Preview 09: Spotlight on Richard Jefferson

In every team’s existence there are moments that define the direction the team will head, a make-or-break point if you will. They come at pivotal moments in a franchise’s history. The Spurs had one of these pivotal moments this summer.

After losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, it was evident that the Spurs had some big decisions to make. If they kept the same roster they risked sinking further down the standings in the West. Changes need to be made.

Enter Richard Jefferson.

The Spurs, in typical Spurs fashion, kept their intentions well guarded, not allowing rumors to spread or speculation to start regarding any possible trades. Then on June 23 the Spurs traded Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto to the Milwaukee Bucks for Jefferson. All of a sudden the Spurs shed themselves of three players who didn’t figure into their plans for the season and acquired a small forward capable of scoring 20 points per game.

All of a sudden the Spurs announced to the rest of the league that they were not going to go down easily. The Jefferson trade was only the start of the Spurs most active summer in recent memory, one that solidified them as contenders for the next two seasons.

However, one look at Jefferson’s numbers reveal that he might not be the player he once was when he was one of the top small forwards in the league and was selected to represent the United States in the 2004 Olympics. While his scoring has remained around 20 points for the last two seasons, he has taken the more shots than in the past while his rebounding and assists have fallen. He is not the same player as back in 2005 when he averaged 22.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal. After experiencing ankle injuries, Jefferson has slipped a bit and at 29 is nearing the end of his prime basketball years.

This does not mean he will not be an effective contributor with the Spurs. In fact, Jefferson and the Spurs should be a great fit for each other.

A look at Jefferson’s numbers and his career reveal that Jefferson tends to play better when he is not the focal point of an offense. His best seasons came in 2004 and 2006 when he was with the New Jersey Nets. In 2004 his usage rate, which estimates the number of plays used by a player while on the floor, was lower than Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd’s. In 2006 he was well behind Vince Carter and barely ahead of Nenad Kristic. Last year, however, he was the Bucks main guy for most of the year with Michael Redd playing in only 33 games. While Charlie Villanueva had a higher usage rate than Jefferson, Jefferson took more shots per game and played almost 900 more minutes than Villanueva. Jefferson was the Bucks go to scorer and it did not suit his game.

Jefferson used to be known for his athleticism and ability to finish with emphatic dunks. He no longer has that same ability but he will still be the Spurs most athletic finisher and will slash better than Bruce Bowen or Michael Finley ever did as the Spurs small forwards. As his athleticism has slipped, Jefferson’s three-point stroke has improved significantly. When he was with the Nets, Jefferson never took more than 2.7 threes per game nor shot better than 36.4%. Last year he took 3.6 per game and made 39.7%. It’s encouraging that his best shooting year also came with increased volume, and he also gained a reputation for making corner threes. This will be a huge advantage for him because the Spurs love to put their small forward in the corner to spread the floor.

Jefferson also excels at getting to the free throw line, averaging 6.2 attempts per game for his career. For comparison sake, the only Spur to average over 6 attempts per game last year was Tim Duncan with 6.4. The Spurs took the least free throws per game of any team last year and this was a reflection of their age and reluctance to drive to the basket. Jefferson should be able to draw fouls and contribute from the line.

Offensively he should be able to fit right in. He won’t be asked to score 20 points per game, but spot up around the three point line, drive when he has the chance, and occasionally post up his man, a luxury the Spurs have not had at the small forward position in years.

The biggest question for Jefferson is whether he can guard the elite perimeter players in the league. While he used to be one of the better defenders in the league, he has slipped back towards merely average. I contribute this to a loss of athleticism and a lackadaisical attitude from playing with bad teams.

In the Spurs early preseason games Jefferson has seemed to focus on the defensive end of the court, which is an encouraging sign. He will definitely be an improvement over Michael Finley on that end but obviously will not be a Bowen-like defender. The most important thing for him to learn is the Spurs defensive philosophy and rotations. While their team defense has slipped in the past year or two as Duncan has become less mobile, they still have the best defensive coach in the league and strongest rotations, which can hide most individual defensive deficiencies.

While Jefferson is no longer the borderline All-Star that he once was, he should be a good fit for the Spurs. As the third or fourth option, Jefferson can concentrate on finding open spots on the floor and will not have to force his offensive game like he has over the past year or two. Also, this will allow him to dedicate himself more to the defensive end.