SALT LAKE CITY — The Portland Trail Blazers have struck again.
A year after trying to snatch Paul Millsap away from the Jazz with a "toxic" contract offer, the Blazers stuck it to Utah on Saturday by enticing starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews into signing an irresistible and surprising offer sheet of approximately $34 million over five years.
"We're happy," said Matthews' agent, Lance Young. "We have a smile on our face."
Here's the part that'll make the Jazz do anything but grin: Portland front-loaded the contract with a $9.1 million first-year jackpot for the restricted free agent in an effort to make it too pricey for Utah to match.
That's similar to what the Blazers did with Millsap's $32 million deal last summer. That one included a $10.3 million first-year payment.
The Jazz, who matched Millsap's contract, will have seven days after they receive the paperwork to decide whether or not to match Portland's bid. Until then, they have to decide if the undrafted rookie they discovered last season out of Marquette is worth taking another gamble on.
"We'll look at it on Monday and see what it is," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said. "We'll evaluate it and think about what's best to do with our mid-level exception money, and whether that's Wes or not."
For the record, the NBA recently set its mid-level exception at $5.765 million, so the Jazz would have to use all of that on Matthews. Should the Jazz match the offer, their payroll would be at about $66 million for only nine players. NBA teams are required to carry at least 13 on the roster, and the luxury-tax level will be $70.307 million for 2010-11.
That gives Jazz management, which paid luxury taxes for the first time this past season, quite the financial decision to make — especially with the hard-to-swallow first-year chunk of change that will be due seven days after Utah makes its decision.
"It's an evaluation process," O'Connor said. "We'll sit down with our coaching staff and ownership and try to make a decision on what's best for us, not only now but also in the future."
Portland, which is still looking for a permanent general manager after Kevin Pritchard was fired last month, told the Matthews camp that the 6-foot-5 shooting guard was its No. 1 free-agent target. Young called the offer "pretty strong," a description neither team is likely to refute.
The agent even said Portland told him, "We may have overpaid, but if we're going to take a run we'll give our best shot."
After meeting with Matthews in Portland on Thursday, Blazers team president Larry Miller spoke highly of the gutsy guard who seemingly would be Brandon Roy's backup.
"He fills a need," Miller told The Oregonian. "He plays hard, is a good defender and is a decent shooter. But mostly, he's a hard-nosed defender, and that's a need for us."
Shooting guard is an even bigger need for Utah, which doesn't have one on the roster other than combo guard Ronnie Price now that Kyle Korver signed with the Chicago Bulls.
Young didn't indicate whether Matthews would prefer if Utah matched or not.
"He just wants to play. I mean, he's Wes. He can fit in anywhere," Young said. "He loves Utah. We'll just see what happens."
The money won't change either way for Matthews, of course, just the playing situations, opportunities and scenery.
Like Millsap had to do last year, Matthews now has to wait a week to wonder if his locker will be at EnergySolutions Arena or the Rose Garden.
"I don't know what they're going to do," Young said of the Jazz. "He'll be a rich man by the end of July. It's pretty nice for an undrafted rookie."
Despite being overlooked on Draft Day 2009, Matthews earned his way onto the Jazz's roster last fall. He proceeded to work his way into the rotation and eventually became Utah's starting shooting guard.
Matthews proved to be durable, defensive-minded and a dependable outside shooter from the corners. He was one of only two Jazz players to see action in all 82 games, averaged 9.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in the regular season and hit 38.2 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Matthews picked up his play even more in the playoffs, averaging 13.2 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing solid defense in two rounds.
It's possible the Jazz might be able to find similar talent at a cheaper price.
One option Utah was considering, however, is no longer there. Restricted free-agent guard Anthony Morrow signed a three-year, $12 million offer sheet with the New Jersey Nets on Friday night, according to Yahoo! Sports.
The Jazz also reportedly have interest in bringing back former starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, who was traded in the middle of last season to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Regarding Korver's departure, O'Connor lauded the NBA's single-season 3-point accuracy record-holder "for his professionalism and the way he handled himself in the community."
Korver didn't appear to be in the Jazz's future plans when they picked up a swingman with the No. 9 overall draft pick last month.
"We knew that probably once we drafted Gordon Hayward it would make it more difficult for everyone," O'Connor said. "We're moving on and so is (Korver)."148 comments on this story
Now, of course, they're on the clock to make a similar, albeit more expensive, decision on Matthews.
Point guards: Deron Williams, Ronnie Price
Shooting guards: None
Small forwards: Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Gordon Hayward
Power forwards: Paul Millsap
Centers: Mehmet Okur, Kosta Koufos
Non-guaranteed contracts: Sundiata Gaines, Othyus Jeffers, Jeremy Evans
Restricted free agents (qualifying offers): Kyrylo Fesenko, Wesley Matthews*
*Signed offer sheet with Portland; Jazz have right to match