San Antonio Spurs Should Not Let James Anderson Escape Their Grasp

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San Antonio Spurs Should Not Let James Anderson Escape Their Grasp
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

James Anderson set his feet beyond the arc, and with enough time to file his income taxes and space to set up a campsite, caught a perfect pass and drilled his second three-pointer to give the Spurs a 94-93 lead in extra minutes.

The sophomore helped San Antonio, once trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, claw back and almost defeat the I-35 rival Dallas Mavericks in a Sunday thriller. He hit two triples, swished a high-arching floater and recorded five rebounds and three assists.

The reserve unit could not close the deal and fell to Dallas 101-100.

The Spurs did not hijack Sports Center after declining Thursday to pick up the third-year option on Anderson’s contract.

The approaching Super Bowl, Kevin Love’s 11th hour deal, Lob City vs. Lakerland and Joe Paterno’s death kept four-letter network anchors busy enough last week to ignore a story that, in the grand scheme, attracted scant attention from dedicated NBA observers.

The Anderson decision, however, is not throwaway news in the Alamo City. The Spurs shunned another promising youngster struggling to fulfill his potential two years ago. Ian Mahinmi has become a high-intensity, high-motor bright spot in the Mavs’ dreary commencement of their title defense, though he did clang a pair of crucial freebies in Sunday’s overtime thriller.

San Antonio’s former other Frenchman injured his ankle in July 2008 and missed all of that next campaign. The crippled roster that year needed youth and more inside depth. Mahinmi would have played early and often. Instead, that wasted year caused Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford to lose patience.

He did not make the necessary strides as an individual and team defender. He hacked opponents at an alarming rate that suggested he could have shattered Bubba Wells’ dubious record for fouling out of a game. Wells grabbed Dennis Rodman six times in one minute after his coach, Don Nelson, determined that intentionally sending the opprobrious foul shooter to the charity stripe was the best defense his team could muster.

Mahinmi was different. His development required significant daylight at the highest level, and Popovich proved unwilling to toss him in the league’s shark pool, where he would need to swim his way to escape or become fish food. A few garbage minutes here or there did not reveal or say enough about Mahinmi’s unpolished, primitive game.

When the Spurs let him walk as a free agent, the Mavericks swooped in and gambled that the foul-prone benchwarmer could evolve into a serviceable backup center. Allowing him to continue his career elsewhere did not seem like a risk on the level of trading Luis Scola’s rights to Houston for an order of puffy tacos.

How much could the Spurs, defenseless on the road in five of eight contests, use Mahinmi now? Three 6’11” players would impact a coverage that suffers from the necessity of Matt Bonner and Dejuan Blair playing together as the power forward and center when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter rest.

Dallas 1, San Antonio 0. Oops again.

Sunday’s loss exacerbated the problem.

Declining a contract option is one thing. That decision does not have to presage divorce. The Spurs cannot allow Anderson to exit the way Mahinmi did.

Think about it. With the Mavs poised to clean house before July 1 to create the cap space necessary to pair a max-level free agent or two with an aging Dirk Nowitzki, what would stop Mark Cuban from signing Anderson as cheap labor with substantial upside?

That combination of right price and intrigue prompted Cuban and Donnie Nelson to pounce when Mahinmi hit the market.

San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey wrote that Danny Green’s emergence as a solid contributor on both ends changed the front office’s thinking on Anderson.

The recourse this summer, however, is not as complicated. Scouts and long-time draft analysts often opine that it takes at least three years to evaluate or measure a pick against expectations.

Anderson missed a chunk of his rookie year with a stress fracture in his right foot. While he was sidelined, Gary Neal became entrenched as Manu Ginobili’s chief backup. That surprise ascendancy—coupled with Popovich’s hesitance to entrust the rookie with a significant role while an established, sizzling rotation pushed for the top seed—caused the coach to relegate Anderson to the inactive list on most nights after his return.

The January of his second season looks a lot like his first.

Green snatched up most of Anderson’s available minutes. Neal, now recuperated after an appendectomy forced him to sit out most of training camp and the first batch of games, has taken the remaining ones.

The former Oklahoma State scoring standout may not fit in the Spurs’ plans this year. How can the brass know if Anderson ever will?

Buford and Popovich owe it to themselves to give the 6’6” guard one more year as a prospective cog. Sunday showed why.

The wing and backcourt depth chart appears crowded now, but that can change as soon as July.

Richard Jefferson rarely adds much when his three-pointers do not fall. He survived the league’s first round of amnesty cuts because the team’s decision makers could not convince a suitable replacement to defect to Central Texas. He shot a scorching percentage from downtown at the season’s outset but has since returned to his 2010-2011 pace.

This tenuous relationship remains headed toward a breakup. A blazing start does not mask the truth that anchors a Spurs’ paradox. Jefferson can catch fire in a February tilt, but good luck squeezing much out of him in late April. His refined, retooled game does not lend itself to postseason translation.

Foes will zero in on a spotty, one-dimensional performer who no longer bombards the basket or terrorizes in transition. See Grizzlies, Memphis.

Anderson boasts enough talent to knock down several threes a game and play average defense. His Big 12 tenure alone suggests he can replicate Jefferson’s production for a fraction of the price. In a few spurts, such as the rally versus the Mavs, Anderson has looked like someone who can do much more.

In his first two weeks as a rookie, he connected on 10 of 20 three-point attempts and averaged seven points. With Duncan’s career reduced to a year-to-year, wait-and-see proposition and Ginobili a few years from retirement, can the Spurs afford to surrender any of their young assets for nothing?

Without Jefferson, the Spurs would suddenly have 30 extra minutes to dole out among Tony Parker, Ginobili, Neal, Kawhi Leonard and maybe Green and T.J. Ford. Is that enough to cobble together a balanced rotation, given Ginobili’s fragility and Popovich’s desire to not break him before the playoffs arrive?

Affording Anderson more time to show he belongs costs far less than guessing wrong and watching him excel with someone else.

Can the Spurs stomach a repeat of that scenario? Scola blossomed with the Rockets. Mahinmi has sprouted with the Mavs.

Declining Anderson’s option backs the front office into an unenviable corner should another team decide this summer to offer him more than he would have earned in his now uncertain third season.

In Friday and Sunday defeats, Jefferson returned to his signature mental midget form. After connecting on his first four shots in Minnesota, en route to 10 first-quarter points, he went scoreless the rest of the way. He faded in similar fashion after a 3-for-5 start in Dallas.

The Spurs can still use the amnesty clause on him this summer.

The team seemed to discard and discount Anderson with last week’s decision, but Jefferson’s reversion makes the 22-year-old draftee a lot less expendable. Mistakes happen. Why can’t the team re-sign both him and Green?

Anderson’s game against Dallas should cause the pity parties to cease. He will not struggle to find gainful employment in July.

He will not need to beseech a front office to hire him. The offers, especially after Sunday’s performance on national television, will come. The Spurs, however, should not be above begging.

Avoiding another personnel miscue is worth getting down on one knee with clasped hands. Buford must hope, against the odds, that when Anderson sticks in the NBA, with a second multi-year contract, he does it in San Antonio.

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