Arn Tellem, Harrington's new agent, told ESPN.com on Monday night that the Pacers are "very close" to finalizing a sign-and-trade arrangement with the Atlanta Hawks that has been weeks in the making.
Harrington, according to NBA front-office sources, is expected to sign a four-year contract worth $35.3 million with the Hawks, who will then deal him to Indiana. It's believed the Pacers will complete the swap without making a cash payment to the Hawks, who originally sought the maximum $3 million teams can add to trades.
Atlanta would receive a future first-round pick in exchange for Harrington. It was not immediately known whether Indiana also will acquire third-year center John Edwards, whose departure would remove an extra $1.1 million from the Hawks' payroll.
The most Harrington could have received from the Pacers is a six-year contract worth $57 million. But the fourth season of Harrington's new contract, sources say, will be at his option, meaning the 26-year-old will have the opportunity to return to the free-agent market in summer 2009 if he chooses.
On the Pacers' Web site, club CEO Donnie Walsh was quoted Monday as saying the framework for the trade is in place, with the final details of Harrington's contract still "in negotiation."
"I think we're coming down to it," Walsh said, "and we'll either get it or we won't."
Harrington's return to the team that drafted him 25th overall in 1998 was considered inevitable in front offices leaguewide for much of July, prompting interested teams to gradually drop out of the bidding. As negotiations dragged on, Harrington severed ties with agent Andy Miller and hired high-powered Tellem to restart the process. Yet reports this past weekend that the Pacers had squandered their chance to reacquire Harrington proved unfounded because of Indiana's $7.5 million trade exception.
That exception -- created in July when Indiana persuaded the New Orleans Hornets to participate in a sign-and-trade for Peja Stojakovic instead of simply signing Stojakovic away outright -- established the Pacers as the only Harrington suitor that could complete a sign-and-trade without forcing Atlanta to take back significant salary. Other interested teams include Golden State, Denver, New York and the Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA front-office sources say Atlanta's teetering ownership group, in the midst of a legal battle with former partner Steve Belkin to keep control of the franchise, has insisted from the start on taking back draft picks and/or cash as opposed to a player or two from Indiana's roster (such as center Jeff Foster or a more expensive veteran). The Warriors, for example, offered power forward Troy Murphy to the Hawks last month as part of a sign-and-trade that would have netted Harrington something closer to the six-year, $66 million contract he originally 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 Hawks eventually backed off their cash demands and told the Pacers they'd make the trade as long as Indiana sent them a first-round pick and agreed to absorb Edwards' salary. Atlanta's reluctance to deal with the other teams chasing Harrington maintained Indiana's position as the favorite to land the versatile forward, with the Pacers hoping the increasingly fast pace in today's NBA will permit Harrington -- at 6 foot 9 and 245 pounds -- 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. The Pacers' $7.5 million trade exception thus looms as one of the most valuable assets of the NBA offseason.
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. 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 such as Golden State or the Lakers -- turned the Stojakovic deal from an outright free-agent signing into a sign-and-trade, thereby creating the trade exception that set up Harrington's return.
It's believed the Pacers also explored 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 in late July, 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 during last month's Vegas Summer League, making it clear then that he expected to wind up with 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 BottomLine 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.