The Portland Trail Blazers elected Friday not to wait on trade possibilities, deciding instead to offer Utah Jazz restricted free agent Paul Millsap a four-year contract worth $32 million, according to sources with knowledge of the Blazers' plans.
The Jazz, meanwhile, are expected to continue their push to trade Carlos Boozer in response, with the intent of creating sufficient distance from the luxury-tax line to enable Utah to match the Millsap offer.
The Blazers front-loaded the contract to make it difficult for Utah to match. They gave Millsap a $5.6 million signing bonus and agreed to pay him $4.7 million of his first-year, $6.3 million salary the day the contract becomes effective.
So a week from now, Millsap would receive $10.3 million. Add to that the $1.6 million that will be spread throughout next season and Millsap, who was paid just $797,581 last season, will be paid $11.9 million this year. The remaining $20.1 million will be spread over the final three years of the deal.
Those are the terms the Jazz will have to agree to if they match Portland's offer within the next seven days. With Utah already $4 million over the luxury tax, that will be tough to do.
Sources say that Boozer has been directly informed by the Jazz that he is no longer in the team's long-term plans, prompting Boozer to urge Utah to trade him. Chicago, New York, Miami and Detroit are believed to be the teams most interested in acquiring Boozer, who has only one year left on his contract worth $12.7 million after passing up the opportunity to become a free agent this summer.
The Blazers decided to go this route after a week of investigating their trade options following the collapse of their deal to sign Hedo Turkoglu away from Orlando.
One of those options, reported Thursday by ESPN.com, was a three-team trade involving Utah and the Chicago Bulls that would have landed Boozer in Chicago and Kirk Hinrich in Portland. But those trade talks stalled in part because the Bulls were not prepared to surrender Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas (who would have been Utah-bound) without getting back promising Portland guard Jerryd Bayless in return in addition to Boozer.
That three-team trade construction, sources said, was the byproduct of the increasingly hard push by the Jazz to move Boozer in an attempt to create the financial flexibility needed to keep Millsap, along with Portland's ongoing attempts to cash in on its nearly $8 million in available salary-cap space after Turkoglu made an 11th-hour switch to sign with the Toronto Raptors.
Although the Jazz and Blazers would appear to be unlikely trade partners, given their geographical and competitive proximity as Northwest Division rivals, Utah must recruit a trade partner that has significant salary-cap space to shed payroll in a Boozer deal. While Portland's salary-cap space is tied up in its Millsap offer, Oklahoma City is the only other team in the league that qualifies.
The Blazers, meanwhile, are still hoping to land a top-quality player this summer without surrendering any coveted assets, as evidenced by their unwillingness to part with Bayless in trade talks with the Bulls and Jazz. So they've elected to use their salary-cap space on Millsap knowing they'll be right back where they were in the event Utah matches -- trying to land Hinrich or a player of similar stature in a trade featuring three teams or more.
One source with knowledge of Portland's thinking said Friday that signing Millsap is a move to "spark Utah into action." The Blazers' apparent belief is that Utah's urgency to trade Boozer will increase because of the offer sheet.
And if the Jazz unexpectedly decline to match on Millsap, Portland would at worst come away with a quality player at a reasonable price that perhaps increases its options down the road. Millsap would come off the bench behind power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, though the Blazers believe Millsap also may be capable of playing small forward.
He would not, however, address the playmaking void Portland has been seeking to fill with Turkoglu or longtime Blazers target Hinrich.
Another source close to the process on Friday identified two main obstacles to the aforementioned three-way trade. Concerned about the quality of its backcourt rotation if it had to surrender Hinrich with Thomas after losing Ben Gordon in free agency, Chicago would insist that the Blazers surrender Bayless, which Portland does not want to do. It was believed that Chicago, if it couldn't get Bayless, was willing to substitute Tim Thomas for Tyrus Thomas in the deal, but sources say Utah would have almost certainly balked if Tyrus Thomas is not included.
For a time Wednesday, sources say Chicago was committed to participate in the four-team deal that ultimately sent Shawn Marion to Dallas, with Tim Thomas also headed for the Mavericks. One source with knowledge of the discussions said that the Bulls pulled Thomas out of that deal Wednesday night to plug him into another trade.
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It is not inconceivable, after the Millsap holding pattern ends, that Utah could still wind up working with Portland on new three-team (or more) scenarios involving the Blazers, because the Blazers would again have cap space if Utah's matches on Millsap, making them an attractive trade partner in spite of any lingering tension.
The Knicks and the Heat would have interest in Boozer as much for his expiring contract as his All-Star resume, but neither team has the cap space in a direct deal with the Jazz to give them the payroll relief they're seeking.
The Pistons have been widely mentioned as a trade suitor for Boozer, but it remains to be seen if they will formally enter the bidding. Sources with knowledge of Detroit's thinking insisted again Friday that the Pistons were not interested in trading for Boozer, largely because they think Tayshaun Prince and the newly signed Charlie Villanueva will complement each other better than Boozer and Villanueva would, especially on defense. Yet it remains possible that Pistons' inability to sign Orlando-bound Brandon Bass will lead them to re-consider.
The revamped Pistons have no dependable low-post scorer and are seeking to add size to their front line, with Boozer's expiring contract -- as it would in Chicago, New York or Miami -- affording them the added bonus of potentially creating salary-cap space again next summer after Detroit had the most spending money in the league this summer.
When asked about the trade talks with the Blazers and Bulls and his general plans for Boozer, Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor declined comment in Friday's editions of the Salt Lake Tribune.
Bulls general manager Gar Forman did not offer specifics when asked about the trade talks, but he likewise didn't deny Chicago's interest in Boozer, telling the Chicago Sun-Times: "There are always conversations going on, and we'll continue to talk to teams to see if we can make ourselves better."
When healthy, Boozer represents the elite low-post scorer that the Bulls have been chasing for years. But his arrival would also position them to have significant salary-cap space for the summer of 2010, thanks to Boozer's $12.7 million expiring contract, to court Chicago native Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh in free agency.
Pritchard acknowledged Thursday afternoon in a session with local reporters that he was also weighing whether to extend an offer sheet to Millsap. He also addressed a report in Thursday's Oregonian newspaper that talks negotiations on contract extensions for franchise cornerstones Brandon Roy and Aldridge have stalled.
"It's amicable," he said. "We plan to make it amicable. More importantly, Brandon and LaMarcus will be here for a long time."