Saturday, August 21, 2010

Richard Jefferson: In Focus

Reigning Black

A lot can change in a year.

A lot.

Relationships, jobs, finances -- for better or worse -- and even your outlook on some of the most significant and insignificant things in life, change is inherent all around us. What's here today is gone tomorrow; absence often makes the heart grow fonder.

Often -- exceptions abound.

When Richard Jefferson exercised an opt-out to forgo a $15.2 million salary in his final year, relief and good fortune seemed to rule the day. The Spurs were viewed as being "let off the hook," no longer an albatross or hindrance weighing them down or holding them back. The Spurs had been given a mulligan, a second chance. This time it was with Jefferson's departure -- last year it was upon arrival.

Needless to say, roughly three weeks after Jefferson decided to opt out, the celebration of R.J.'s resigning was muted, if even existent. Jefferson has his fans, and the team signing his checks are among them, but to some it signified a death knell of sorts. An end to championship aspiration. The Spurs -- as we've come to know them -- were done; Riverwalk parades reserved for a distant memory.

Things are generally never as or bad or good as they may seem, so in order to move forward and digest all that really happened -- and why what happened did happen -- it's best to look at the facts as we know them. Paint the picture, step away from the canvas, then critique the work.

Painting The Picture

After downing the Mavs in six games, the Spurs met their match in the Western Conference semi-finals. Phoenix was clicking on all cylinders and presented a matchup the Spurs simply couldn't match-up with. The Spurs lacked 3-point shooting, bench production and the necessary defensive mobility on the perimeter. No longer was Bowen available to pester and disrupt Nash and the Suns' offense; no longer was Duncan able control the paint on both ends. The Spurs' season would abruptly come to an end with a sweep (0-4). An uneven ending to a frustratingly uneven year.

Entering the summer the Spurs weren't looking to a free-agent class that had fans, pundits and front office-types clamoring for years. James, Wade and Bosh -- among others -- were never believed destined to don the Black and Silver. The Spurs saw a buyer's market and a deal to be made, so they acquired their "free-agent" a year early. The Spurs would send the cap-friendly contracts of Bowen, Thomas and Oberto for the high-priced star talent of Richard Jefferson; a small forward out of Arizona they hoped could replicate his predecessor's success. The Spurs threw-in with Jefferson, McDyess and their "ass-kicking 4" (Blair), whom they stole with the 37th pick in the NBA Draft.

Stepping Away From The Canvas

It's hard to believe that was the finished product they envisioned. The Spurs paid for brand name merchandise only to find out they were paying for the box, packaging. Jefferson looked like his wings had been clipped and his game had been stolen. Thinking, thinking, he was always thinking (except when he wasn't involved in the play, then you couldn't help but envision a little boy playing on a youth soccer team -- distracted with the surroundings blowing the seeds off dandelions). He just couldn't find a way out of his own head. Trying to please those around him. Trying to live up to a contract that had expectations -- for some -- unreasonably and impossibly high. Jefferson wasn't a $15 million dollar player, certainly not in the Spurs' system. He knew that, even if he couldn't reconcile with that fact long enough to have it not affect his game.

But the Spurs were able to acquire Jefferson because of his contract and the $29.4 million remaining. Had his game been worthy of the price tag, he never would have been an option for the Spurs. For all intents and purposes, the decision came down to Jefferson or Carter. They went with Jefferson: shorter contract and -- more importantly -- it wouldn't cost them of Hill.

The saving grace for those less than enamored with Jefferson -- before or after seeing how the season played out -- was his $15.2 million expiring contract. If all else failed, the Spurs would have the means to really improve their team. A very attractive contract for the mere fact of its amount and the time in which it expired -- the same time as the CBA. But it was not to be. And depending on where you stand on the "prearranged deal" notion, the Spurs wouldn't allow it to be.

The Spurs guaranteed a contract worth up to $40 million when all is said and done (possible incentives being met), hitching their wagon to Jefferson for another four years. A player that seemed so ill-fitted, so underwhelming, so anything but right. This is what earns a player long-term financial security? Unfortunately, a market can't be predetermined and a player's production doesn't always find correlation with his contract's worth.

Critiquing The Work

Bass ackwards as it may seem, there is a method to the madness. Jefferson's resigning shouldn't be looked upon as a poor move, simply what needed to be done. The Spurs possessed neither the players nor the financial flexibility to address their needs and field a team talented enough to compete for a championship. And as hard is it is for Jefferson's detractors to reconcile with -- even if the team's improvement only turns out to be marginal with his presence -- this team's better off with him than without -- sometimes better off just isn't good enough. (I suppose that goes for both the team and its fans.) The Spurs may still have a ways to go before they can truly be considered amongst the elite once again, and it may even be premature to call the Spurs a contender in the truest sense of the word: a threat to the throne, not a tough out. But when it's time to critique and scrutinize the work -- after all the facts and probabilities are laid out -- you begin to see a good effort, even if not a great result.

