Suns burn Jazz, steal Bell

Valley of the Sun: The fiery guard is leaving the team for greener pastures in Phoenix
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Phoenix's shock-and-awe approach to free agency mirrors the Suns' full-speed fast break on the court. And the Jazz don't have much success lately against either one.

Raja Bell, the 12-point-per-game shooting guard that Utah had intended to re-sign this summer, was swept away to the Suns before dawn broke on the first day of free agency Friday. By the time the Jazz contacted their co-captain at mid-morning, Bell had already decided to accept the Suns' five-year offer.

"When I saw something that seemed like a fantastic opportunity for me and my family, I had to take it," said Bell, who was willing to stay with the Jazz, all things being equal. The Suns made it clear that things weren't equal. "If I had [waited] and the offer wasn't on the table, I would kick myself. I couldn't do it."

Bell would not discuss terms of the contract, but a league source put Bell's starting salary at $4.25 million, which works out to $24.65 million (including 8-percent raises) over five years. "I'll just say it's more than I could ever wish for," Bell said. "I feel very blessed."

The Jazz? Not quite so blessed.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's senior vice president of basketball operations, who had said retaining

Bell was the team's top free-agent priority. "I think he made a decision based on playing for a more ready-made team."

One led by an old friend, too. Bell was a teammate of Suns point guard Steve Nash in Dallas three seasons ago, and "I feel fortunate to get to play with him again," Bell said. Nash, named the league's MVP last month, led Phoenix to a league-high 62 wins last season, including three in four tries against the Jazz by an average margin of 14.3 points.

The Suns pursued Bell with the same land-rush technique that they used to convince Nash to leave the Mavericks a year ago, overwhelming him with their desire to get something done quickly - and lucratively. Phoenix contacted Bell's agent, Herb Rudoy, precisely at the midnight ET moment when he formally became a free agent.

Other teams called around that time, too, but only Phoenix was ready to put numbers - big numbers - on the table. About three hours and a dozen phone calls later, Rudoy told Bell that the Suns were already making the best offer he was likely to receive.

"For me, the fact that there was no delaying said a lot. They knew what they wanted, and they were ready to talk specifics," said Bell, who was surprised by the Suns' fervor. "They were really aggressive about wanting to get something done, and as a player, you have to be impressed by that."

Bell was on the golf course when O'Connor reached him Friday, and both sides agreed that Phoenix's offer was too good to pass up, Bell said. O'Connor would not reveal the Jazz's intentions, but it is unlikely Utah would have been willing to guarantee the soon-to-be 29-year-old guard five seasons, or perhaps even four - meaning the Jazz's offer could have been as much as $10 million lower than Phoenix's.

Bell's departure leaves Gordan Giricek and Kirk Snyder as the Jazz's remaining shooting guards.

Bell, who led all Jazz guards with a 45.4 percent shooting percentage last year, including a team-high 40.3 percent from three-point range, said he is sorry to leave Salt Lake, where his scoring average tripled from his previous thee seasons. But he considers himself a logical addition for the Suns, who in acquiring Bell, plus center Kurt Thomas in a trade with the Knicks on Tuesday, are clearly trying to add defense and toughness to their up-tempo scoring attack.

"Kurt and I, we can play a physical game, and the fact we can go out and knock down shots, that's going to be a good fit," Bell said. "The opportunity to win a championship, the opportunity to play with my buddy, I'm incredibly excited about Phoenix."

But he will miss playing for Jerry Sloan, he said.

"I called Jerry to thank him for being a guy who was always on my side no matter what, and who helped me grow up a lot in two years," Bell said. "There are two people, my father [Roger] and Jerry, who when I grow old, I hope I'll be able to say that I lived with even half as much class and respect for other people."