Richard Jefferson's Second Chance in San Antonio Makes Sense

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Richard Jefferson's Second Chance in San Antonio Makes Sense
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Richard Jefferson and the San Antonio Spurs will dance again.

This time, he will take the floor with a fresh start in his sights. He will waltz and jive against a backdrop of lower, more accurate expectations.

Experience and a more palatable contract should alleviate the city-and organization-wide frustration caused by his 2009-2010 underachievement.

Maybe he wanted to avoid being a free agent during a lockout and opted out for the above reasons.

The San Antonio Express-News reported Tuesday that Jefferson will sign a new long-term deal today. Mike Monroe's story did not include specific terms. Previous reports suggested three to five years and a price tag of $30 to $45 million.

The money doesn't matter much anymore, and that should make the athletic forward and Spurs fans rejoice.

Those who wanted Jefferson gone did not understand how his departure would have cursed the squad's championship chances more than his imagined despondency.

The Spurs' payroll far exceeded the salary cap and luxury tax threshold. Majority Owner Peter Holt forked up more than $80 million last year for his 50-win team.

That exorbitant roster roll call left R.C. Buford with the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions to use on two-time Spanish league MVP Tiago Splitter, draft pick James Anderson, and perhaps another wing player.

In simpler terms, the Spurs had $7 million to work with not enough to pay Splitter, Anderson, and find a replacement for Jefferson.

Some said a post-haste exit by No. 24 would give Buford some necessary wiggle room. How can a team have wiggle room without cap space?

The Spurs can sign Jefferson by claiming his Bird Rights. Factor in Splitter's ultra-reasonable starting salary of $3 million, and they now have $4 million more to spend if they feel the urge to chase another insurance big man or a reserve small forward.

Had Jefferson defected, Buford's free agent options would have been limited. In case you haven't noticed, the small forward market dried up almost the minute it opened.

Paul Pierce, whom the Spurs could not afford, re-signed with the Boston Celtics. LeBron James, in a little-known secret, decided to take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.

Since those dominoes fell, Spurs' targets James Jones, Wesley Matthews, Raja Bell, and Matt Barnes have all signed with Miami, Portland, Utah, and Toronto, respectively.

Those who hated Jefferson's $14 million salary last year would have demonized Buford for handing Matthews an undrafted rookie who cracked Jerry Sloan's rotation and even started in the playoffs a $55 million deal.

That eye-popping signing makes something clear: small forwards often get overpaid. It happens. Deal with it.

Jones, a much more limited role player than Jefferson, agreed to a $1 million minimum deal. He will recoup much of the money and ego he surrendered by playing alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.

Bell told the Salt Lake Tribune that he didn't want to win a ring as someone "just along for the ride." He would have embodied that backseat role with the Spurs or Lakers.

Barnes' motivations for heading to the woeful Raptors are less clear. The Spurs should remain thankful he did not leave the Orlando Magic for a Western Conference rival.

Everything I have said about this summer for two years proved true.

The most heralded free agency class in sports history boasted two franchise players and a borderline franchise big man. All three joined the same team. Blame it on Pat Riley.

The Spurs traded three aging bit players for Jefferson's mammoth contract last June, and one NBA columnist said they had mortgaged the chance to sign someone special come July 1. James, Wade, and Bosh are special.

No one else approaches that level. Not Amar'e Stoudemire. Not Carlos Boozer.

Sure, they could have given $20 million to Darko Milicic or more than $30 million to Amir Johnson. The front office folks may make mistakes like the rest of us, but they do not enjoy behind-the-scenes crack habits.

They do not pass LSD or stale weed around the office when the commish isn't looking. David Stern would know. He sees everything, even if he looks the other way at convenient (or not so convenient) moments.

A "special" player was never going to come here via free agency.

Bosh, it now seems, was destined to join his Olympic teammates from the start. Stoudemire is the anti-Spur, and Buford could not afford and did not want Boozer's defenselessness.

The Jefferson exchange makes even more sense now. His half-priced paycheck could push the Spurs below the luxury tax threshold. His salary will now better match his production.

I was among his harshest critics. Peruse my archives to read the vitriol. I also realized the Spurs were not going to find a better fit in the open market. With the burden of his contract no longer weighing him down, he should feel more comfortable and play better in one of the league's most complicated two-way systems.

NBA observers were wrong to peg him as a franchise savior. He had never worn a substantial beard or turned water into wine. As the sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns showed, the Spurs needed another seven-footer as much as Jefferson.

One small forward, even a disappointing one, did not cause a four-win regular season decline or a shocking second-round showing.

San Antonio may have found that "special" player in Splitter. Pair the Brazilian Banger with an angry Tony Parker, determined to return to All-Star and All-NBA form, and Tim Duncan, a healthy Manu Ginobili, Jefferson, Antonio McDyess, and others, and you might just concoct a title recipe. Nothing comes guaranteed in the pros.

Youngsters George Hill and Dejuan Blair will improve, Malik Hairston could finally crack the regular rotation, and Anderson figures to get a shot to play some minutes at the two.

The absurd expectations from one year ago left everyone from Gregg Popovich to Jefferson to loyal fans unsettled. Not every new acquisition fits as quickly or as seamlessly as Pau Gasol.

That was a mirage, a feat rarely accomplished in any pro sport.

The Spurs should have known that an open court finisher might struggle on a team that emphasizes half-court sets. The dream that Jefferson might add another wrinkle to the offense, though, was not as unfulfilled as some think.

