Wednesday December 19th, 2007

As proof that no NBA team (short of the Minnesota Timberwolves) is far removed from playoff contention, we offer the Sacramento Kings. They climbed a few steps simply by lifting Beno Udrih from waivers last month.

It became one of those Rubik's Cube moves that brings the entire puzzle into focus. Not only did Udrih's arrival provide the Kings with a true point guard, but his ascension to the starting lineup also will make it easier for them to live without Mike Bibby should they decide to move his $13.5 million salary in a midseason trade (once Sacramento's longtime floor leader has proved he's healthy upon returning from October surgery on his left thumb). In the meantime, the whole team is running more efficiently under Udrih's guidance; through Tuesday, the Kings (10-14) had gone a respectable (9-9) with him in the lineup.

Of course, it helps that Ron Artest has returned after his season-opening seven-game suspension. The point is that Artest seems more likely to excel with a distributor like Udrih than with a shooter like Bibby. While rivals assume that Artest and Bibby have no future together, co-owner Joe Maloof insists he hasn't given up yet.

"I want to see how we do if we can get Mike back,'' Maloof said.

So the Kings haven't decided that Bibby must go?

"No, no, I haven't," Maloof said. "It's like [team president] Geoff [Petrie] says: We could still have Beno and Bibby out there together because Bibby is such a good shooter. With small ball, you need players who can shoot threes. The one thing I've learned is that you can have the quickest point guard, but to have a point guard who can shoot threes -- that's everything.''

Which is another gift from Udrih, who is converting a reasonable 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. Even more promising is that he shot 40.8 percent from the three-point line in 80 games as a rookie with San Antonio in 2004-05 when his confidence was high, and who's to say he can't replicate or outdo that rate as he grows comfortable in Sacramento? Overall, Udrih is posting career highs of 13.9 points and 4.7 assists in 35.0 minutes with Sacramento.

Over the previous two years, Udrih lost the trust of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who late in the preseason agreed to create a new opportunity for the 6-foot-3 point guard by trading him to Minnesota for a protected second-round pick.

"There are no bad feelings,'' Udrih said of his three years with the Spurs, who won two championships while he watched mainly from the bench. "The Spurs [were] in a tough situation because they [had] two young point guards with a lot of talent. Tony [Parker] was there for [three] years before me and he showed that he can play, so they have to play him. But they made it happen that I got traded, because they could still keep me and I would probably be sitting on the bench. So I was talking to coach Pop and he said, 'We'll find some solution together.' "

When the Timberwolves greeted Udrih by instantly waiving him, it looked like another example of how badly he had fallen since his promising rookie year. But neither Udrih nor his agent, Marc Cornstein, saw it that way. They were courted immediately by the Kings, who had considered drafting Udrih in 2004 before wisely using their No. 26 pick on Kevin Martin.

"We had had some conversations with San Antonio going back to last year at the trading deadline,'' Petrie said. "He's just a good spirit, always upbeat and pleasant to talk to. He's a dog lover too, and that's good in my book.''

In addition to his deep shooting, Udrih is a left-handed penetrator capable of driving and kicking out to the Kings' shooters. He'll be even more productive after the returns of Martin (who is out until January with a strained groin) and Bibby (or his replacement), as well as with continued playing time. As solid as Udrih has looked in a Kings uniform, he has been playing his way into shape after averaging just 12.1 minutes in 127 games over the previous two years. He missed training camp and the opening fortnight this season with a broken left index finger.

"Right now I can say that I'm in rhythm, but still I'm not used to the contact as much,'' he said. "I'm going to get used to it slowly, but I definitely think I can get better and better.''

How many teams could have benefited from Udrih, whose recent confinement in San Antonio was offset by three years of coaching in the NBA's top program? The club I've been hearing more than any other in this regard is the league-leading Celtics, who need a complement to second-year point guard Rajon Rondo. But the Celtics didn't have a chance, according to Cornstein.

"We talked seriously with two teams,'' said Cornstein, who confirms that the Nuggets -- also lacking a true point guard -- were the other option. While Denver would have needed to open roster room for Udrih, the Kings had an open starting spot waiting for him.

"Sacramento always was our first choice,'' Cornstein said. "There was so much opportunity with the Bibby injury, and they were a team that tried to trade for him before.'' Within 24 hours, he adds, the deal was done.

And the Celtics?

"Boston obviously is a team fighting for a championship right now, and I know [Celtics director of basketball operations Danny] Ainge is a big Rondo fan and believes in him a lot,'' Cornstein said. "So that was a different opportunity. I don't think any team in the league presented the immediate opportunity that Sacramento did. He is still the only healthy point guard on the team, and there was no other team in the league that presented a situation like that.''

Udrih will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and if the bidding eclipses the Kings' mid-level exception (currently at $5.4 million), they may not be able to keep him.

"I was joking with Beno a couple of weeks ago that from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, he literally went from the client I work with who plays the least to the client who plays the most,'' Cornstein said. "So who can predict the way any of that stuff works out.''

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