All signs continue to point toward 21-year-old big man Derrick Favors as a major centerpiece of the Jazz's future.
While Favors crisscrossed Utah this week, strengthening his bond with fans by visiting remote towns as part of the annual Junior Jazz program, initial contract negotiations quietly began between the small-market organization and longtime power forward Paul Millsap.
The sturdy six-year veteran was offered a three-year extension worth about $25 million, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned, which is the maximum extension Millsap can receive under the new collective bargaining agreement. The proposed deal features an annual 7.5 percent raise, would kick in after Millsap's current contract expires June 2013, and could keep the career Jazzman in a Utah uniform through June 2016.
Initial indications are Millsap won't agree to the extension, though, preferring to enter free agency in 2013 with plans to cash in on an inflated 2012 market that saw mid-tier forwards such as Gerald Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko, Nicolas Batum and Ryan Anderson recently receive lucrative multiyear contracts.
Millsap became eligible for an extension July 17, which marked the third anniversary of his "toxic" 2009 deal — a four-year, $32-million frontloaded contract Portland created via a restricted free-agent offer sheet, which Utah matched.
The Jazz's decision was controversial at the time, and some believed Utah wildly overpaid to keep Millsap, the No. 47 overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft and a backup during his initial four seasons in the league.
Three years later, the 6-foot-8, 253-pound forward has evolved into one of the premier pound-for-pound players in the NBA. He's the lone holdover from Utah's 2006-07 team that advanced to the Western Conference finals, and rivaled center Al Jefferson as the Jazz's most valuable player the last two seasons.
Millsap, 27, averaged career highs in points (17.3), assists (2.5) and minutes (34.3) during a chaotic 2010-11 season that saw All-Star guard Deron Williams traded and Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan resign. The former Louisiana Tech standout followed with an equally strong 2011-12 campaign, averaging 16.6 points and a career-high 8.8 rebounds while shooting 49.5 percent from the field in 64 games (62 starts).
Heart and soul
Millsap is now entering the prime of his career. But despite continually fine-tuning his all-around game — his 1.8 average steals ranked fourth in the NBA last season; everything from his shooting range, ballhandling and overall defense have significantly improved — and being a strong leader on and off the court, it's become increasingly clear Favors represents the Jazz's future and Millsap is viewed as being somewhat expendable.
A hint was provided at the start of the lockout-compressed 2011-12 season, when Utah coach Tyrone Corbin jumpstarted the transition by unexpectedly inserting Favors into the first rotation and brining Millsap off the bench. The change only lasted two games. But Favors followed up a promising regular season by starting Game 4 of the Jazz's first-round playoff series against San Antonio, and he could be Utah's best player in two years. Even the fact Millsap already possesses the weapons Favors still must develop — an outside shooting touch; a mid-range game; consistency as a starter — are outweighed by Favors' All-Star potential.
The Jazz's best-case scenario — starting a big lineup of Millsap, Favors and Jefferson — also has short-term limitations and long-term issues. Utah hasn't committed to Millsap at small forward the past two offseasons, while Gordon Hayward and newly acquired veteran Marvin Williams will compete for playing time at the position when training camp starts in October for the 2012-13 season.
Millsap hasn't even been guaranteed a starting spot when Utah opens its regular season Oct. 31 against Dallas. And he's expected to enter camp battling Favors for the starting power forward position, at the same time he's entering a contract season he's spent six years working toward.
Making the situation even more complicated: Jefferson holds a $15 million expiring contract, and both he and Millsap acknowledged toward the end of the 2011-12 season they can envision an immediate future in which they're no longer playing in Salt Lake City.
Despite the above, Millsap is open to remaining with the Jazz and Utah ideally would like him to end his career in SLC without changing teams. But everything from the Jazz's long-standing frontcourt logjam to the economic realities of the NBA are pushing Millsap toward free agency. Moreover, little has changed from the start of the 2011-12 season, when Millsap was the Jazz's best overall player yet most tradable asset.
Utah General Manager Kevin O'Connor has often said the Jazz's frontcourt buildup is a blessing, comparing it to the "problem" of having too much starting pitching in baseball. But while Utah would like to keep Millsap — the Jazz wouldn't have offered an extension this week if that wasn't the case — the organization must also keep its long-term vision intact.
Utah could have as many as eight players under expiring contracts this season and one with a 2013-14 player option. A Jazz organization once widely associated with multimillion-dollar luxury tax payments has spent years building toward the summer of 2013, either by shedding overpriced veteran contracts or drafting/trading for young athletes still playing under rookie-scale wages.
By signing Millsap to an extension or retaining him as a high-priced free agent next summer, Utah could set itself up for another Kirilenko-like scenario: paying star-player money to an athlete who regularly comes off the bench. In a proactive effort that represents the Jazz's desire to keep Millsap but retain future financial flexibility, the Jazz have already begun examining which teams could afford to pay Millsap the $10 million to $14 million average salary he's expected to seek if he becomes a free agent.
While the Jazz have exceeded expectations post D-Will, they've also yet to make a full, clear commitment to their next era. All-Star point guard Devin Harris and his $8.5 million expiring contract were recently traded; Utah holds a team option on Corbin for 2013-14; the Jazz have yet to sign even a mid-tier free agent to a long-term deal.
Millsap's future is the first issue Utah must confront. All signs point toward Utah's longest-tenured player entering free agency in less than a year. And Jefferson could join him.
Brian T. Smith