Now that the season is over, the Utah Jazz turn to their offseason concerns, most of which indicate it will be an eventful summer.
The Jazz stepped things up a level this year, making it to the second round of the playoffs. Staying at or exceeding that level won't be easy. Key players Mike Brown and Jeff Malone become free agents this summer. The Jazz don't pick until No. 21 in the draft.Here is a look at matters the Jazz must address before October:
Malone, an eight-year pro, did what the Jazz hired him to do: he gave them another scoring threat. Malone averaged 18.6 points a game and shot .508 for the regular season - the best shooting percentage in his career.
He was second in the NBA in free throw percentage (.917), also the best of his career. During the playoffs he averaged 20.7 points.
Malone becomes a restricted free agent July 1, meaning he can sign an offer sheet with any team, but the Jazz have the rights to match the offer.
Whatever the case, the Macon, Ga., native won't come cheap. His old contract paid him $916,000 per year. But he is asking for about $2 million this time.
"I think I have proven myself and stepped it up and elevated my game a notch," he said. "I think it's time I be treated fairly - and it's going to happen."
He continued: "I'm very happy here (in Utah), but the realistic part is if it doesn't work out, I'll be somewhere, I know that."
Malone said he wants to be paid what comparable players earn. Dallas guard Rolando Blackman makes a reported average of $1.65 million a year, while Golden State's Mitch Richmond averages $850,000. Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek has a six-year contract worth $2 million per season.
However, the sticking point could be years, not dollars. Malone turns 30 in June and hopes this will be his final NBA contract.
"Years are important," he said. "I want to make what the top `2-guards' are making."
Malone said he wants to sign a four- or five-year pact. "My skills aren't diminishing," he said. "I don't want to sign a two- or three-year deal. That would be crazy. I'd be a free agent again at 32 or 33. I want this to be my last go-round."
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The Jazz tried to get Malone signed to a contract before last season, but nothing was accomplished, so the matter was put on hold.
"It's going to have to be done right," continued Malone. "I've proven myself. I've done the job. This is my last deal and when I'm through I plan to go back home to Macon, Ga., and live the rest of my life."
Despite talk of playing wherever he gets the best offer, Malone said he would like to return with the Jazz. "I like it here. The fans are great," he said.
Although Malone is weighing his options, the Jazz really have the only option that counts: rights of first refusal. If they decide to match other offers, Malone will remain in Utah. Not so with Brown. He becomes an unrestricted free agent, which means he can offer himself outright to the highest bidder.
Brown said he plans to spend time in Salt Lake, New Jersey, Chicago and Italy over the summer. However, he added that he would be talking to the Jazz "way before" leaving town.
Brown was only six minutes short of his career record for minutes played this year. But his regular season number were slightly down over the previous year. He collected 337 rebounds, compared to 373 the year before and averaged 4.8 points, compared to 6.2 the previous year.
Brown made a strong showing in the playoffs, averaging 9.5 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
"I enjoy it here," said Brown. "And there are some great fellas on the team. I think we have a great staff here and a lot of potential."
While Brown made $600,000 this year, he will likely command at least $1 million as a free agent. With the Jazz having no realistic backup to Karl Malone or Mark Eaton, Brown's value is high.
"We like to hope these things can be worked out," said owner Larry H. Miller of the free agent situations. "Earlier we made some sincere offers, but nothing happened. We've got to rededicate ourselves to getting that done."
Miller said he doesn't expect to wait until July 1, when the players can test the free agent market, to get serious. "Waiting sends the wrong message," said Miller. "I think if we didn't tend to business right away, they'd start to have questions of `Do they really appreciate me?' "
Almost anyone could be playing somewhere else next year, but the case of veteran Darrell Griffith may be the most intriguing.
The former Louisville star has one year left on his estimated $800,000 contract. But with his age increasing and his playing time decreasing, Griffith may have played his last game with the Jazz.
"One thing for sure," said Miller. "He's given us everything we could ask. He's done a great deal for the game and has shown dignity on and off the court. It would have been easy just to get a chip on his shoulder."
Griffith, who will be 33 in June, played the fewest minutes and averaged the fewest points of his career this season. Still, he finished the year with the second-highest three-point percentage on the team. (Rookie Andy Toolson was higher, but only had 32 attempts, compared to 138 by Griffith.)
Were the Jazz to waive Griffith, only half his salary - approximately $400,000 - would count against the salary cap. The other half could be used to give raises to other players or sign new ones.
As to whether he'll be back next year, Griffith said, "I haven't heard otherwise. As far as I'm concerned it's business as usual and whatever happens, I'll deal with it."
Miller continued, "What I feel we need to do is define for Darrell what's expected of him from the team for next year. Within the context of that, he has to tell us how he feels and go from there. If Darrell feels he has two or three good years and feels he can help someone else, we should help him seek those alternatives. He's a great young man. I hope we can help him define his role. If not, we can look at the alternatives together."
Miller and Griffith talked for 15 minutes outside the dressing room last Wednesday while players cleaned out their lockers. "He said, `I'll fill whatever role you want,' " said Miller.
Miller added that once Griffith is told what his role will be next year, they can decide his future.
Although the Jazz don't pick until No. 21 this year, it's 12 higher than last season. It is also the exact pick they had in 1989 when they got Blue Edwards.
While taking their standard "best player available" approach, the Jazz are particularly interested in finding a power forward or point guard. Although Delaney Rudd's numbers were all up slightly over last year, Miller said the team would like a third point guard.
"We feel the point guard position is so important, we really need three," said Miller.
The Young Guns
The summer will be crucial for a number of Jazz players. Swingman Toolson expects to be back for the rookie-free agent camp and summer league, as does forward Walter Palmer. The summer will also provide a close look at 7-foot-5, 300-pound center Alan Bannister, who spent the season on injured reserve.
June 26 - NBA Draft (Jazz pick 21st)
July 17-21 - Rookie/free agent camp
July 22-Aug. 1 - Jazz Summer League
Sept. 12-15 - NBA Meetings (Palm Springs)
Oct. 4 - Training camp opens
Nov. 1 - Opening Night