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Stojakovic Handed Keys to Kingdom

From Associated Press

Even Chris Webber can see it from his seat behind the bench: The Sacramento Kings are Peja Stojakovic’s team now, and they don’t seem to miss Webber in the slightest.

And it isn’t just Stojakovic’s scoring spree that has triggered this change in the Kings, who have the NBA’s best record without their best player.

Stojakovic’s teammates and coaches see new maturity and confidence in the Western Conference’s leading scorer, who’s enjoying his best pro season under the unprecedented pressure of Webber’s slow recovery from offseason knee surgery.

“Peja is doing it all,” Webber said, standing in the shadows near the Kings’ locker room at Arco Arena. “We haven’t missed a beat. He’s playing better than he ever has.”

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A few months ago, Webber was worried about the Kings’ chemistry after adding Brad Miller to their experienced core. Teamwork has been the Kings’ greatest asset during their renaissance, and the addition could have been problematic.

Instead, the Kings are thriving. Stojakovic and Mike Bibby are handling more of the scoring load for the NBA’s highest-scoring team. Miller fills nearly every other role once occupied by Webber, their leader in points, rebounds and assists last season.

So what will Webber do with himself when he returns, possibly later this month?

“I just hope I can fit in,” he said. “We’ve got a good vibe going here. We’re winning a lot of games and playing real cohesively as a team. You don’t want to mess that up, so hopefully we can find a role for everybody.”

Not many teams have the luxury of a $127 million role player, and not many could thrive after losing a five-time All-Star. But the Kings have assembled a roster that has been incredibly consistent through injuries, slumps and the extra attention caused by their flamboyant style and consistent success.

A year ago, Webber repeatedly stated his intention to have the ball in his hands at the end of any important game. This season, the Kings clearly want the ball with Stojakovic -- even if he doesn’t take the big shot.

“Peja is growing into that role,” coach Rick Adelman said. “It’s great to see him mature, but we have a great environment for that. These guys have such a strong team concept that almost anybody can take that big shot. I love to see Peja being this assertive, though.

“We knew Chris was going to be out for a while, but I didn’t think we needed to change the way we do things. Brad has taken on a lot of the things Chris does for us, and Peja has taken on other things.”

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Adelman never made any demands on Stojakovic when it became clear Webber would miss at least half of the regular season. Stojakovic embraced his new role easily, simply looking for a few extra shots in every game.

“Everybody has to step up and help, and I just try to be more aggressive,” Stojakovic said. “In some games last year, I didn’t try to get my shot as much. Now, I always try to step up and help with passing and scoring. It’s no big deal.”

Maybe not to Stojakovic, but his teammates are impressed with his subtle improvements.

Stojakovic is one of the NBA’s best at creating space for his own jump shot, and he’s been even better this season. He rarely needs even an extra step on his defender: With a pump-fake and a jab step, the 6-foot-10 forward can create enough inches of space to launch his jumpers.

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“I didn’t play against Larry Bird in his prime, but you’d probably have to compare him to that,” said Doug Christie, Stojakovic’s teammate for four years. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. When he shoots, sometimes I just catch myself watching.”

The extra defensive attention on Stojakovic has allowed Miller and Bibby to improve as well.

After frequently deferring to his teammates during his first two seasons with the Kings, Bibby has become Sacramento’s second-leading scorer with more than 17 points per game. His outside shot, once considered his weakness, has been much more accurate, and he’s making better than 85 percent of his free throws.

Miller has embraced the Kings’ team concept with amazing speed. He averages double figures in points and rebounds while improving on the physical presence of Scot Pollard, traded to Indiana in the deal for Miller.

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Everything is clicking for the Kings. They’re averaging more than 27 assists per game with their usual superb ball movement, and their assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the highest in recent league history.

Are the Kings better off without Webber?

When he returns, Webber will take minutes away from Miller and Vlade Divac, and Stojakovic and Bibby probably will surrender a few shots per game.

“Chris is a great player,” Stojakovic said. “You can’t have too many great players.”

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