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Best Jazz option might be trade

But signing free agent is their top priority now

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While other NBA teams chase big-name free agents, the Jazz's best bet for a big-time acquisition might be the same route they took a summer ago.

Make a trade.

"We did it last year," Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's vice president of basketball operations, said with reference to the four-team, multiplayer swap that helped Utah obtain forward Donyell Marshall from Golden State last August.

But not so fast, bucko.

Before anything along those lines comes close to happening this summer, there is other business to address.

Today was supposed to be the first day this summer NBA clubs would be permitted to sign free agents (see adjacent story), making that the priority for most everyone around the league, the Jazz included.

Utah has pursued a few second-tier players, including Orlando center-forward John Amaechi, whose options include the Jazz, Chicago and perhaps the Magic. Shooting guard Mitch Richmond was another, though he is likelier to land with the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas than the Jazz. Starting center Olden Polynice and reserve big man Danny Manning both opted out of their contracts with the Jazz for next season, though, as of Tuesday, it still seemed possible Utah might re-sign one of the two.

Due to budget constraints, salary-cap realities and luxury-tax concerns, however, the Jazz simply haven't been in the hunt for the huge names available on the open market.

Only after Utah determines what sort of luck it has with its smaller-scale pursuits like Amaechi, however, will it turn full-fledged to the issue of perhaps shaking up the roster via a trade.

Not that the winds haven't started blowing already.

After the conclusion of the 2000-2001 season, the names of Marshall and swingman Bryon Russell surfaced in regard to a proposed deal that could have brought former University of Utah forward Keith Van Horn from New Jersey to the Jazz. Those talks, however, never became serious, and have since been quieted by the Nets' acquisition of Phoenix guard Jason Kidd.

Another whose name seems to keep popping up is Jazz backup center Greg Ostertag, who was part of a discussed three-team deal that would have brought Philadelphia reserve center Matt Geiger to Utah and sent Charlotte big man Derrick Coleman back to Philadelphia. Talk of that swap, though, is more than a month old, and it also never came close to happening, reportedly in part because 76ers president Pat Croce nixed the idea of reacquiring Coleman.

(The New York Knicks, as suggested in various newspaper reports back East, were never part of that trade proposal).

Ostertag also was purported to be part of a different proposed three-team, multiplayer deal involving two different clubs, though O'Connor called that suggestion "totally bogus."

As of Tuesday afternoon, in fact, O'Connor said he had no active, proposed deals involving Ostertag on his desk. There seems to be little question, however, that the Jazz have been entertaining means to move their 7-foot-2 center.

Asked specifically about Ostertag, O'Connor answered generically, saying: "We will look to improve our team.

"Now," he added, "you do that by drafting players, by free agency and by trade. We will continue to do that. If that means trading a player that's here, and we get a better deal, we'll do it. . . . We will look to be active and make a trade — if it helps the team. But if it doesn't help the team, we will not give a player away."

As for Russell and Marshall, both are bucking for extensions on contracts that expire after next season. Their agent, Dwight Manley, said last week that he had no reason to believe the Jazz intend to trade either of the two.

"They have told me that their intentions are to keep Bryon and Donyell long-term," Manley said, "and if that's changed it's news to me."

Asked if Russell and Marshall are both currently part of the Jazz's long-term plans, O'Connor's response was to-the-point: "Yeah, absolutely."

Things can change, of course, but it's unlikely the Jazz would do anything with either one until they better determine how Russian rookie Andrei Kirilenko should fit into their plans for next season, something they can in part do during the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league that gets under way later this week.

Still, O'Connor stresses that "We don't like to have players leave." Discussing contract extensions for Russell and Marshall, he said, is "a timing issue.

"I think what we need to do," O'Connor added, "is put our team in place now. . . . Let's see who we sign (from the free-agent market), let's see how long we sign them for, and then we'll look at our team, look at next year, and then we'll go look at them."


E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com