This time around, there won’t be a plane taking off carrying Suns officials — at least not on the first day.
The NBA’s free-agent negotiating period starts at 9 tonight, Arizona time.
The Suns’ main objectives this year — unlike last year, when club officials flew to Dallas to successfully woo free agent Steve Nash — are to keep Amaré Stoudemire and Joe Johnson in Suns uniforms.
The Suns can offer Stoudemire a five-year contract extension and are expected to do so at the maximum level allowable under the new collective bargaining agreement.
This shouldn’t be a problem. Stoudemire has said he wants to continue playing for the Suns.
Johnson’s situation is trickier.
He is a restricted free agent, meaning he can accept offers and force the Suns to match. Johnson has said he expects to be back, and the Suns say that’s their intention.
Suns president Bryan Colangelo indicated club officials may well fly to an out-of-state location to meet with Johnson, though not on Friday, the first full day that talks are allowed.
"We have a priority of resigning Joe Johnson and signing Amaré Stoudemire to a contract extension," Colangelo said, saying "immediate" steps toward those goals will be taken.
Atlanta and Cleveland could be preparing major offers, maybe even maximum offers for Johnson. The amount is uncertain: It would be 25 percent of the annual team salary cap in the 2006-07 season, a figure that can’t be determined now.
But it’s fair to guess a maximum offer for Johnson could be in the range of $70 million.
The Suns have an advantage in that they can offer Johnson a sixth guaranteed year.
It’s also possible that other teams will come to believe the Suns will match any offer for Johnson and figure they would be wasting their time.
If not, the Suns might have to match a huge deal to keep Johnson, or at least offer much more money than they did back in October, when Johnson once said the two sides were "close" to a deal.
Indications are the Suns could have had Johnson back then for a contract in the range of $9 million per season. That price now figures to go up significantly after Johnson’s outstanding year and the Suns’ 62-win season.
Another decision facing the Suns is what to do about center Steven Hunter, who declined a player option on a $720,000 salary.
The Suns might offer Hunter the so-called "milliondollar exception" (worth $1.6 million) but aren’t expected to get into a bidding war for him.
The 7-foot center says he’s thought over the matter and has decided that, "I really want to be back here."
He says he’ll let his agent handle the offers, but that, "I definitely want to be back to play for the Phoenix Suns."
But let’s say another team offers him, say, $3 million a season. Would his desire to return outweigh the chance to make twice as much money?
No, Hunter says.
"I’m a young player," he says. "I’m not in the position to be turning down money.
"I’m trying to establish myself financially. I have to be a smart businessman."
The Suns will make inquiries into other free agents. One possibility is Gary Payton, who has indicated he would consider playing for the Suns.
It’s known the Suns will have interest in Michael Finley, the former All-Star for Dallas, whose contract is being bought out by the Mavericks to avoid heavy luxury tax payments. The Suns drafted Finley back in 1995, then traded him to Dallas as part of the big Jason Kidd trade in December 1996.
BONUS SHOTS: The Suns have hired Dan D’Antoni, older brother of coach Mike D’Antoni as an assistant coach. He has won more than 500 games as head coach of Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a position he has held since 1975. . . .
Marc Iavaroni said he expects to be on the club’s coaching staff when the Suns stage their annual summer camp starting Monday. He is a candidate for the head coaching job in Portland.
Iavaroni indicated press reports that the Blazers are waiting to see if Seattle coach Nate McMillan would jump to the Blazers are accurate, even though McMillan acted as the Sonics spokesman during Tuesday night’s draft.
Blazers officials have indicated they would like to name a coach by the end of the first week in July. Other candidates include Lionel Hollins, the former Suns assistant, and Terry Porter, the recently fired Milwaukee coach. Both are former standout players for the Blazers.