his career-best season.
"I never ran from that responsibility," he said, with a hint of annoyance. "I am really looking forward to this. I'm learning and adjusting. This is something new and exciting for me. We do work hard on defense. It's a different mentality. We still haven't played together, still don't know our potential. But I really like the guys on the team. I am really happy."
Seated at his dressing stall in a nearly empty locker room, Stojakovic, who typically reveals little of his inner thoughts, is as polite and personable as ever. He chats openly about everything except basketball: He and his companion, Alexandra, recently had a daughter they named Mila. He proposed marriage and hopes she accepts. Asked about a yellow rubber ducky resting on a stack of papers, Peja laughs. "My son (Andrej) left that in the car," he says, his eyes suddenly alight, "and I keep it here because it reminds me of my boy."
If there is one thing that bothers him about his last years in Sacramento, it's a suspicion that neither his teammates nor Kings fans appreciated the effect of his lower-back problems on his productivity. (Before finalizing the trade, in fact, Bird submitted Peja's MRI's to numerous specialists and was concerned enough to consult his own long-time therapist). Stojakovic also allows, with only a hint of annoyance, that he never nominated himself for the role of fourth-quarter decoy.
"But that's OK," he adds quickly. "We had some great times. Those times are going to stay in my head like best memories. We always had great guys, great atmosphere. I never took anything personally.
"The Kings ... that was my first team. I was always dreaming of playing in the NBA. Then I came to the Kings. I make my name with the Kings. We just ... move on."