Artest sent to Sacramento a day after trade seemed unlikely

By Michael Marot The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Ron Artest is no longer the Indiana Pacers’ problem.

The volatile forward was traded yesterday to the Sacramento Kings for former all-star Peja Stojakovic, more than a month after demanding a trade and one day after the deal seemingly fell apart.

The deal ends a turmoil-filled career for Artest in Indiana, and eliminates the biggest distraction the Pacers faced this season.

“We’re gamblers,” Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof said before Sacramento played the Knicks in New York on last night. “So we’re going to take a chance on him.”

Artest first requested a trade in December, after it was rumored that he would be dealt to the Kings for Stojakovic. The Pacers deactivated Artest after his trade demand.

“This was the trade that more or less led to Ronnie saying he wanted to be traded,” Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said at a news conference. “He heard it on the air and that was not true. And we really didn’t think there was any hope to do the deal back then.”

And when it appeared Artest would, indeed, be heading to the Kings on Tuesday, he reportedly balked at playing in Sacramento.

“We don’t know that,” Walsh said. “We just know that something happened. It got called off. And we talked to Sacramento again this morning and realized there could be a deal.”

Artest changed his mind after meeting with Walsh at Conseco Fieldhouse earlier yesterday.

Indiana spent several weeks searching for the right deal, nearly sending Artest to the Los Angeles Clippers for Corey Maggette before reviving talks with the Kings in recent days.

This trade has actually been rumored for three years, with the Kings thought to have needed Artest’s defense as much as the Pacers needed Stojakovic’s offense.

Artest is due to make $7.15 million next season and $7.8 million in 2007-08, with an $8.45 million player option for 2008-09. His defensive presence and infamous instability should be an intriguing fit with the Kings, whose franchise makeover now has a more defensive look.

Stojakovic also could be the outside shooter Indiana has needed since Reggie Miller retired after last season.

“Obviously, we’re very happy about getting a player of [Stojakovic’s] caliber,” Pacers president Larry Bird said in a statement. “He’s one of the best shooters in the league and we definitely feel he can help us right away.”

But it also rids the Pacers of a player who has made the inexplicable seem routine.

He was suspended for the final 73 games and the playoffs last season after charging into the stands and fighting with Detroit Pistons fans in one of the nastiest sports brawls in U.S. history.

During his career in Indiana, Artest also was disciplined for kicking a ball into the stands, throwing a television camera and twice jawed with Miami Heat coach Pat Riley during games.

His latest indiscretion, demanding a trade in an interview with an Indianapolis newspaper, was too much for the Pacers to handle.

Since coming to Indiana in February 2002, a trade-deadline deal with the Chicago Bulls, Artest has been one of the Pacers’ top players – when he has stayed on the court.

He earned an all-star berth and recognition as the NBA’s defensive player of the year in 2003-04. He led the league in steals and averaged 19.4 points per game this season before his trade request and subsequent deactivation.

But Stojakovic gives Indiana a new start.

He was the Kings’ longest-tenured player, joining the club as an unheralded 21-year-old rookie in 1998 and becoming a three-time all-star. But he is expected to void the final season of his contract to become a free agent this summer, and Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie decided to get something in return for his most successful draft pick.

Sacramento made its fourth major trade in 13 months, following deals involving Chris Webber, Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie.

Stojakovic seemed likely to earn a hefty contract when he became a free agent after declining his $8.2 million option for next season, perhaps getting the maximum deal. Instead, this season has been dismal for the Serbian star.

He is averaging just 16.5 points per game, his lowest total since his second NBA season, while making just 40.3 percent of his shots – lowest since his rookie year – along with 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

He has been bothered by various injuries and missed eight games this season.

The Pacers have struggled without Artest. They were 10-6 in games he played and are 11-14 without him, losing five of their last six – including a 30-point loss to Cleveland on Tuesday night. Jermaine O’Neal has hinted that players might be concerned about possibly getting traded along with Artest, and it could be affecting their performance.