Here’s the story I just filed:
By Ramona Shelburne
It took awhile, as it tends to do with restricted free agents in the NBA these days. And somewhere in the interim the Lakers got a firsthand lesson on the new challenge to the NBA’s pre-eminent status on the world basketball market emanating from across the Atlantic.
But at the end of the day Friday the Lakers got their man, or rather, their “Machine.”
General manager Mitch Kupchak confirmed that the team had reached a verbal agreement with restricted free agent Sasha Vujacic on a new three-year, $15 million dollar contract.
The deal will formally be announced at a news conference Monday afternoon.
“We’re happy to have him back,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Friday. “He got to where he is because he’s a gym rat that loves to work and there’s no reason he can’t continue to improve if he keeps that up.”
After three tepid seasons in the league, Vujacic had a breakout year this season. He averaged 8.8 points a game, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and a team-best 43.7 percent from behind the 3-point arc.
Despite that, he received no offers from other NBA teams once he became a restricted free agent on July 1. The Lakers’ $2.6 million qualifying offer being the only substantive offer on the table.
A little over a week ago, Vujacic began receiving interest from European clubs hoping to entice the Slovenian-born guard back to the continent. Vujacic had also played professionally in Italy before coming to the NBA.
“It’s something new we’re dealing with,” Kupchak said. “It’s a new variable in what we do as general managers.”
Earlier this week, Atlanta Hawks swingman Josh Childress set a precedent by accepting a three-year, $20 million deal from the Greek club, Olympiakos.
Vujacic’s overseas offer, Kupchak said, was believed to be more substantial that what he ended up agreeing to with the Lakers on Friday.
“From what I understand –whether it was real or unreal you’ll never be able to know — but what they were offering was substantially more that what he got from us. If that’s the case, then he made a decision based on his want and desire to remain in the best league in the world,” Kupchak said. “You want to get paid, but clearly he’s a Laker at heart.
“I spoke with (Sasha) today and he said, `Mitch, I’ve tasted what it’s like to be in the locker room in the NBA Finals and I want to win a championship. It’s important to me.’ That’s what’s important to us too.”
Vujacic could not be reached for comment Friday, but after the season he made it clear that his intention was to return to the Lakers.
“But we are a great team, we have great chemistry. Who wouldn’t want to keep that together?” he said after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
For their part, the Lakers had always maintained they wanted both Vujacic and forward Ronny Turiaf back. Turiaf though, landed a four-year, $17 million contract with the Warriors that was heavily front-loaded, making it especially difficult for the Lakers to match.
Still, Kupchak maintained, the money Vujacic was ostensibly being offered overseas didn’t force the Lakers into a deal.
“We weren’t going to do something that didn’t make good business sense,” he said. “I think what it ended up doing was moving the process along quicker.
“We wanted both Ronny and Sasha back, but we tried to make prudent basketball decisions. With Ronny, we got an offer we didn’t feel justified the minutes he might be playing next year with our team. But with Sasha, we felt the minutes would be there and we were able to arrive at a reasonable financial arrangement.”
!bold!Kupchak’s take:!off! So just what –if anything — should be done about European teams trying to poach NBA players away from their salary-cap strapped teams.
“The NBA doesn’t react in a knee jerk fashion to anything. It’s not clear yet whether this is a blip on the graph or if it’s going to be a sustained environment we have to deal in,” he said.
“My guess is they’ll monitor it, but there may not be anything they can do. From what I understand, the revenue generated overseas doesn’t come close to the revenue generated in the NBA, so I don’t know if they can sustain paying those types of salaries.”
!bold!Filling out the roster:!off! Now that Vujacic’s deal is done, the Lakers have 11 players under contract for next year, leaving two spots to be filled.
The team has had ongoing conversations with the agent for Sun Yue, the second-round draft choice from 2007 and Kupchak affirmed that he expected Yue to be with the team in training camp. Yue just needs permission from his team in China to come to the U.S., and his agent said that process has already begun.
Also in the mix for a roster spot will be this year’s second-round pick Joe Crawford, and fan-favorite Coby Karl.
“Assuming one of them (Yue, Karl and Crawford) makes the team, that brings you to 12 and then we’d probably look for a big player, a front-court player or a young developing player because there might not be that many minutes available for that person.”
Kupchak dismissed the the numerous trade rumors that have swirled around the Lakers this summer–most notably with Chicago and Sacramento– as speculative.
“Our main focus was to try and get Ronny and Sasha back in the fold,” he said. “`Now that that’s done, we can look around a little bit, but there’s really been no effort to make moves other than trying to bring this team back together.”