Artest to Houston?

Wow, didn’t see that one coming. The deal won’t be consummated until Aug. 14 –because it includes Houston rookie Donte Green who signed on July 14 and must stay on the roster for a month –but everything is in place, according the the Houston Chronicle

Here’s my read of the situation, as far as it pertains to the Lakers. Whenever you saw a story about the Lakers being interested in Artest, it almost always originated from the Sacramento papers. Which makes sense, because those proposed deals (Lamar Odom for Artest and Kenny Thomas) would definitely have given more to the Kings than the Lakers.

The Kings would’ve rid themselves of Artest’s baggage, Thomas’ bloated contract and picked up a solid player in Odom who has a sizable expiring contract: magic words in the NBA these days. The Lakers would’ve gotten Artest (who brings the defensive presence they desperately need) a big body in Thomas, but lost one of their best playmakers, added a bad contract that would still be on the books for the all-important summer of 2009 (when they might have to re-up with Kobe Bryant on a max contract extension).

The other key factor is that the Lakers really, really want to see what Odom can do alongside Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Whether moving him to his more natural small forward position, or even using him as a point forward, would allow him to excel and be more consistent.

Anyway, you get the point. All those Artest to LA rumors you kept hearing about were not going to fly. At least not as currently constructed, and not during the offseason. One league source I spoke with said the talks could be more viable during the season, if the Odom-Gasol-Bynum experiment wasn’t working out.

It’s all a moot point now. Or it will be on August 14, as long as the deal holds up.

Vujacic says he’s going right back to the gym

Just got back from Sasha Vujacic’s press conference this afternoon and got the answer to the question you always have to ask a free agent who has just cashed in:

“I heard a rumor that guys who sign a contract don’t keep working to get better, but I don’t agree with that,” Vujacic said. “I will definitely keep getting better. I’m a gym rat. That’s how I am.

“My goal is to be the best shooter in the NBA and if I keep working hard, I think I can do that.”

It’s no coincidence that the Lakers and Vujacic agreed to a three-year deal. From the team’s standpoint, it means that the Lakers can see how he develops over the next three years, if he gets better, or if he’s reached his ceiling, without committing to six years. From Vujacic’s standpoint, it means that he’s in line for a much bigger payday in three years, when he’ll only be 27 (the prime for most NBA players) if he continues to develop.

Vujacic is taking on some risk of course. If he doesn’t improve, or if the Lakers don’t play as well as a team, his value in three years might be lower, not higher. To compensate him for that risk, the team upped its original offer of about $12 million over three seasons to $15 million over three seasons.

In other words, Vujacic got paid, but still has plenty of incentive to work on his game.

He said that because the negotiations took so long, he’s only planning to go home to Slovenia for about a week, then return to Los Angeles and get back in the gym.

More on Vujacic

Here’s the story I just filed:

By Ramona Shelburne
Staff Writer

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.”

Vujacic update

The Lakers have had daily conversations with Sasha Vujacic’s new agent, Rob Pelinka and “remain optimistic” about re-signing Vujacic, their restricted free agent, according to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.

“We’re hopeful we can make a deal sometime in the near future,” Kupchak said.

In the last couple of days, in light of Hawks guard Josh Childress’ shocking signing with a Greek team, there has been renewed concern among NBA general managers about foreign teams approaching NBA stars with offers of more lucrative contracts. This is a concern with Vujacic, who is from Slovenia and played professionally in Italy before coming to the NBA, but Kupchak said that he does believe Vujacic wants to remain in the NBA.

“There is a vibrant European market that we’re aware of, much more so of late,” Kupchak said.“I don’t think it’ll go away soon. Until you have a players’ signature on a contract, you’re always concerned.

“I do believe he wants to play in the NBA, but he has an obligation to seek out a deal that fits what he wants as a free agent and only he knows what that is.”

Bynum update

Just got done speaking with Andrew Bynum’s agent David Lee for a quick update on how Bynum’s knee is doing. Bynum was in Los Angeles earlier this week, worked for the Lakers team doctors, and was cleared for everything, according to Lee.

