Artest, Lakers reach verbal agreement
Ron Artest is joining Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I am very excited to finally be going to L.A.," Artest said in a statement issued by his agent Thursday night. "For years now, the Lakers have expressed interest in having me play for them, but we could never get the stars to align. I'm finally a Laker and I can't wait to get on the court with Kobe, Pau (Gasol) and the rest of the team, and play for Phil (Jackson). The Lakers really made me feel wanted."
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David Bauman, Artest's agent, said the final details are still being worked out, but could be finished as early as Thursday night.
"We have entered into discussions with Ron Artest and it is our intention to sign him to a contract at the conclusion of the moratorium period," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement Thursday night.
The Los Angeles Times says the two sides are close to reaching a deal, probably for the full mid-level exception, roughly five years and $32 million. Bauman would not confirm numbers, saying the deal was still being negotiated.
"We're not quite there yet," Bauman said. "We're still working on it."
Artest, who played for the Houston Rockets last season, decided to join the Lakers on Thursday.
"I made my decision after I had lunch today with Dr. Buss, and I realized what a great organization I'm joining. I'm very, very excited to be a Laker," Artest said. "I look forward to helping the Lakers defend their championship, and it will be great to finally not get booed in the Staples Center."
The 6-foot-7 forward earned $7.4 million in his only season with Houston, averaging 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The 2004 Defensive Player of the Year was also a rugged 1-on-1 defender, often assigned to guard the opponent's most dynamic scorer.
Bauman said Artest was looking for a championship-caliber team when he became an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday.
"He wants to win a ring," Bauman said. "He's a winner and a hard worker and he went looking for a team with whom he could find some justification for what he does. He plays his best when he's in that kind of an environment."
Earlier Thursday, Bauman said Artest was being courted by several teams that made the playoffs last season and received text messages from unspecified "superstars" who were trying to lure him to their cities. Bauman would not say if Bryant was one of those players, but acknowledged on Thursday night that their friendship was a factor in Artest's decision.
"The whole situation was extremely appealing to Ron," Bauman said.
The two had a feisty individual battle in the second round of the playoffs, as the undermanned Rockets pushed Bryant and the Lakers to seven games. Artest and Bryant often mouthed off at one another, and Artest was ejected from one game for confronting a referee and claiming that Bryant elbowed him in the neck.
Artest's decision is another tough blow to the Rockets, who acquired Artest in a trade with Sacramento last summer. The Rockets envisioned Artest as the final piece to a "Big Three" with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, but those two All-Stars are now dealing with long-term injuries.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey did not immediately return a phone message Thursday night.
He already seemed resigned to losing Artest, flying to Las Vegas earlier in the day to meet with Lakers forward Trevor Ariza. The Rockets and Ariza later agreed on a multiyear deal, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press on Thursday night. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because NBA rules prohibit announcing free-agent deals until next week, said the Rockets offered Ariza the full mid-level exception for the first year, about $5.6 million.
The 6-8 Ariza averaged 8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists for the Lakers last season and will fit into Artest's role in Houston's starting lineup.
Houston already knows it will be missing McGrady for the bulk of next season as he recovers from microfracture surgery on his left knee.
The Rockets are also awaiting a definitive prognosis on Yao, who sustained a hairline fracture in his left foot in the playoffs. Morey made an aggressive pitch to free agent center Marcin Gortat shortly after the free agency period began on Wednesday.
Artest was on his best behavior in Houston last season, but he'll always be remembered as the central figure in the 2004 brawl with Detroit fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills when he played for the Indiana Pacers. Artest was suspended for 73 games, the NBA's harshest punishment for a fight.
Early in the 2005-06 season, Artest demanded a trade from Indiana, angering his teammates. He was dealt to Sacramento in January 2006 and meshed well with coach Rick Adelman, who now coaches the Rockets.
Two years later, Artest left the Kings in a bitter dispute with the team's ownership.