Friday, June 25, 2010

The (15-Million Dollar) Situation - Part 1

Reigning Black

For the past 20 years the small forward position has been a vital component for the San Antonio Spurs success. From Sean Elliott to Bruce Bowen, the Spurs have been fortunate having a versatile and reliable defender manning the small forward position. Luckily enough, these two players were also automatic riflemen from the perimeter (most specifically the short- corner 3) as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all garnered Wendy Peffercorn-like attention year after year; consequently leaving these two lethal unguarded snipers locked, loaded and ready to fire. Elliott and Bowen's ability to hit their mark enhanced the team's overall efficiency and resulted in a well-oiled offensive machine throughout their successful Spurs tenure.

Unfortunately, as the baton was relayed to Richard Jefferson a year ago, he wasn't the replacement part the Spurs thought they traded in for; which didn't allow the Spurs to shift into fifth-gear and cruise through the regular-season and playoffs to meet their lofty expectations.

When the Spurs acquired Jefferson they thought they had found a decent enough part. Jefferson was coming off a career year in Milwaukee where he shot an astounding 40-percent from the three in a whopping 292 attempts. So when that part didn't manage to fire correctly and allow the rest of the machine to thrive, the Spurs organization and fans alike were left scratching their collective heads.

At the same time, most analysts believed Jefferson's athletic ability would translate well on the defensive end, especially under the tutelage of one of the best defensive coaches in the game. This wasn't the case due to the kind of athlete Jefferson is: a straight-line athlete with significant leaping ability who lacks in the agility and lateral quickness found in the typical defensive stalwart. So after the disappointing year, many questions need to be addressed.
  • Can Jefferson overcome the disappointing season to help the Spurs in their quest for No. 5? If so, what must he improve on for this to happen?

  • If the Spurs front office doesn't believe he has the ability to improve the team's chances this upcoming season, is it best for him to opt out?

  • If opting out isn't the best option, and if the Spurs choose to hold on to him, when is the right time to start considering pulling the trigger on any potential trades? And what trade scenarios are realistic for both assumed parties involved in such a deal?

Here in Part 1 of The (15 Million Dollar) Situation, Reigning Black will dissect the different aspects Jefferson must improve on to help the Spurs in their quest for the elusive fifth Larry O'Brien (if the Spurs plan on holding on to him). Also in part 1, Reigning Black will shed some light into a scenario some fans have wished for: Jefferson testing free-agency.

Aspects Jefferson Must Improve On
  • Three Point Shooting (Specifically the Short-Corner 3)- With the Spurs having one of the best shooting guru's in Chip Engelland and with Jefferson proving to be a consistent, reliable long ball threat in 4 of his 9 NBA Seasons, there's optimism that Jefferson can improve his three-point shooting.

    This aspect is vital for the overall offensive efficiency of the Spurs, due to the spacing needed for the all-so-important pick-and-roll game of Parker and Ginobili. The more respectable Jefferson becomes at the three, the more room Parker and Ginobili have to create for themselves and others -- and the more attacking opportunities Jefferson finds off the dribble from wider lanes as the result of a shifting defense. Consequently, this should improve Jefferson's free-throw attempts as it will be easier to penetrate from one or two hard dribbles.

    This past year Jefferson's confidence in his long ball took a nose dive and teams were able to defend the Spurs' pick-and-roll more effectively. Jefferson's defender was able to sag off of him, which put him closer to the pick-and-roll action and at a more advantageous position to disrupt the play. Having Jefferson rediscover the three-point facet of his game could not only improve his productivity from the field and at the line, but also improve the efficiency of everyone else's game from the increased amount of spacing.
  • Overall Activity on the Defensive End - The attention to fine detail and being disciplined in the defensive assignments is what could make Jefferson's defense acceptable (even if he has defensive liabilities guarding quicker wings due to his sub-par lateral quickness and agility). Even though his defense and overall activity made some strides towards the end of the year, it wasn't consistent enough. He needs to be able to develop a consistent mental foundation on the defensive end of the court to allow him to play with a confident aggression. Last year, the only times he seemed to be honed in on the defensive end, were when he was being productive on the offensive end. That needs to change, as his defense needs to be a common denominator in his overall floor game.

    The last thing that should be mentioned is conditioning. Dropping a few pounds and getting into the best shape of his life could improve his defensive ability. Being in better shape and lighter on his feet should enhance his lateral quickness and agility to be able to guard quicker wings (to some extent). And with Jefferson being in the all-important contract year, Jefferson should be focused on putting his best foot forward. A lighter one.

The Opt-Out

If Jefferson decides to opt-out, the Spurs will be left in a vulnerable position from a talent standpoint. Even if the Spurs freed up the 15.2 million dollars owed to Jefferson next year with him opting-out, the Spurs would still be handcuffed in making additions with just the mid-level exception (roughly 5.8 million). With the assumed successful pursuit of the CBA MVP (and Finals MVP), Tiago Splitter, a player surely to command all or most of the mid-level exception, the Spurs would then be left with a gaping whole at the small forward position -- leaving limited resources to accommodate this vital need.

The real question is, which scenario would be more beneficial to the Spurs: Richard Jefferson and rookie James Anderson providing the minutes at the small forward position; or rookie James Anderson and a veteran- minimum player who's best days are behind him (Damien Wilkins, James Jones and alike)?

From a talent standpoint, the Spurs lose if Jefferson were to decide to opt-out. In the event the Spurs need to acquire a final piece in a trade to challenge for the NBA's crown.

For all his warts and for as cumbersome and less ideal as his salary might be, an opt-out from Jefferson could lead to a crap-out on the Spurs' "all-in" bet.

In Part 2, Reigning Black will address the possibility of getting a line of credit extended. How much is in their control; what are their options; and just how much is riding on Richard Jefferson being the next in a long line of Spurs players to figure it out in their second year.

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