The Charlotte Bobcats ended a year of uncertainty with top rebounder and shot blocker Emeka Okafor on Tuesday by coming to terms on a six-year, $72 million deal with the restricted free agent.
The move comes a year after Okafor turned down a contract for similar money and assures new coach Larry Brown will have the team's top inside presence when he begins his record ninth NBA coaching job in the fall.
"It was very important for us to get a deal done," general manager Rod Higgins said. "He creates a sense of security around the basket for us. Having Larry as our head coach now, Emeka will benefit having a great coach to teach him."
Higgins confirmed the deal Tuesday after ESPN.com first reported late Monday that the two sides were close to an agreement. Higgins said Okafor should sign the deal in the next few days.
Okafor was the second overall pick in 2004 and the expansion Bobcats' first draft pick. He turned down Charlotte's offer of $12 million a year last year, but settled on the same figure a year later.
Few other teams have enough salary-cap space to offer restricted free agents big money. Many, including Andre Iguodala of Philadelphia, Josh Smith of Atlanta and Luol Deng of Chicago, remain unsigned.
Okafor could have accepted a one-year qualifying offer worth about $7.1 million and became an unrestricted free agent next year, meaning the Bobcats would get nothing in return if he left. But Okafor decided to accept the security of a long-term contract after Charlotte sweetened its offer.
Okafor's deal is similar to contracts given this offseason to big men Andrew Bogut of Milwaukee and Andris Biedrins of Golden State. But it marks the biggest player contract owner Bob Johnson has agreed to pay since he bought the team.
"It's unfortunate when people criticize our ownership. Bob has been very supportive of what we want to do," Higgins said. "Last year we brought in Jason Richardson and signed (Gerald) Wallace. We're continuing to bring in very good talent. Securing Emeka just shows that our ownership and Bob are committed."
Okafor averaged 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds a game last season, the fourth consecutive year he's averaged a double-double. Okafor also led the team in blocked shots (1.7 per game) and field-goal percentage (53.5). Brown had said it was critical they retain Okafor for his defense and inside presence on a team that struggled to rebound last season.
Okafor said during the last week of the regular season that he wanted to remain a Bobcat, but he clearly had a strained relationship with coach Sam Vincent. Managing partner Michael Jordan fired Vincent after Charlotte finished 32-50 in his only season.
Brown coached Okafor, but played him little, on the disappointing bronze-medal United States Olympic team in 2004.
Okafor was plagued by a chronic ankle injury that limited him to 26 games in the 2005-06 season. But he played in 67 games the following year and all 82 last season.
While his offensive skills don't compare favorably to Orlando's Dwight Howard, taken one spot ahead of Okafor in the draft, Higgins said Okafor's defense is invaluable to the Bobcats.
"Emeka played in 82 games last year and played at a high level," Higgins said. "We felt we needed to have him, with his inside presence."
ARTEST ON HIS WAY TO ROCKETS: The Houston Rockets are close to an agreement to acquire Ron Artest from the Sacramento Kings, two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.
The Rockets will give up guard Bobby Jackson, who played for the Kings from 2000-05, and another player likely rookie forward Donte Greene, according to two NBA people who confirmed the deal, but spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made.
The 6-foot-7, 248-pound Artest averaged 20.5 points last season, his highest since 2004-05, when he averaged 24.5 for Indiana. He also grabbed 5.8 rebounds per game for Sacramento last season.
SIXERS SIGN FREE AGENT: The Philadelphia 76ers signed free agent guard Kareem Rush on Tuesday to help bolster the team's 3-point shooting. Terms of the deal were not released. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Rush has averaged 6.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 314 games in five NBA seasons. Last season with the Indiana Pacers, he averaged 8.3 points, a career-best 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 21.2 minutes per game and shot 39 percent from 3-point range.
"As we continue to build our team, we're fortunate that we were able to sign a player as talented as Kareem Rush," 76ers general manager Ed Stefanski said in a statement. "We feel his abilities on both ends of the floor and his range as a 3-point shooter will be assets to us this season." Rush was the 20th overall pick in the 2002 draft by Toronto before his rights were traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He also played for the Charlotte Bobcats.
HAWKS SIGN EVANS: The Atlanta Hawks completed their deal with Maurice Evans on Tuesday, locking up a replacement for sixth-man Josh Childress. The 6-foot-5 Evans started 47 times for the Orlando Magic last season and averaged a career-high 9.3 points. He was quickly targeted by Atlanta after Childress, a restricted free agent, stunned Atlanta last week by signing with Greek powerhouse Olympiakos.
"He is a quality defender who gives us a physical and athletic presence, whether it's serving as a starter or coming off the bench," Hawks general manager Rick Sund said of Evans. "We are getting a solid player who is coming off his best statistical season, and who also has the talents to spread things on offense with his 3-point shooting ability." Evans reportedly received a three-year deal for about $7.5 million much less than Childress would have commanded. Childress' three-year contract in Greece will guarantee him at least $20 million after taxes.
Evans can shift between guard and forward, much as Childress did for the Hawks. Still, the newcomer would have to be considered a significant drop-off from a younger player who averaged in double figures each of his first four seasons in the NBA, including 11.8 last season to help Atlanta reach the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
In Orlando, Evans shot nearly 49 percent from the field and just under 40 percent from 3-point range. He also scored a career-best 27 points in an April 15 victory at Atlanta.