With Experience and Security, Richard Jefferson Shines for Spurs
Richard Jefferson had said late last season he might opt out of his lucrative contract and become a free agent. But many believed the likelihood of that was the same as Tim Duncan starring in a rap video.
Well, the only San Antonio Spur appearing in a rap video lately has been DeJuan Blair in P.O.P.'s "2 Hard Living.'' But Jefferson did opt of a contract that would have paid him $15 million this season for the Spurs, and it looks to be a move that has benefited both sides.
The small forward re-signed with the Spurs, getting a four-year, $39 million deal. And he's been one reason San Antonio why has an NBA-best 27-4 record.
It all started when Jefferson said in an interview last April with FanHouse he might opt out of his deal because he wanted long-term security and sought to avoid being a free agent in the summer of 2011, when the NBA might have a lockout. It sounded reasonable except that Jefferson was putting the finishing touches on a shaky first season with the Spurs, one in which his scoring average of 12.3 was the lowest since his rookie season of 2001-02.
Jefferson opted out at the June 30 deadline and eventually re-signed for a deal worth about the same as the four-year, $40 million he had speculated about getting in April. It all sounded a bit fishy since the Spurs saved $6.6 million this season by paying Jefferson $8.4 million, which translates to $13.2 million in savings when one considers the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax.
Jefferson said there was no pre-arranged deal. But he had a pretty good idea the Spurs wanted to keep him despite his off year.
"We hadn't discussed (a new contract) before, but they understood my struggles last year weren't for a lack of effort,'' Jefferson said in an interview with FanHouse. "I think they appreciated my work ethic and my professionalism. I never complained that I wasn't starting (for stretches when he was brought off the bench in February and March) or I wasn't shooting the ball (enough). I took it all in stride and said, 'I just needed to do better.' I think they respected that and my ability and being the type of (person) they wanted here.''
Jefferson didn't re-sign with the Spurs until July 21, two weeks into the period where players could do so. He insists there was a chance the Spurs could have gone another direction.
"I didn't know,'' he said. "You never know. If all of a sudden, Chris Bosh (who ended up going as a free agent from Toronto to Miami) said he wanted to come to Texas and said he wanted to play with Tim Duncan, I could have been out in the street looking for a job some place. But you had to look at it that there were a ton of teams with a lot of money and there's only one LeBron (James, who went from Cleveland to the Heat as a free agent) and only one (Dwyane Wade, who re-signed with Miami). So those guys are going to go to certain places.''
Jefferson wanted to return to San Antonio. This despite his tough first season there after being acquired in a June 2009 trade from Milwaukee, where he had just averaged 19.6 points.
Talk by the Spurs last season was that players are always better in their second season with the team, and that has proven true. Entering Thursday's Southwest Division showdown at Dallas (24-6), Jefferson's scoring average has risen to 13.8, and his shooting percentage has increased from 46.7 to 48.7. While playing a similar number of minutes, his turnovers and fouls are down.
"He did a great job (last) summer retooling his game,'' said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "He's become more efficient. He's not the sloppy player he was last year. He pays more attention to defense. He rebounds better. He gets rid of the ball quicker, makes decisions quicker. All those things happen with a summer's work. I got to give him credit. A lot of guys at that age and with that kind of money, they say, 'I don't need you ... I don't need to do that.' And he did it.''
Jefferson, 30, said it was a matter of learning the Spurs' complex system.
"Most people don't look at things with a high basketball IQ,'' he said of the criticism he got last season following having averaged 19.5 or more points in four of the previous five seasons. "You look at it as any job you do, you're typically better your second year. Anything that you do. ... It was popular to say that, 'I'm struggling' versus to look at the reasons why.''
Jefferson, a slashing small forward who had played seven years with up-tempo New Jersey before his one season in Milwaukee, said it was an adjustment going to a more deliberate attack in San Antonio. He said he had to go from having played with point guards, most notably Jason Kidd in New Jersey, who primarily were distributors to more shoot-first guys.
"A lot of people were confused why I would re-sign here,'' Jefferson said. "But I felt confident with another year (under his belt with the Spurs). You have to first feel confident in your ability to not only learn but also your own IQ to figure out what the coach wants.
"We don't have a distributing point guard. Manu (Ginobili) and George Hill and Tony Parker (the starting point guard) are all great scorers. ... I've been more of a finisher and a slasher, and typically those guys benefit when they play with distributors. That's why they surround Jason Kidd with those kind of players. ... Tony and Manu, those guys are amazing playmakers. They can score with some of the best in the business, and it takes a lot of getting used to their games, especially when I'm the one coming into their home.''
Jefferson isn't the only one having to adjust. With Ginobili averaging 19.1 points and Parker 17.9, Duncan is averaging a career-low 13.2 points, nearly eight points under his career figure.
Duncan hasn't minded deferring to the guards, or to Jefferson.
"(Jefferson has) been a huge factor along with Manu playing great and (Parker) playing great,'' Duncan said of the Spurs going from a 50-32 mark last season to being on pace to go 71-11 this season. "Obviously, (Jefferson is) a deciding factor. He changes the game for us. He gives us another option. He's been shooting the ball great and (Popovich) has been on his (butt) about playing defense and doing all the little things. So he's a difference in what we do.''
Denver coach George Karl said Jefferson is "more confident'' and "feels more at home'' this season. Put it all together, and it looks as if Jefferson got just want he wanted from when he talked about opting out of his contract last April.
"With (the possibility of a) lockout, you don't know what is going to happen,'' Jefferson said. "So ... I figured out a way to get some more years. I'm 30 years old, and when this contract is up, I'll turn 34 (on June 21, 2014). I feel like I set myself up to be in a pretty good position.''
He sure did. And the Spurs feel likewise.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson