Ailene Voisin: Peja should stand his ground against Webber, stay a King
By Ailene Voisin -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, August 8, 2004
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BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro - This trade request by Peja Stojakovic seems like a perfectly civil maneuver in an altogether uncivil business. He is merely asking to be traded. He is willing to go anywhere. He is unwilling to engage in a street brawl with the teammate whose repeated inferences and innuendos - and downright refusal to share the ball or set the picks - is the root cause of this unseemly situation.
So, OK, Peja pleads a strong case. Give him that.
With Geoff Petrie having zero success in his ongoing attempts to trade Chris Webber, both because of the power forward's bloated (and lengthy) contract and his damaged knee, and Vlade Divac no longer around to function as peacemaker between the two NBA All-Stars, a logical alternative indeed might be to trade the marketable, amenable Stojakovic before his contract expires after the 2005-2006 season.
But this is why I disapprove of Peja's latest move.
He is backing down again, deferring to an overbearing teammate.
He is replaying the 2003-2004 playoffs all over again, refusing to lead, refusing to reply, refusing to do anything except take the easy way out. And for a player with his abilities, this is an absolutely unnecessary concession speech. What he needs to do is ditch the business suit, throw on a pair of sweaty boxing shorts, and challenge Webber to a spirited game of one-on-one.
Peja instead offers little resistance, a familiar character trait that might ultimately preclude him from being mentioned in the same sentence with the NBA greats. In essence, he is allowing someone else to dictate the terms of his career, much as he did during the closing weeks of last season.
While Webber recovered from knee surgery, and the Kings' offense flowed like the nearby Danube through Divac and Brad Miller, Stojakovic capitalized with backdoor cuts, open jumpers from the corners and from the wings, from almost anywhere on the court. The game's best deep shooter, he still clearly relies heavily on muscular screens from his big men to create spacing for his jumper and remains dependent on exceptional, unselfish passes from Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson, Mike Bibby. Yet when the Kings were at their best - passing, cutting, rebounding, sprinting - Peja donned the costume of a legitimate MVP candidate.
But the rules of the game changed when Webber returned March 2. The ball movement ceased. The fluidity stopped. The chemistry and camaraderie evaporated. Although his mobility was hampered and his effectiveness limited, Webber promptly reclaimed ownership - "This is still my team," he insisted - and proceeded to act accordingly, dominating the ball, forcing Divac out of the high post and Miller to the bench, and, most damaging of all, treating Peja like poison.
Webber's disdain was evident in feeble, half-hearted screens that allowed defenders to swarm before Peja could release a shot. His passes were reluctant, ill-timed offerings, another seemingly inexplicable development given Stojakovic's constant movement.
"Peja isn't getting the looks he normally gets," Petrie said at the time, carefully choosing his words.
Yes, Peja needs to expand his repertoire with some low post and dribble moves.
Yes, Peja should have been wounded by Webber's pointed proclamations, by Webber's actions.
But Peja is 27 years old, and if he is truly determined to become one of the game's classic closers, not merely a competent setup man, he should have demanded the ball, pursued the ball, dictated the tenor of the offense. At the very least, he should have urged Rick Adelman to end the nonsense that was destroying one of the Kings' most impressive, improbable seasons.
"Again I will say that this is only about me," the easy-going Stojakovic said Friday night, as his agent, David Bauman, stood nearby. "The Kings have to make changes. There is no question about that. The chemistry just isn't there. Since I am probably easier to trade (than Webber), it is probably best for me to go."
In another almost eerie aside, Stojakovic discussed his plans in his native homeland, a few hundred yards from a high-rise still scarred from NATO airstrikes in 1999. Webber can talk all he wants about toughness and "being from the 'hood," but Peja, a Serb, witnessed shootings and lost his home when his hometown of Slavonska Pozega became part of Croatia. His brother, Nenad, also almost died in Sacramento before undergoing a kidney transplant. And who can forget how Peja, at age 20, went against his father's wishes and signed with the Kings instead of remaining in Greece?
Where is that mettle now?
Why give up so easily?
"I am going to talk to Joe and Gavin (Maloof) Monday," said Stojakovic, with apparent resolve, "so they can hear this from me. You know ... I love Sacramento. The people there have been incredible to me and my family. But I think this is best."
Maybe, maybe not. Reputations are hard to overcome.