Things are going well for the Utah Jazz. They are leading the Midwest Division. They have a favorable remaining schedule. Ahead is the exhilaration of the playoffs. But beyond the playoffs awaits a nagging question that could have far-reaching ramifications in the years to come: the contracts of Jazz players Jeff Malone and Mike Brown.
Early indications are that working out their contracts won't be easy. Brown, a fifth-year player, becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1, and will be able to deal himself to the highest bidder. Malone, in his eighth NBA season, becomes a restricted free agent - which means he can consider other offers, but the Jazz have rights of first refusal. Both management and players acknowledge the issue is coming up fast, but nothing appears close to being resolved. "I want to play and stay focused," said Malone on Thursday night. "I don't want to complain. Of course, I would like to get things done. I would like to stay here, but you've gotta be realistic. You know there's a chance I might not be here (next year)."Malone is the most pressing concern for the Jazz. The 6-4 guard is averaging 18.9 points a game, and has given the Jazz a scoring threat from the two-guard position they have never had. But talks last summer and through the winter with his agent, David Falk, have produced nothing. "We're talking to Jeff's people right now and I'm not aware anything's going on with Mike's people," said Jazz G.M. Tim Howells. "Really, it's a tough thing to kind of `crystal ball' a forecast on how this is going to work out."
The issue in both cases is money. Malone, who makes $916,000 per year on his old contract, is probably looking at a huge raise, considering the escalation of salaries each year. He has good bargaining power, having made a dramatic difference in the Jazz offensive attack, as well as the team's defensive options.
Though Howells wouldn't discuss specific numbers, he said the Jazz are offering money that compares favorably with other top guards, such as Dallas' Rolando Blackman (who earns an average of $2 million per year).
But comparing salaries can be confusing. Portland's Clyde Drexler signed a contract earlier this year that would pay him $8 million in the last year of his contract. Michael Jordan makes a relatively low $3 million. Dallas' Fat Lever is working on a $1.5 million contract. Seattle rookie Gary Payton is making $2.25 million. Boston's Reggie Lewis and Indiana's Reggie Miller are both making a reported $3 million or more per year.
Indications are that Malone's agent is asking for more than $2 million per year. "Yes, we're offering money that's in the ballpark of other players of his caliber," said Howells. "Absolutely."
Free agency, of course, can make salaries go through the roof. Last summer John "Hot Rod" Williams, a restricted free agent, was offered a $26 million deal with Miami, but Cleveland matched the offer. A similar case could occur with Malone. Expansion teams have money to spend just to get within thesalary cap set by the league.
But the conservative Jazz don't appear interested in a bidding war. "I don't think we're ever going to be crazy with money and do like Miami," said Howells. "That's just not our nature."
Meanwhile, Malone makes it clear his services won't come at bargain basement prices. "I don't know what my plans are as far as the future, but you know you just take it game by game," he said. "If any changes come along, then you just have to move on. I just have to look at it as 50-50. Maybe I'll be here, maybe I won't. But I'm happy right now and I'd like to stay."
Brown figures into the summer's equation in a different way. The 6-9 forward is averaging 4.5 points a game as a backup center and forward. He spent his first pro season in Italy, and his wife is from there, making the possibility of playing in Europe more viable. He played two seasons in Chicago and two in Utah.
Brown is making $600,000 this year and will likely be able to get $1 million as a free agent. But since Jazz mainstay Thurl Bailey is only making $1 million this year, that leaves open the possibility of the Jazz having to rework Bailey's contract, too.
"I enjoy it here in Utah," Brown said. "The fellas (teammates) are great. It's a great team and it has the chance to win a championship, and that's what it's all about."
Brown's agent, Bob Woolf, has a reputation of waiting until the last minute to sign his players' contracts. As to whether his dealings with Utah will be drawn out, Brown said, "I have no idea because I don't think about that right now. I don't know . . ."
Whatever the case, it could be a long, tense summer for the Jazz. Asked if he is optimistic about signing Malone, Howells said, "It's hard to tell. It depends on how much Jeff values being with a contender . . . If it's strictly a money thing, then I think there's a fair chance they may want to test free agency. But in testing free agency, he's leaving himself open to receiving maybe a lot of money, but he may have to play for a not very good team. He may finish his career never even getting a smell at an opportunity to get a ring."
Said Malone, "I'm just going to try to stay low key about it." Then he added with a laugh, "I don't know, maybe they don't want me here."