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INSIDE THE NBA
On the night of Feb. 19, Mitch Richmond was too busy thinking about the next day's game against Miami to focus on the fact that the trade deadline had come and gone and he was still wearing a Sacramento uniform. He's had ample time since then to dwell on his status. When the Kings completed a winless five-game Eastern swing last week, losing by an average of 15.8 points, reality smacked Richmond in the face. He will finish the seasonhis 10th in the league and seventh in Sacramentowith a team on the fringe of the postseason picture, instead of with a contender like the Hawks, the Heat or the Lakers, all of whom tried to land him. But Sacramento's 11th-hour deal with Atlanta for guard Steve Smith fell through, Miami coach Pat Riley's attempts to get Richmond in a three-way swap involving the Celtics proved fruitless, and L.A.'s decision not to acquire Richmond for swingman Eddie Jones was sealed more than a month ago. Sources say Lakers owner Jerry Buss wouldn't pull the trigger because he didn't want to ante up for a player who will be 34 when his contract expires after next season. Why should he reward Richmond for years of loyal service with another club?
That sentiment, privately echoed by other teams, has led Richmond to a somewhat belated realization: The team that couldand shouldpay him is Sacramento. Richmond told SI last week that despite his standing request to be traded, he would consider staying in Sacramento if the Kings were willing to rip up his current deal, a seven-year contract that will pay him $3.1 million this season and $2.8 million next, and grant him an extension. Sacramento will be under the salary cap (possibly by as much as $13 million) on July 1 and thus, under NBA rules, will be able to renegotiate Richmond's contract. But Sacramento has not yet agreed to do that.
"I've driven myself crazy wondering, Am I in the Kings' plans?" Richmond said. "They say the ball is in my court, but I say it's in theirs. You're asking me if I would stay if they gave me a new contract, but that's never been presented to me. You get to the point where you wonder what else you can do for this organization. People say, 'Hey, you signed the deal, you've got to live with it,' but the rules have changed. We were supposed to have an escape clause, but the league wouldn't allow it. You wonder why [the Kings] haven't said, 'Mitch, you're underpaid, we'll take care of you.' The only thing they've ever said is, 'We'll see.'"
Asked if Sacramento would be willing to sign its six-time All-Star to a new deal, Geoff Petrie, vice president for basketball operations, replied, "All the various issues and scenarios have been discussed many times over the past two years."
Sources say that Kings owner Jim Thomas discussed a new contract with Richmond as recently as last fall but that specifics have never been addressed, in part because Sacramento is not under the cap this season. Richmond would like a three- or four-year extension averaging around $8 million a year. That would leave the Kings ample funds to sign free agents, including their third-year forward Corliss Williamson, who is having a solid season.
Williamson will be a free agent on July 1 and is monitoring Richmond's situation closely. The same is true of two rookie surprises, center Michael Stewart and point guard Anthony Johnson, who could walk this summer. As one Sacramento veteran said, "These young guys are saying to themselves, If the Kings don't take care of Mitch, who will they take care of?"
Aside from a brief stretch in the preseason, when Richmond's frustrations clearly affected his attitude and his performance, he has handled his uncertain status admirably. "Those negative thoughts are creeping in again," admitted Richmond. "Even so, I've never blasted ownership. I never said, 'Get me the hell out of here.' And I still won't. I want this to work out."
So does Sacramento coach Eddie Jordan. He's acutely aware how difficult it would be for his young club if its leader, top scorer (23.8-point average through Sunday, third highest in the league) and main symbol of respectability were shipped elsewhere. "We would struggle," concedes Jordan, whose team was 24-35 at week's end. "It's not a stretch to say Mitch could account for a difference of 20 wins. Would we end up being a Dallas or a Denver? Hopefully not that bad, but it's possible."
Issue date: March 9, 1998
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