Although it remains unclear how much longer the
Indiana Pacers will have to wait to complete their widely anticipated re-acquisition of Al Harrington, sources close to the situation maintain that the sign-and-trade swap will go through.
The Atlanta Hawks, however, have apparently established some prerequisites before signing and trading Harrington back to the team that drafted him in 1998.
The Hawks, according to sources, want the Pacers to part with a future first-round pick, absorb the contract of third-year center John Edwards and kick in $3 million in cash considerations, which is the maximum amount any team can add to a trade.
It's believed that the Pacers want to either scale back the quality of the draft pick or reduce the cash contribution.
This delay, though, hasn't changed the leaguewide perception that Harrington's return to Indiana is an inevitability. He might technically be the biggest name left on the NBA's free-agent market, but teams don't seem to regard him as available. Industry sources say no one else but the Pacers are presently chasing Harrington.
If the Pacers and Hawks reach a resolution, as expected, Atlanta would then sign Harrington to a six-year contract worth nearly $57 million and send him to Indiana. Separate trade exceptions to add Harrington and Edwards to their payroll, without shipping any players to the Hawks, would then enable the Pacers to complete the exchange.
The Pacers are reserving their biggest trade exception, created in the sign-and-trade earlier this month that sent Peja Stojakovic to New Orleans/Oklahoma City, for Harrington. That exception is worth $7.5 million and allows the Pacers to tack on $100,000 and start Harrington's new contract at $7.6 million.
The second exception, created by the recent trade of point guard Anthony Johnson to Dallas, is worth more than $2.6 million and can thus absorb Edwards' $1.08 million salary for next season.
If the Hawks were to secure everything they seek in this deal, they'd essentially be getting a first-rounder and $4 million for Harrington once Edwards' salary is removed from their payroll. Sources say that Atlanta's teetering ownership group, in the midst of a legal battle with former partner Steve Belkin to keep control of the club, prefers a cash infusion to the idea of taking back a player or two from Indiana's roster (such as center Jeff Foster) or a more expensive veteran.
Golden State, for example, offered power forward Troy Murphy to the Hawks in a sign-and-trade that would have netted Harrington something closer to the six-year, $66 million contract he was seeking. But Murphy, who averaged a double-double in his past three full seasons, has nearly $51 million left on his contract over the next five years.
The Warriors, according to sources, pulled out of the Harrington Sweepstakes late last week, conceding that the versatile forward was heading back to the Pacers. Golden State ceased its pursuit when it became clear Harrington was indeed prepared to start his new deal in the $7.5 million range. If Harrington were still intent on making more than that in the first year of his forthcoming contract, Indiana couldn't use the trade exception to land him and couldn't otherwise trade for him unless the Hawks were willing to take back a package featuring Foster and a teammate or two.
The $7.5 million trade exception thus looms as one of the most valuable assets of the offseason. It initially looked as though the Pacers would lose Stojakovic without compensation, but a payment to the Hornets believed to be in the $250,000 range -- coupled with the Hornets' knowledge that they'd likely be keeping Harrington away from a fellow West playoff hopeful like Golden State or the
Los Angeles Lakers -- turned the Stojakovic deal from an outright free-agent signing into a sign-and-trade that created the trade exception.
In the unlikely event that the deal with the Hawks collapses, it's difficult to forecast where Harrington will turn. Most teams have completed their significant free-agent business for the summer and Harrington's other top suitors have stopped pursuing him, believing that the Pacers have him wrapped up. The Warriors, Lakers and
New York Knicks, furthermore, don't have a sizable trade exception to complete the sort of trade Atlanta's owners prefer, in which the Hawks don't have to take back significant salary.
The Pacers are hoping that the increasingly fast pace in today's NBA will permit Harrington -- a 6-foot-9, 245-pound swingman -- to play plenty of power forward in an athletic frontcourt setup alongside
Jermaine O'Neal and Danny Granger.
Acquiring Harrington is doubly crucial because he'd ease the burden on Granger when it comes to replacing Ron Artest. When Stojakovic gave the Hornets a verbal commitment to sign with them mere hours into free agency on July 1, Indiana faced the very real threat of having nothing to show for January's trade of Artest to Sacramento.
It's believed that the Pacers did also explore the idea of making a sign-and-trade run at Indiana native Bonzi Wells earlier this summer, but Harrington was always their first choice. Wells, looking for a new team after Sacramento signed John Salmons earlier this week, would supplant Harrington as the best player left on the NBA's open market once Harrington-to-Indiana is consummated.
"Obviously, Indiana, I'm more comfortable there because I've been there, I've been in the East," Harrington told ESPN.com earlier this month at the Vegas Summer League, making it clear then that he expected to wind up with either the Pacers or the Warriors.
"Going into free agency, obviously you think, 'I'm going to be at the bottom of the screen [on ESPN's Bottom Line ticker] like Ben Wallace and the rest of the guys.' But everyone's telling me to be patient, so that's what I'm trying to do."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.