His 12-point average was the lowest of his career. The Spurs also last received that caliber of scoring production from a small forward when Sean Elliott wore silver and black. Maybe more people should allow that fact to soak in before rendering merciless judgments.

He will never average 17-plus points in San Antonio, and he does not need to do so.

Popovich wanted an upgrade over Michael Finley and got one. Trevor Ariza was not available when the Spurs dealt for Jefferson. No other potential fit was, either. Do not get me started on Corey Maggette.

The hype surrounding the Spurs' offseason pales in comparison to this time last year, when most in the know deified the front office. The tempered expectations should also be seen as great news.

Popovich never wanted the hype or suggestions that his roster had become "a lock to make the NBA Finals." The Spurs do not operate that way.

Buford did not trade for Jefferson so people would anoint him the greatest GM ever. He saw the move as a way to extend Tim Duncan's title window.

The post-transaction positives often get lost in the shuffle.

The Spurs jumped from the bottom 10 in points in the paint to top five. They vanquished their cross-state tormentors from 2006 and 2009 in six games.

The Phoenix Suns represented a fluke bad matchup, not an accurate barometer of how far San Antonio is from contention.

If the teams meet again, with Stoudemire now in New York, does anyone expect the Suns to make at least 15 treys in two out of four playoff games?

Parker will be back to his old tricks, the ones that confounded Steve Nash and former coach Mike D'Antoni. Splitter will give Jared Dudley and Channing Frye something more to think about. They will not abuse Duncan in pick-and-rolls as easily.

My B/R colleague Hadarii Jones wrote a few weeks ago about the Los Angeles Lakers' rare chemistry and experience. The Spurs three best players have that in spades.

What situation has the trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili not faced? Jefferson's resume still boasts two Finals trips, and McDyess remains as hungry as ever for that elusive championship.

Those who doubt the extended Jefferson experiment can work should remember how many in L.A. viewed Ron Artest six weeks ago. Some Lakers fans wondered then if his off-the-mark shooting and wacky ways would cost the team its repeat bid.

He saved a game he almost caused the Lakers to lose with a right-place, right-time put-back. L.A. beat Phoenix in Game Five and then closed out the Western Conference Finals a few nights later at U.S. Airways Center.

What would people say about Artest sans that tip-in, if the lasting memory of that game was his ill-advised three-point heave a minute earlier with a full shot clock?

He locked down Paul Pierce for most of the Finals and harangued Kevin Durant in a tense first-round joust with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Selective memory is an amazing thing. Lakers fans do not need to rue those what-the-hell-were-you-thinking moments because their team won it all. Winning cures a lot of ills.

How many of you have already forgotten Christmas Day, when James torched and embarrassed Artest on national TV? How many of you have forgotten the two-month stretch where Artest was shooting in the high 20s and low 30s? Or his two-for-nine Finals disasterpiece?

The Lakers won with Artest because he did not define them. The wealth of talent allowed his wonderful moments to become huge pluses and his frequent struggles to become blips on a distant radar screen.

If L.A. can win with Artest not really mastering the triangle offense, the Spurs can win with Jefferson.

Just as Artest's former critics have erased his rotten displays from their minds, maybe Jefferson's detractors have done the same with his brilliant moments.

He does not have to define the Spurs. The team's most important win this spring was Game Two against the Dallas Mavericks, and Jefferson scored 19 points that night. He set the tone. He bombarded the rim.

The Spurs would not have comeback from an 0-2 deficit. Some will argue that Popovich had to cleverly snipe at Jefferson after his Game One clunker ("I thought we had a lot of guys who played like dogs") to get him to play with gusto. Sometimes, that may come with the territory.

If the Spurs can get primo production from Jefferson two times, maybe three, in a series, that should be enough. Duncan's numbers will continue to teeter between MVP-caliber and washed up, and Ginobili will have more off nights than ever before.

The roster is strong and talented enough to make up for those developments. The Spurs need to win now, with Duncan's presumed 2012 retirement fast approaching.

Buford should worry about what Jefferson's new contract and a Parker extension will do to future payrolls later. He needs to worry about now. All the Spurs have is now.

When the time to rebuild arrives, the team will already employ more than respectable young building blocks.

Anderson, I think, can play. Hill can play. Blair can play. Splitter, I think, can play. Ditto for Hairston, Alonzo Gee, and maybe down the line, James Gist.

The post-Duncan Spurs will not win 50 games or make routine playoff appearances in the first few years, but they will compete. Save that talk, though, for 2012, or 2011, if a lockout ends Duncan's career.

Buford has one thing left to do. He must get Parker to the bargaining table this year and hand him the extension he has earned. Maybe that will cause those damn Knicks to stop calling.

No, Mr. Walsh, the Spurs have zero interest in Eddy Curry. There are plenty of fat people who can't jump high in San Antonio already. I know a guy at a legendary Tex-Mex eatery who could clog the middle and everyone else's arteries for a lot less money.

Better yet, I could tackle the task.

The Big Three should remain in San Antonio until Duncan exits. If this core cannot win four playoff rounds, no other combination Buford might assemble on the fly will, either.

Jefferson will soon ink a deal that makes his marriage with San Antonio more sensible and tolerable. It just makes sense.

The Spurs should sigh in relief that he did not leave them at the altar.

That divorce, unlike the one with his handsomely paid ex-fiance, would have been more difficult to overcome than you think.

 

Update: Matt Barnes' deal with the Raptors fell through. Scratch what I wrote above. The Spurs do not appear to be among the teams he is now considering, according to a report from TNT's David Aldridge.

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