San Antonio Spurs Try to Rekindle Old Flame with Stephen Jackson

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San Antonio Spurs Try to Rekindle Old Flame with Stephen Jackson
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Richard Jefferson was gone anyway.

The Spurs and the ill-fitted, much-maligned small forward knew a divorce was imminent. R.C. Buford declined to use the team’s one-time amnesty provision on Jefferson when the market for potential replacements dried up faster than a puddle in the Sahara last December.

A concurrent offseason and training camp left front offices with precious little time to transform roll calls. Even if chasing Caron Butler and Josh Howard did not qualify as a roster overhaul, the plethora of suitors for capable swingmen forced the San Antonio brain trust to make a snap decision when it became clear both were heading elsewhere.

All that did was delay Jefferson’s Alamo City departure by a few months. The Spurs dealt him to the Golden State Warriors, along with retired point guard T.J. Ford’s expiring contract and a conditional first-round pick, for fan and Gregg Popovich favorite Stephen Jackson an hour before the NBA’s transaction deadline.

Buford began his expected praise of Jefferson on Thursday night by saying, “When you’ve been in the trenches with someone,” and that was the problem.

The Spurs saw how Jefferson responded when the playoff crossfire began, and his propensity to leave the battleground in a confused heap did not match his exorbitant, albatross contract.

Popovich and so many others envisioned him as the slasher capable of reinvigorating a comatose roster with inadequate firepower surrounding Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

I bought the franchise’s facile sales pitch then. I wrote this just after the Spurs dumped three expiring contracts to land Jefferson in June 2009.

“The financial drawback is small, though, when Jefferson’s abilities factor in to the equation.”

San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey concluded a blog post that day with this assessment.

“Jefferson won’t change the Spurs as Pau Gasol changed the Lakers. But the same dynamics are in place.”

How could this marriage fail?

No matter how much it did, Harvey and I delivered some salient predictions in the hours following the biggest talent exchange of the Duncan era.

Jefferson did help the Spurs “at least sweat into the second round.” He produced several impressive postseason outings in seventh-seeded San Antonio’s ouster of the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks.

Yet, the deficiencies often outweighed the advantages.

Harvey noted that Jefferson would make more money per season than Parker or Ginobili. That became a mammoth problem and a payroll eyesore.

What happened after the Spurs dispatched the Mavericks cemented how most will remember his several-year stay in Central Texas.

Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns, forever tormented by demoralizing and debilitating defeats at the hands of the Popovich-Duncan Spurs, vanquished their silver and black nemesis in a revealing sweep.

Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley labeled and derided San Antonio as “more athletic with fewer agitators.”

Bickley opined that the Spurs had become “soft.” Given the matchup’s one-sided recent history and how the Suns coasted to triple digits in the four victories, the insult fit.

No one should hang this stunted relationship all on Jefferson. The Spurs needed a $9 million man to do more than stand in the corners and wait for kickout passes to bag unmolested three-pointers.

He became a limited-scoring weapon because Popovich could not figure out another way to make him useful. Jefferson cut to the rim and dunked, as expected, through some of his first campaign, then began to deteriorate into the average defender and streaky shooter that will now get plenty of looks on a lottery team searching for a soul and an identity.

Spurs decision makers handed him a four-year, $39 million deal in July 2010 without guns pointed at them. The brass made him one of the league’s overpaid underachievers via an extravagant free-agency offer, when no one else competed to drive up his price.

If anything, impute Buford and Popovich for placing too much faith in this doomed experiment’s wistful hypothesis.

No one should rebuke Jefferson for last spring’s unceremonious first-round exit, either. He disappeared, as he often did in San Antonio, averaging a pathetic two points in the Final Four contests versus the Grizzlies, hiding from the fracas at the worst possible moments.

If the coaches ingested truth serum, wouldn’t they point to Mike Conley outdueling Tony Parker as more damning than a glorified role player continuing a career pattern?

For all that Jefferson did wrong here, he did so many things right.

He conducted himself in a professional manner despite knowing since that Grizzlies series, the Spurs wanted him gone. Credit him for retooling his jump shot and becoming such a lethal downtown marksman.

