Before Stephen Jackson had entered his prime and earned a reputation as one of the league's most lethal scorers, he turned heads as a surprise postseason hero for none other than the San Antonio Spurs.
In a key Game 6 victory against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2003 Western Conference Finals, Jackson led the Spurs to a comeback victory with 24 points and facilitated a dominating 34-9 fourth-quarter shellacking. The young Jackson topped 20 points six times in that postseason, helping San Antonio claim its second NBA championship.
The player San Antonio acquired just prior to Thursday's trade deadline may be just past his prime, but there are a number of reasons to like this move from the Spurs' standpoint. Despite some hasty criticism based upon a limited assessment of Jackson's stint with Milwaukee, this was a deal San Antonio absolutely had to do.
Premature worries abound when it comes to Jackson. Some will suggest he's a detriment to chemistry (a charge that can't be taken lightly in the context of a team that so cherishes its institutional knowledge). Not so. Jackson respects the Spurs, and if Tim Duncan's assessment of his once and future teammate is any indication, the Spurs respect him as well.
Having had a previous stint in San Antonio, Jackson will also benefit from familiarity with a complex system that has taken some players (including Richard Jefferson) multiple seasons to internalize. With so few games remaining in the shortened season, this kind of deal is nothing short of genius. While other teams may struggle to incorporate new pieces in limited time, Coach Popovich will have a head start with Jackson.
Some will also suggest that Stephen Jackson is a shell of his former self. While his best days may be behind him, one need only examine the last two seasons to discern a sample size of production worth actually mentioning. In his two seasons with Charlotte, Jackson averaged 21.1 and 18.5 points respectively. He also played big minutes (39.3 and 35.9 per game). The rebounds, assists and steals—they were still there too.
Will the Stephen Jackson acquisition make San Antonio better?
Over the course of the seven seasons previous to his tenure with the Bobcats, Jackson was nothing if not incredibly consistent. If anything, his production has trended upward toward the latter half of his career.
Jackson never had a fair shake in Milwaukee. He wouldn't be the first player to butt heads with Scott Skiles, and it's hard to imagine he'll have the same hardship while pursuing a championship under Popovich.
Of course, Jackson didn't come for free. But, the costs were anything but exorbitant.
The Spurs will lose a first-round pick that holds little significance for a team stocked with young talent. San Antonio also has a number of young assets stockpiled overseas. Another pick isn't going to be the difference for this team.
Meanwhile, ending the Richard Jefferson experiment was bound to happen sooner or later. Yes, Jefferson had become a more than consistent three-point shooter, but at the end of the day he was still one-dimensional. When defenders managed to close out on him, Jefferson looked helpless to create his own shot.
Jackson is an upgrade over Jefferson is almost every respect (save perhaps the long-range efficiency). He's bigger, more athletic (even at 33) and a better-than-average wing defender. His offensive abilities are significantly more versatile. Jackson has proven to be adept at shooting both long- and mid-range jumpers, and he's far more willing to drive and—most importantly—finish.
Even Jefferson's biggest fans will have to admit the small forward has lost his first step and was rarely if ever explosive in the paint. Too often, he simply disappeared in the games in which he was needed most.
Perhaps most importantly, Jackson brings a competitive edge to a team that will be fighting for its life against elite contenders like the Lakers, Thunder and Bulls. In 2003, Stephen Jackson began changing the image of a team once labeled "soft."
Nine years later, Jackson will have an opportunity to restore his own image with a club that has a way of making guys look good. If he succeeds—even in part—Jackson may not be the only thing this team has in common with the 2003 Spurs.