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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Wesley Matthews is a restricted free agent, so the Jazz could match any offer.

SALT LAKE CITY — How's this for strange? The Jazz stand to lose their leading scorer and rebounder to free agency. The league's top 3-point shooter from last year could be gone, too. Yet their biggest worry might be keeping a guy Utahns barely knew a year ago.

Who knew last summer that in 2010, a priority would be re-signing Wesley Matthews?

The Jazz must be saying, "Wow ... uh ... thanks for the problem ... we guess."

Now they can only hope the same thing doesn't occur as did last year. In 2009, Portland made a nervy offer to restricted free agent Paul Millsap, costing the Jazz millions to retain him. They made the right move, but now a similar situation could arise. Reports say the Blazers and other teams have targeted Matthews, a restricted free agent.

It's not that the Jazz don't like Matthews — but at what price? The man made $458,000 last season. What's he worth this year, $3 million? Five? Having made a qualifying offer, the Jazz can now match any offer up to a full midlevel exception $6 million for next season.

At some point, though, either the rules or the Jazz's checkbook would have to say no.

The dilemma is this: Matthews is tough, hard-working and teachable, but he's not Deron Williams. He's a fine role player, but in the rush to keep him, they shouldn't let the Blazers force a deal that could prevent the Jazz from getting a top player in the near future.

How Matthews got such leverage is a classic work-hard-and-make-good story. As a rookie last year, he impressed coaches and teammates during the summer. They soon discovered he had no fear, and his game was stuck on one speed: blastoff.

He was physical, aggressive and fearless. Stand him in the passing lane of the freeway, facing onrushing traffic, and he'll hold his ground.

Matthews was far better than anticipated, mainly because he came without preamble. He was as unassuming as a gardener. Yet he hunkered down and won a starting spot for the last part of the season. He didn't smile a lot, didn't trash talk, either. He merely made himself an annoyance to whomever he guarded.

That led first to playing time, then starting time. By the playoffs, he was among the Jazz's best defenders. Now it's July and time to pay up. Matthews is sure to demand far more money than before. So rather than signing him for the qualifying offer they have already tendered ($937,135), they will likely need to dip into their midlevel exception money, which will reduce the amount they have for any other free agent.

If Portland or anyone else is crazy enough, the bidding could reach $6 million per year, which would have him earning nearly the same next season as Millsap, not to mention L.A.'s Ron Artest. In another comparison, five-year Jazz forward C.J. Miles makes $3.7 million.

Problem is, when it comes to restricted free agents, the Jazz only have the rights to match other offers. But they can't keep opposing teams from tempting him with numbers higher than the Jazz's. It's a delicate balance. The Jazz have hinted they'll match any offer, but what if it's ridiculous?

Meanwhile, they also must worry about trying to re-sign sharpshooter Kyle Korver and power forward Boozer, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. Both are unrestricted, so most experts think they're gone, anyway.

50 comments on this story

Matthews is a different story. Yet as good as he is, he's not an All-Star and won't be. The Jazz should do all they can to sign him within reason. Say $3-3.5 million, which is a 600-700 percent raise.

Nice pay bump in any economy.

Otherwise, let him walk.

It might look bad, but down the road, the Jazz would be glad they didn't spend their future on a role player. Whether you're buying a TV, a car or a ballplayer, nobody wants to overpay, even for a reliable, all-purpose product.

Save the big spending for top-of-the-line luxury items.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com