Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back to Business Vol. 1: Spurs Amnesty Jefferson

With the NBA recuperating and prepped to start an abbreviated but hugely anticipated 66-game season in Christmas there will be plenty of moves being made over the next three weeks. NBAnalysis is tackling them all.

Surprisingly few projected that the Spurs would amnesty Jefferson. I can’t say that I’m an exception – I never gave it much thought, with so many more obnoxious contracts out there – but it certainly isn’t a controversial move. The Spurs were only half-crazy to pay him $14.2 million for his services in the 2009-10 campaign when he was coming off a 19.6 PPG season in Milwaukee. They were absolutely nuts to hand him a 4 year/$39 million deal after putting up 12.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG in 31 minutes two seasons ago. That was a rare questionable move on the part of San Antonio’s front office and they as much as anyone can feel grateful for the newly implemented amnesty clause.

Jefferson has always been a terrific scorer who relied heavily on his athleticism, which would explain his massive decline when he hit 30. As noted earlier,Jefferson averaged just 12.3 points and 4.4 boards in his first year with the Spurs; from 2003-09 Jefferson averaged 19.7 poings and 5.3 boards a night. Last year he got even worse, scrounging up just 11 poins and 3.8 boards a night. Had his 3-point percentage not inexplicably skyrocketed to 44% (3.8 attempts per game), we would have heard a great deal more amnesty chatter over the past week. Jefferson is a classic example of an athletic scorer whose devolving production correlates strictly with his loss of quickness and explosiveness. In 2010-11, Jefferson finished with a meager PER of 12.42, good enough for 219th in the league. He's on the wrong side of 30 and has $30 million left on his contract. If you're the Spurs, you get him off your books the second you get the chance.

The numbers are so telling that the Spurs’ current condition hardly plays a factor. It is, however, interesting in terms of gauging where they think they’re headed. You could argue that no team has managed their stars’ contracts better than the Spurs; Duncan has one year left (conveniently, his last as a franchise guy), Ginobili has two (the right number for a 34-year old who got some MVP votes last year), and Parker, the 29-year old in his prime, has three to go. Cutting ties with Jefferson means that they will likely target another wing in free agency and that they’re considerably more confident in Kawhi Leonard than we already thought. Trading fan favorite George Hill for an offensively-raw wing was a risky move, but many thought that he would be drafted 10 spots higher than where the Spurs got him. Leonard is ready to defend NBA wings right now and he should be able to contribute 12-15 points down the line. Even if they should sign another wing, Leonard can now look forward to close to 25 minutes of run each night.

It’s sad to see this happen to Jefferson, a likable player who has come oh so close with a few squads (J-Kidd’s Nets and last year’s 61-win Spurs squad stick out) and now might be mired in a mentoring role. While it doesn’t compensate for his transformation into a mediocre scorer, Jefferson’s much-improved three-ball is a great sign that he’s learning how to play with his new (which is to say, aged) abilities. He would be a terrific fit for a young team in need of a solid veteran wing, such as the Clippers or Bobcats. However, the best fit might with the franchise that launched him. The Nets, with the impending amnesty of Travis Outlaw, fit him best as a young team in need of leadership that happens to have a huge hole at the swing.

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