The first strike of the NBA's 2005 summer shopping market has hit the Jazz hard.
Unrestricted free agent swingman Raja Bell informed the Jazz he has orally accepted a contract offer from the Phoenix Suns, Jazz basketball operations senior vice president Kevin O'Connor confirmed Friday.
"We're disappointed we lost him," O'Connor said, "but that's free agency."
The contract agreed to by Bell, who had been identified by Jazz officials as a signing priority for the summer, is believed to average $4 million to $6 million per season.
"We're still negotiating the terms and everything," Bell told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, "but that's where I intend to sign."
The deal was made on the first day of the summer that NBA teams are permitted to negotiate with free agents, but it cannot be formalized until the league's signing moratorium ends July 22.
Bell heard from the Suns and other teams moments after the market opened at midnight Eastern time Friday, and he informed the Jazz of his decision sometime Friday morning.
"We talked," O'Connor said.
O'Connor did not disclose a timeline on how events unfolded, but Bell did.
"At 12 o'clock my phone started ringing. I was in the shower. It was crazy . . . I had guys that wanted to fly me there; I had people that wanted to catch flights out to see me. It was interesting," he told KFNZ-1320 AM's Ian Fitzsimmons. "It was all happening really quick, and then I got a call from my agent, maybe a couple hours after that, saying Phoenix was already interested and he thought we could get something that would be great for both parties put together before the 22nd.
"I felt comfortable with that, so I intended to sign with them. From there, we hadn't heard from the Jazz yet. So it was tough for me at that point. Even though I had faith that it was going to work out (with Utah), I just didn't have any guarantee (as to) what was going to happen. So I did what I thought I needed to do. I called Kevin (Friday) morning, after I got a voicemail from him.
"It was a difficult conversation. I basically told him 'thank you,' and how much I enjoyed Salt Lake and loved playing there, and that I'd be moving on. He said he understood. He was disappointed, and that's where we are."
The Jazz, it seems, never got a real chance to counter Phoenix's offer even though Bell had said previously that "I want to be a part" of Utah's future.
"The Suns were on my wish list from early in the summer, along with Utah. Utah was definitely on that list. They were at the front of it. They had to be," an emotional-sounding Bell told KFNZ. "But when all the calls came, it was a situation where . . . I didn't have anything else (from the Jazz) to compare it to. So, I saw a situation that I liked and I went for it."
The long-term nature of Phoenix's offer tantalized 28-year-old Bell, and might not have been matched by the Jazz even if they had had the opportunity.
"A part of me was happy to go back to Utah, but the opportunity (with the Suns) was too great," Bell told the Arizona Republic. "It was too exciting for me to back out."
Also tempting was the chance to both reunite with Suns point guard Steve Nash, with whom Bell played for a season in Dallas before coming two years ago to Utah, and to assume some of the minutes made available after Phoenix earlier this week traded shooting guard Quintin Richardson to New York.
In Phoenix, Bell will join a team that owned the league's best regular-season record in 2004-05 but failed to make the NBA Finals. He misses out on a chance to play in Utah with point Deron Williams, the No. 3 overall selection in last Tuesday's NBA Draft.
"I was a big fan of Stevie's when I was in Dallas," Bell told KFNZ, "and I've got a chance to go play with him, and a team that was real close to playing for a championship and thinks I might be one of those pieces that can them get over the hump.
"Obviously (the Jazz) can contend. They've got Deron running the show, and Jerry (coach Jerry Sloan) is going to put them in a position to do great things," he added. "(But) I don't know that their timetable is as imminent, I guess, as Phoenix's is right now."
With Bell lost, the Jazz still will seek a veteran free-agent point and a shot-blocking big man. But there is another need now, too: Bell averaged 12.3 points per game in a part-time starter's role last season but was known for his defensive tenacity more than his offense.
"Point and length, those are priorities as well as, maybe now, a defensive wing player," said O'Connor, adding "nothing's close" with any of the free agents the Jazz are trying to attract.
The Jazz did make a one-year qualifying offer of just less than $1 million to now-restricted free agent point Keith McLeod on Thursday, but it is an unknown if they made any concrete offers to other teams' free agents Friday.
Bell's departure, O'Connor said, does enable the Jazz "to use our money to go and sign somebody else."You learn in this business to accept that, and that you've got to stay fluid," he added. "Now, we've got to look at getting some positions filled."
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