The Spurs won a lot of games with Jefferson but not enough of the elephantine ones.

His contract guarantees he will land on his feet in Golden State, even if his stint there mirrors his declining vertical.

Thursday’s swap represents the latest saucy move for a franchise often flouted as cloying and calculable.

Have these defamers never watched Parker and Ginobili in the open floor?

Jackson will collect $9 million and $10 million the next two seasons, but his salary comes off the books in 2013. The amnesty clause afforded Buford the same flexibility this summer, but Jackson edged Jefferson because of an edge his predecessor didn’t have.

Parker, speaking to reporters in Oklahoma City, called Jackson “crazy,” and Duncan described the mercurial guard-forward as “rough around the edges.”

They intended those assessments of Captain Jack as compliments. A franchise noted for its stability and level-headedness brought back its beloved lunatic to introduce the missing ingredient, chaos, to a tantalizing title recipe.

Who knows if it will work?

Can Duncan continue to experience 2003 flashbacks once the postseason commences? Can a squad with a 20-year-old rookie as its best perimeter defender schlep enough experience to a late April affray? Kawhi Leonard will log serious minutes this weekend chasing Kevin Durant and numerous Mavericks. Maybe Popovich will sic him, in short stretches, on Dirk Nowitzki.

Jackson cannot join the team until early next week, and it will take time to carve him a satisfactory role. After all, Danny Green and Gary Neal still need to play.

The biggest question mark of all remains Ginobili. The Spurs will sink again in the playoffs if the squad’s true captain is forced to abandon ship with another ailment.

A splash of Jack, though, will make the Spurs’ cocktail more potent. That signature barmy touch catapulted San Antonio to its second championship in 2003.

Buford is counting on that nostalgia and the rarity of this opportunity meaning more to Jackson than the stat sheet or the strip club.

His history as a ferocious competitor and a better-than-advertised teammate suggests he will cope with and thrive in whatever role Popovich assigns him.

When Jackson lambasted Bucks coach Scott Skiles earlier this season for benching him without explanation, the forward justified his denigration with condescension.

“I’m a grown man who’s probably done more than a lot of people in this locker room in this league, including coaches,” he said.

Jackson, despite once touting himself as the “anti-Spur,” responded to the influence of David Robinson and Duncan.

He would not dare blister Duncan, Parker of Ginobili in such a way. Those three mainstays and Popovich have solidified Hall of Fame resumes since the franchise and Jackson parted ways.

That next summer, in 2004, Ginobili carried Argentina to a gold medal in the Athens Olympics. Parker snatched Finals MVP honors in 2007 and guided France to an automatic London berth in 2011’s Eurobasket tournament.

San Antonio’s newest re-addition, no doubt, knows how to watch television. He has seen Parker’s MVP-level contributions from afar.

The Spurs rolled the dice Thursday that Jackson will do everything possible to make Parker’s 30-point outbursts matter.

They could have cited “irreconcilable differences” after splitting with Jefferson. No matter how much each side puckered up, no matter how much both parties engaged in the basketball equivalent of counseling, that holy matrimony was a holy mess.

The good girl brought home the bad boy nine years ago, and the consortium ended with confetti blanketing the SBC Center floor.

Yes, Jackson hits just 28 percent of his threes these days. He still takes enraging, head-scratching shots. Switching a 31-year-old consummate pro for a 33-year-old supposed malcontent carries some risk.

Except Popovich has never seen the latter guy that way. The coach demands toughness. Jackson espouses it. He tends to rise and embrace the moments where Jefferson shrunk.

Inviting a known head case back into the house often ends with a police standoff. The mechanics are in place for the Spurs to make sure no one has to call the SWAT team.

Popovich and Duncan became smitten with Jackson in the most inexplicable way.

Don’t ask why, but it works.

San Antonio added a compelling wrinkle to its pursuit of a fifth title.

Out with Jefferson, in with berserk.

If RJ was gone anyway, re-introducing the familiar fan favorite with a few screws loose prevents the recipe from becoming bland.

If this second fling with Jackson succeeds, though, it won’t be the Spurs who come unhinged.

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