Bynum is now down in Atlanta with his personal trainer. The Lakers, Lee said, have a standing invitation to drop in on Bynum down in Atlanta and see his progress.

“He’s absolutely fine, he’s going to come in as a beast,” Lee said. “He’s got no atrophy anywhere. The kid’s in great shape. Maybe it comes with being 20 years of age.”

As for the negotiations on Bynum’s contract status, Lee said that the discussions have been tabled until September.

“We aren’t going to talk again until September until they have a chance to see what they’re getting,” Lee said. “But I don’t have any concerns about it.”

Lee said that once negotiations begin, it was “very important” that the extension be completed by the time the season starts. Lee of course, will be seeking a max (five years, $80 million) extension.

“I know what we want, I know what the rest of the league thinks of Andrew. I just hope the Lakers are on the same page,” Lee said.

Keeping up with Kobe and the gang

I got an email today from Sade Council, from 360i on behalf of NBC Olympics, detailing all the cool interactive ways fans can keep up with Kobe and the US Olympic basketball team in Beijing.

Head over to:

There are widgets for:
Top News, Videos and Photos
Medal Count (currently a countdown clock but will automatically change once the games begin)
News and Results (also currently a countdown clock)

Kobe’s also got a pretty extensive profile page

Kobe has Candace’s back

So guess who pays attention to women’s basketball?

Apparently, Kobe Bryant and the US men’s basketball team.

Speaking with reporters in Las Vegas today, Bryant said he jumped up when he saw the highlights of the Sparks-Detroit Shock brawl on ESPN last night.

The brawl began when Detroit’s Plenette Pierson got tangled up with the Sparks’ Candace Parker. Parker fell to the ground, Pierson aggressively tried to stand over her, Parker pulled Pierson down and all heck broke loose at the Palace.

“Candace is going to be a target. She’s an incredible player,” Bryant said. “I think it’s good for her that she didn’t back down and I think it’s good for her teammates to step in there.”

Olympic schedule

In case you were wondering, here’s a quick look at the schedule for Kobe Bryant and the USA Olympic team once the preliminary rounds begin in Beijing.

August 10
9:00 a.m. Russia – Iran
11:15 a.m. Germany – Angola
2:30 p.m. Spain – Greece
4:45 p.m. Lithuania – Argentina
8:00 p.m. Australia – Croatia
10:15 p.m. USA – China

August 12
9:00 a.m. Iran – Lithuania
11:15 a.m. Croatia – Russia
2:30 p.m. Greece – Germany
4:45 p.m. China – Spain
8:00 p.m. Angola – USA
10:15 p.m. Argentina – Australia

August 14
9:00 a.m. Germany – Spain
11:15 a.m. Australia – Iran
2:30 p.m. Angola – China
4:45 p.m. Lithuania – Russia
8:00 p.m. USA – Greece
10:15 p.m. Argentina – Croatia

August 16
9:00 a.m. Greece – Angola
11:15 a.m. Russia – Australia
2:30 p.m. Croatia – Lithuania
4:45 p.m. Iran – Argentina
8:00 p.m. China – Germany
10:15 p.m. Spain – USA

August 18
9:00 a.m. Iran – Croatia
11:15 a.m. Australia – Lithuania
2:30 p.m. Greece – China
4:45 p.m. Angola – Spain
8:00 p.m. USA – Germany
10:15 p.m. Argentina – Russia

Quarterfinals on August 20, Semis on August 22, Finals on August 24.

Summer league wrapup

The Lakers ended summer league play with a 92-79 loss Saturday to the Denver Nuggets, finishing their eight-day stay in Las Vegas with a 2-4 record. Joe Crawford, the Lakers’ lone draft pick last month, scored 17 points on 8-for-18 shooting and Coby Karl added 13 points.
Crawford and Karl are hoping to sign with the Lakers and earn a roster spot for next season. Crawford said when he was drafted that he hoped to prove he belonged in the NBA, and it appeared he accomplished that goal.
Karl is hoping to be re-signed after playing 17 games last season with the Lakers.
The ball is in GM Mitch Kupchak’s hands now.