The Spurs were at a crossroads in 2009 after bowing out to the Mavericks in five games. Their franchise's foundation was struggling with his own and their team's heart and soul (Ginobili) watched from the sidelines -- the Spurs' front office wondered if he could ever regain form. Tony Parker was coming off a career year, but that didn't help to offer much solace. The Spurs had officially bled the turnip dry. The Spurs didn't just need help, they needed horses.

It was from that perspective that would put forth a challenge from coach to owner. It was from that same perspective that the owner would "pony up," per his coach's challenge. The Spurs had assessed the market during the year -- flirting with both Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson -- and assessed the market after; they assessed the 2010 market and their probability of landing one of the heralded marquee free agents. They asked themselves if not now, when? Could they really let another year pass by (while Duncan's knees bore another 82-game regular season and a potential playoff) for the all-so-unlikely probability of landing a franchise saving player the following year? Their answer was a resounding "no."

So the Spurs revisited the Jefferson inquiries. They weighed the options and asked themselves all the necessary questions: Can we do any better, now or next year? Can we make this work financially; is the owner on board and do we have the belief he should be? Can we really afford to not make this move?

Could they do any better, now or next year?

Given the prescience to know Ron Artest would be on his way to L.A. and Trevor Ariza would have been available to them for the Mid-Level exception, they probably could have done better. Had the Warriors been willing to trade the Spurs their former player and championship teammate, Stephen Jackson, the Spurs likely would have been better -- but trades need a willing partner and Golden State wasn't keen to the idea of pleasing their disgruntled star. Had certain things been known or revealed at the time the Spurs needed to make a decision, they might find themselves in a better position. Had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh decided to come don themselves some spurs, the Spurs would've been much better off -- which is to say, they had no reason to believe in such a scenario. It's a hard decision to fault.

Could they make it work financially?

This, as it turns out, was actually one of their easier questions to answer. While the Spurs weren't hemorrhaging money or looking to file a Chapter 11, they were feeling the effects of an economic downturn and a first-round exit -- by July 6, 2009, season-ticket renewals had fallen 11% from the year prior. Holt knew he was going to have to spend money to make money, he knew his fan base needed a reason to believe once again. Jefferson represented an infusion of talent and athleticism, which could only help to bring some enthusiasm back to the program. And with the team's share of debt on the AT&T Center's construction being paid down, a new regional TV contract and the tax rebate from the league, "The timing was positive," as Holt would say. A rise in the team's payroll could be somewhat offset.

The resigning has to be looked at in terms of the talent added to the 2009 base and the additional money spent. Jefferson's would-be $15.2 million was more than enough to re-sign both he and Bonner, and it allowed the Spurs to finally bring Splitter aboard. For essentially the same price, the Spurs have added Jefferson, McDyess, Blair, Splitter and Anderson -- along with Neal, Temple and Gee -- to the talent base of '09. And with the "refinancing" of Jefferson, the Spurs will only be spending $14-15 million dollars more on Jefferson's final 3 years (and $14-15 million over 3 years for Jefferson seems much more palatable).

Could they really afford not to make the move, the initial trade and the eventual resigning?

The answer to the former -- in hindsight -- would seem to be "yes." But hindsight is critiquing the result and not the decision; when clairvoyance enters the equation you've lost touch with the mission statement: judging the work on its merits. The Spurs were looking at a 2-year window with limited options available (i.e., players that could legitimately bring their talent back to a championship level). Passing on a player like Jefferson would have been easier had Duncan not been nearing the end to his legendary career, but it was not the case. And given the likelihood of finding a player capable of replacing Duncan as the team's championship centerpiece or bringing the requisite talent to compliment the Big 3 in all the right areas -- right off the bat and in their first year or half-year with the team (should they have dealt Jefferson at the trade deadline) -- the trade and resigning only becomes more understandable in hindsight; the time then was "now," and now had to be the decision from "then" -- they were too far down the road to start once again.

Looking back, the trade for Jefferson really was an "all-in." But it wasn't only for the departure in fiscal restraint but because of the meter that was running -- or more appropriately, Duncan's odometer. And that's what this has always been about for the Spurs: Duncan's window and fielding a team talented enough to compete for championships during that time.

Spurs fans know it takes more than talent to get the job done, but talent at least gives you a shot. And given Popovich's familiarity with Jefferson from the '04 Olympics -- as a player and person -- the Spurs simply saw the best option available to end the Duncan era the way all involved wish they would: champions.

In the end, and in the final analysis of Jefferson's acquisition and resigning, the Spurs look to have put their best possible foot forward. The Spurs are now left to bank on the internal growth of Hill and the talent they've added since 2009, the overall "corporate knowledge" cultivated in that time, and that the Big 3 still have enough gas left in the tank. It may be less-than-ideal or not-quite-enough, but they did about as much as they could.

They made chicken salad. And in some cases ... there's no finer art.