Two summers ago, the Jazz tried to acquire Jason Hart in a trade, only to watch as the Charlotte Bobcats sent the point guard to Sacramento for a future second-round pick and a salary-cap exception, unwilling to take a player in return. They finally came together Friday night when the Jazz agreed with Hart on a two-year deal believed to be worth $5 million, moving quickly after watching top free agent target Morris Peterson agree to a four-year, $23 million deal with New Orleans earlier in the day. Hart, 29, had his best season playing both guard positions with the expansion Bobcats in 2004-05, averaging 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds. The Jazz will be the sixth NBA team in Hart's seven-year career, and he will fill the role vacated by Derek Fisher. "We tried two years ago," Hart's agent, Bill Neff, said in a phone interview. "We think Jerry Sloan's a perfect coach for him. He had success playing for [San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich in 2003-04] and there are some similarities there." The Jazz contacted Neff about Hart 10 minutes into the free-agent negotiating period on July 1. Hart finished last season starting for the Los Angeles Clippers, who lost Shaun Livingston to a major knee injury, but wasn't hesitant about playing behind Deron Williams. "If you look at the history of Jazz backups from [Howard] Eisley to [John] Crotty to Derek Fisher, the minutes are pretty substantial," Neff said. "Once we explained that to Jason it became a pretty attractive situation." Hart came recommended by Utah's head scout Troy Weaver, a former assistant coach at Syracuse, where Hart played in college. He is expected to arrive in Salt Lake City either Monday or Tuesday to take a physical and sign the contract.
Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz senior vice president of basketball operations, also was impressed by the way the Clippers finished the season with Hart starting. The Clippers won 10 of their last 16 games but came up short of a playoff berth. "He's a player that's gotten better," O'Connor said. "He's a player that when he's had his chance has played pretty well." O'Connor added: "He brings us toughness and he brings us some veteran leadership a little bit. It's some of the things that we were looking at obviously to replace what . . . Derek gave us." Had he come to Utah in the summer of 2005, Hart might be a household name to NBA fans. He requested a trade after the Bobcats drafted Raymond Felton and wound up with the Kings, where his role grew smaller and smaller. Neff ultimately went to the Sacramento Bee in January and accused the Kings of mistreating Hart, including the claim by former coach Eric Musselman that management had told him to play John Salmons and Quincy Douby ahead of Hart. The Kings bought out Hart's contract and he signed with the Clippers in March. The Jazz wasted little time in signing him after learning of Peterson's plans and announced the news after their first Rocky Mountain Revue game. It was believed the Jazz were unwilling to offer Peterson a contract longer than three years. O'Connor declined to comment other than to say good luck. "We wish him the best and he was a class guy and hope it works out for him." The Jazz were pragmatic about offering a four-year contract to Peterson, who would have gone into his final year at age 33 while playing a position where few starters last into their mid-30s. It wasn't known if they ever offered the full midlevel exception of $5.356 million. At the same time, Peterson's durability was never in question when he played a league-leading 371 consecutive games from February 2002 to November 2006. Peterson's camp identified the Jazz as his first-choice team July 1 and he visited on Monday. The Jazz still have a chunk of the midlevel exception available after signing Hart, but their pursuit of a starting shooting guard is unclear. Peterson would have been that player had he chosen Utah. O'Connor was envisioning lineup combinations in which Hart and Williams could play together as well as a combination with no two-guard and Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko on the floor. "If you look at the West, there's a lot of teams that play two smaller guards," O'Connor said, "and we feel that both our guys are interchangable defensively and can guard both of those guys."