Richard Jefferson's Wake Up Call Starts with Spurs' Deadline Silence
DeJuan Blair spotted George Hill running down the court and tried to thread him a pass for an easy layup. Instead, as Sean Elliott would say, Blair "put jet fuel" on the ball and threw it the length of the court and into the first row.
Tim Duncan put his face in his hands and shook it violently. The Spurs were losing 74-68 at the start of the fourth quarter to the Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum-less L.A. Lakers, about to collapse for the second time in four tries on their annual Rodeo Road Trip.
Another image after the botched pass that night at Staples Center summarizes the Spurs' season-long struggles.
Richard Jefferson stood and watched Blair's failed connection with Hill. He was listless, invisible, and more than a convenient scapegoat in the Spurs' eventual 101-89 loss.
"He looks lost," TNT analyst Doug Collins said of Jefferson earlier in the telecast.
The centerpiece of San Antonio's expensive offseason finished two-for-nine from the field with four fouls and no clue.
The Spurs front office traded for Jefferson and the $29 million remaining on his contract last summer to infuse an aging roster with scoring and athleticism.
The forward's tenure in the Alamo City, however, has been more of an exercise in frustration and headache prevention than a return to championship contention.
The Spurs have struggled to beat winning teams. Now, they cannot even beat the sub-.500 ones.
For the first time since the last championship season, the squad finished with a .500 record on its rodeo sojourn. This time, however, the teams sits just eight games above .500, good for seventh in the Western Conference.
In 2007, the Spurs had all but locked up third place behind the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. Brandon Roy was learning the NBA ropes in his rookie campaign, Chauncey Billups still started for the Detroit Pistons, Pau Gasol floundered in Memphis, and Steve Nash was the West's highest profile guard.
Carmelo Anthony was still a brat, and the Utah Jazz would never have rallied from a 25-point deficit at the Rose Garden. The NBA Finals remained a dream for LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Paul Pierce did start for the Boston Celtics, but All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen would not arrive until that summer.
The good news: San Antonio is the only team in the association without a blowout defeat on its resume. The Spurs have been in every fourth quarter they have played.
The bad news should be obvious.
Roger Mason missed a great look at a three that would have given the Spurs a one-point lead at home with three minutes left against the Nuggets. Denver won the contest, the sour precursor to the rodeo trip, by 14 points.
The Spurs had a chance—defense and offense willing—to beat the shorthanded Lakers with four minutes left.
They led the frightful Sixers by five after three quarters before a 23-4 run doomed them.
Sunday night marked the worst loss yet. Then, with the Detroit leading by 11 late in the fourth quarter, Gregg Popovich instructed his players to hack Ben Wallace. He missed five-of-eight free throws and opened the door for a comeback. Manu Ginobili took advantage and went ballistic on the Pistons, evoking memories of 2005.
Ginobili forced overtime with a twisting layup and swooshed a technical free throw to give San Antonio a rare lead before the start of the extra minutes.
As they so often have in winning time, the Spurs fell apart and lost 109-101.
Jefferson was not the only problem, but he was the biggest. He scored eight points and made one-of-five shots, playing 30 of the worst minutes of his professional career.
Antonio McDyess, the team's other heralded offseason acquisition, scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked a shot. The Spurs insist no one in the organization offered McDyess to anyone at the trade deadline, and the veteran's recent uptick in production shows why.
Jefferson can thank his bloated contract and bankrupt play. No one wanted him last week, including the Spurs.
San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey began a recent piece with a line that says as much.
"The Spurs made a mistake, and they know it. They have been shopping Richard Jefferson, even calling the same teams twice."
Yahoo! Sports NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski reported several times in the last month that the Spurs were looking to deal Jefferson.
The trade deadline passed Thursday, and all R.C. Buford did was donate Theo Ratliff to the Charlotte Bobcats.
Jefferson is too intelligent to be surprised and too professional to be insulted.
In a season rife with disappointment, he has been the culprit.
Duncan left nearly $11 million on the table so Buford and Popovich could pursue championship-level players in his twilight.
A first-round loss to the Mavericks spurred the franchise's brain trust into action.
Jefferson was supposed to provide that championship-level assistance. After months of watching him struggle, one thing is clear.
He can still do everything Popovich coveted in June. He can still fly, play belligerent defense, and get to the foul line.
Why Jefferson has failed to do these things with consistency remains a mystery.
Many scouts insist they see slippage, but he hasn't lost a step. He's lost his mind and his will to win.
Impalpable and impotent, Jefferson is no longer playing to help the Spurs win a title.
He must save himself. His dignity and reputation require repair. He also owes it to Duncan.
Buford also pursued Vince Carter, but the 33-year-old guard might have been a worse choice. Stan Van Gundy sat Carter in numerous fourth quarters in January, while he was averaging a career-low nine points for the month and shooting in the 20s.
Jefferson has teased.
Early in November, with Duncan and Tony Parker sidelined, Jefferson erupted for 29 points in a win over the full-strength Mavs. His stellar night included three highlight-reel jams and suffocating defense.
On Dec. 3, he guarded Pierce in a home loss to the Celtics. Pierce made two-of-nine shots.
However, one game-winner aside, he owns few memorable fourth-quarter moments and none against contenders.
The Portland Trail Blazers and Jazz swept the Spurs away for the first time in Duncan's career. Jefferson was horrible in five of those seven letdowns.
Duncan did not leave money on the table for this.
Parker has an excuse. Plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, and a recent hip flexor have limited his explosiveness.
Ginobili looks like his old self more than ever, and Blair is doing all that can be expected of an undersized rookie.
Hill, one of the league's most improved players, developed an outside shot and delivers at least one scintillating drive to the cup per game.
Jefferson? Instead of attacking Gasol at the chest and drawing fouls or forcing Anthony to defend, he has done a lot of standing around.
He looks lost, and Popovich has tried everything, including bringing him off the bench, to ignite the necessary spark.
The coach has all but run out of matches.
From deferential to near hopeless, Jefferson needs to demand the ball. His teammates could use a few pointers on where he likes it.
Maybe then, this experiment wouldn't seem like a constant rubbing together of twigs to make fire.
The Spurs did not succeed in executing a deal for an impact player last week. Popovich, though, already collaborated with Buford on a blockbuster deal and he has 28 games to turn it from a flop to a box office smash.
On the court, Jefferson often disappears. His contract, much to the Spurs chagrin, will not do the same.
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