MEMPHIS — The Suns got rid of a contract Thursday that has burdened them for years when they traded forward Tom Gugliotta to the Utah Jazz for forward Keon Clark and journeyman Ben Handlogten.
The deal means the final year of Gugliotta's contract, which pays him about $11.7 million this season, will be assigned to the Jazz for salary cap purposes.
The trade lowers the Suns' salary burden for this season about $6.1 million, from about $60.5 million to about $54.4 million. This means the Suns now should escape the league's dollar-for-dollar luxury tax on high payrolls; the tax's threshold is projected at slightly more than $55 million, so the Suns also saved $5 million here.
Early this season, before he Suns engineered a series of cost-saving trades, their payroll was about $66 million.
This means the Suns have wiped out about $12 million from the payroll they will show at season's end, plus about $11 million in luxury taxes. To get the Jazz to do the deal, the Suns sent along cash (believed to be $3 million) and a 2004 first-round draft pick. This pick will be the least favorable between the Suns' own pick and the pick they acquired from New York in the Stephon Marbury deal.
The Suns also will send along another first-round pick from the Knicks that can't be used until 2006. From 2006 through 2009, the pick can't be any better than No. 23. In 2010, the pick becomes unconditional.
The Suns also sent the Jazz a second-round pick from 2005.
"First and foremost, the notion of getting under the (tax) threshold is a very valuable thing for us," said club president Bryan Colangelo. By chopping off a first-round pick, the Suns will eliminate a salary obligation of about $1.5 million for next season.
This will mean they'll have an estimated $37.8 million in committed salaries (down from about $39.3 million) for next season. This should give them more than $8 million in cap space with which to chase free agents.
Giving up the 2004 draft pick "takes a (salary) cap charge off" the Suns' books, Colangelo said, "while allowing us to have more free-agent dollars."
With two first-round picks entering the June draft, the Suns would have added two more young players to an already young team, he said.
Instead, "You free up a roster spot for a (veteran) free agent," he said.
The Jazz, who are trying to grab one of the final playoff spots in the West, can afford to take Gugliotta because they are under the salary cap and the luxury-tax threshold. They only are responsible for paying the final two months of Gugliotta's contract, or about $4 million.
The wisdom of Gugliotta's six-year $58.5 million deal had been questioned even before the forward blew out his left knee in March, 2000, as his career with the Suns was checkered.
He was signed as a free agent just before the lockout season of 1999 after Antonio McDyess, then a rising star, surprisingly bolted for the lowly Denver Nuggets. He averaged a solid 17.0 points and 8.9 rebounds in his first season with the Suns, but was dominated in the playoffs by Portland's Brian Grant.
Then came the knee injury, suffered when teammate Randy Livingston rolled into his left leg in a game vs., ironically, the Jazz on March 10, 2000.
His recovery was an uneven process that included foot injuries Gugliotta believed may have been linked to compensating for weakness in the knee.
And when the Suns drafted Amare Stoudemire in 2002, Gugliotta was relegated to a reserve role. He had always been more effective as a starter; he played inconsistently in his reduced role and at times dropped out of the Suns' playing rotation entirely.
Gugliotta's contract and the seven-year $86 million contract of Penny Hardaway (who was traded to the Knicks, along with Marbury) have influenced the Suns' money-saving moves over the past few years. As for the two new Suns, they may never see action for the club.
Clark has missed most of the season with an ankle injury. He has not expected return date. Handlogten, a 30-year-old rookie big man, blew out his left knee on Dec. 26. He is expected to be out for the rest of the season.
BONUS SHOTS: Antonio McDyess is expected to return to action tonight. . .Rookie Maciej Lampe has been put on the injured list with shin splints.