LOS ANGELES – The San Antonio Spurs had wanted his old running mate, Vince Carter(notes), but the Orlando Magic made the offer that most intrigued the New Jersey Nets. So, the Spurs’ front office turned to the Milwaukee Bucks for younger legs and a modestly smaller contract, believers that Richard Jefferson(notes) could make a dramatic difference in their chase of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bucks wanted Jefferson out of there so badly, they took nothing but expiring contracts and washed-up vets. This wasn’t cost-cutting as much as cutting their losses. Bucks coach Scott Skiles had little use for Jefferson, found him to be a shell of his old self and was glad to move him. San Antonio didn’t need Jefferson to be a star, but they did need him to be a competent complement to their championship core.
And already, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has so little patience left for Jefferson. Already, he’s wondering how he’ll ever make him a Spur.
“They say that when they stop yelling at you, that’s when you have to be worried,” Jefferson said late Monday. “Well, he hasn’t stopped yelling at me yet.”
Here’s how long it took Popovich to explode over Jefferson on Monday night: One Lakers basket. Jefferson lost Ron Artest(notes) on a 3-pointer, and Popovich angrily sent a sub to the scorer’s table. Jefferson looks like the hitter squeezing the bat too tightly, bringing his bad at-bats out onto the field, where he makes more errors. It has started badly for him in San Antonio and only gotten worse.
No Kobe Bryant(notes), no Andrew Bynum(notes), and the Lakers still destroyed the Spurs 101-89. The Spurs believed the 29-year-old Jefferson would play an immense role in closing the gap with the Lakers, but never have they been so far away. After the summer, the Denver Nuggets privately believed they needed to make another move to elevate over the Spurs. Only, it hasn’t turned out that way. Denver has destroyed the Lakers – with and without Carmelo Anthony(notes) – and the Spurs are floundering in sixth place.
“We haven't developed a trust, a communication, a camaraderie as far as executing on the court,” Popovich said. “Which is strange for us. We’ve never had this situation.
“…For some reason, I’m not getting through to this group.”
No one has befuddled Popovich like Jefferson. The Spurs are dumbfounded about how to reach him, how to use him, how to get him to play fluid, mistake-free basketball. Jefferson missed nine of his 11 shots against the Lakers, wide-open jumpers that didn’t fall. He makes $14.2 million this season and $15 million next season. Only Tim Duncan(notes) makes more among these Spurs. Jefferson is the reason that owner Peter Holt was willing to push the payroll past $80 million and well into the luxury tax.
Jefferson isn’t turning into a final piece to chase the Lakers but a crippling, contractual albatross.
One mistake compounds the next, and Jefferson looks burdened, lost and alone. Scouts say “his confidence looks shot,” and that “he isn’t shooting the ball as much as guiding it.” Jefferson knows his lapses on defense are far more glaring when he can’t score.
“When I’m shooting the ball like this, it makes it hard for everyone to get their job done,” he said. “I’m not putting all the blame on me, but you have to look at yourself first.”
As much as anything, the Spurs have lost the identity that won them four championships in nine seasons, that toughness and tenacity which made them a nightmare to play. The Spurs don’t grind teams anymore. They’re one game away from the All-Star break and they’re no longer playing for seeding in the Western Conference; they’re trying to make the playoffs.
“I was in one situation for seven of eight years, and I’m the one who has to do most of the adjusting here,” Jefferson said. “Tony [Parker], Tim, Manu [Ginobili] are in their system. Keith Bogans(notes) comes here and he’s the defensive player that hits threes. [Antonio McDyess(notes)] picks and pops. I’m in a whole new system trying to find my way.
“But it’s not an excuse. I thought I would have played better by this point.”
Jefferson is smart and mature, and had a young career that benefited incredibly from Jason Kidd(notes) feeding him the ball and winning him a $78 million contract from the Nets. League sources say the Spurs have raised his name in trades talks but found out quickly there’s no market for him and his contract.
Together, Jefferson and the Spurs have to make this work. They have to find a way. The Spurs don’t want to bid on Amar’e Stoudemire(notes). They can’t pry Chris Bosh(notes) out of Toronto. Jefferson takes a long look around the NBA and still believes he has time to resurrect himself out of that trade-bust category. Duncan is getting older, and Ginobili isn’t so fleet, and it isn’t like the Spurs don’t have issues beyond him. Yet Jefferson understands he was brought here to be the hellacious young star who had grown fast in New Jersey, who went to the NBA Finals twice, who understood what it took to chase championships.
“Across the whole league, you’ve got a lot of guys going to different situations,” Jefferson said. “Vince in Orlando. Hedo [Turkoglu] in Toronto. Rasheed [Wallace] in Boston. All of them want to make an impact and it’s not happening everywhere.”
Those are all thirtysomething players closer to the end, and Jefferson doesn’t have that excuse. He knows that. So do the Spurs. For now, the Spurs and Jefferson are stuck with each other and need to find a way together. Afterward, Popovich had gone into the locker room and ripped into his players one more time, calling them “soft” and wondering how the hell they could be so mentally and physically obliterated without Kobe and Bynum on the floor.
The Spurs watch Jefferson jitter over 3-foot putts and miss hanging curves and wonder where in the world his game has gone. When asked about needing Jefferson, about the franchise needing to somehow get a return on this investment, Popovich simply said through gritted teeth: “That would be a great thing.”
The sarcasm suggested that Popovich had waited long enough, that these Spurs were running out of time for Jefferson, out of patience. Jefferson hadn’t come to the Spurs to be a savior but to make them relevant in the Western Conference again, to stand up to the champion Lakers. Jefferson had come to give Duncan and Ginobili one more shot at a title, one more run, but this has turned into a startling failure.
Yes, Gregg Popovich is still screaming at Jefferson, still trying to will something out of him. For how much longer, who knows? For now, the Spurs and Jefferson are stuck with each other. They’ve got to make this work, or perhaps Richard Jefferson turns out to be the last breath of San Antonio’s dynasty.