Looking Good in Black

People who wear black: Will Smith, certain Bob Dylans, the Devil (probably), bizarro Mark Twain, Darth Vader, Hot Topic staff, Johnny Cash, and, now, Richard Jefferson.

In one swift motion, the Spurs have turned three aging vets with expiring deals into a versatile, dynamic swingman that solves their problems on the wing.  This is why the trophy case in San Antonio is full, and this is why Tim Duncan goes to sleep every night with a smile on his face.

Going into this off-season, the Spurs’ priorities were easily defined: good health, adding scoring options, improving the depth in the frontcourt.  With the team’s wounded already on the fast track to recovery, the Spurs have traded into perhaps an unexpected bonus in regards to their overall health: Richard Jefferson, iron man.  In his eight year career, Jefferson has essentially had two season halted by injury.  That, in itself, isn’t noteworthy.  But the fact that Jefferson has averaged 80.5 games played per season over the rest of his career is worth a golf clap.  He’s been a night-in, night-out starter since his sophomore campaign in 2002-2003.  He’s averaged 35.8 minutes per game over his career.  Jefferson is built like a bull and apparently has the bone structure of one.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is about as sturdy as wing players get.  The Spurs seem to be in line for around 80 games of dynamic play on the wing, from a do-it-all small forward who fits seamlessly into the lineup.

It’s difficult to dispute the fact that Jefferson’s production doesn’t quite measure up to his pay grade (he’s due over $29 million the next two seasons).  The Spurs have essentially forfeited their claim in the 2010 bonanza for the chance to snag a wing player now, and it’s hard to argue with the results.  RJ’s price tag may not make sense for a lot of teams (including the Bucks), but it’s manageable for a veteran team looking to make a few off-season adjustments.  The Spurs have…come si dice…hit it big.

There are surely motivations for ditching Jefferson that don’t revolve around money.  A combination of his inability to produce on scale with his salary, an inflated sense of self-worth, poor choice in tattoos, and a bit of an attitude problem have led to Jefferson being labeled as something of a cancer.  Sulking, complaining, and macho posturing can tear apart a locker room from the inside, which is something the Nets and the Bucks looked to avoid by dealing our friend Richard.  I agree, to an extent, though I think of Jefferson as less of a cancer and more of a bad case of termites.  He’ll eat away at the foundation until he’s completely full of himself, done significant damage, or both, but hardly seems capable of anything fatal.  That said, while the team and management structures in New Jersey and Milwaukee aren’t in a position to deal with Jefferson’s ‘tude, San Antonio is damn well equipped for the job.  Reforming troublesome players is a bit of a Popovic hobby, and with the arsenal of veterans, coaches, and accolades at his disposal, the problem children rarely stand a chance.

With a new toy down in San Antone, I fully expect the Spurs to be in the top tier of the West next year.  Not only do they refuse to die, but they’re systematically replacing frail, old body parts with mechanized new ones.  With built in machine guns.

The Bucks, in return, get to save boatloads of money.  The figures seem to indicate a savings of around $21 million for the next two seasons, which is nothing to scoff at for a struggling team in a small market.  In theory, this would open up a giant cap space window for either the 2009 or 2010 free agent markets, but there are a few wrinkles:

  • The Bucks still need to re-sign Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions, or else include them in some kind of sign-and-trade.  Otherwise, they risk taking a huge step backward in the very near future.
  • Before re-upping V-Nuv and Sessions (or Keith Bogans, Adrian Griffin, or Austin Croshere, should they choose to keep them around), Milwaukee is already on the books for $61.5 million in the coming season.  That’s well above the cap, and doesn’t yet include the Bucks’ first round pick in Thursday’s draft.  When all is said and done, this could very well be a team paying the luxury tax this season.
  • While shedding Jefferson in favor of expiring deals saves ownership plenty of money in both straight up salary and what likely would have been luxury tax dollars, it doesn’t open up much cap room in 2010 either.  Including the 2009 draft pick on the second year of the rookie scale, the Bucks have $45 million in obligations…for just 7 players.  Again, this doesn’t include the salaries of Villanueva or Sessions.
  • On top of all of the number-crunching, the Bucks still need to face the difficult fact that their city nor their team is a particularly attractive free agent destination.  If the plan is to continue trying to clear cap room by having a fire sale, there’s the harsh reality that no one will want to come play in Milwaukee.  Richard Jefferson’s outburst after the initial trade that sent him to the Bucks is not isolated; there are many players who would even turn down top-dollar deals for a chance to play in a brighter locale, both in terms of natural and team climate.  It’s not fair, but it needs to be acknowledged.

That’s why, penny-pinching aside (that’s a lot of pennies), I don’t see what’s in this deal for the Bucks.  The savings are indisputable, but the trade neither brings in new talent or even the avenues to pursue free agents.  Not quite the apocalypse for the Bucks, but this is in no way a good deal.

The Spurs made out like bandits, forcing Tim Duncan’s championship window ajar with exactly the type of player needed.  Jefferson’s scoring skills on from the wing will translate to all kinds of success for San Antonio, and his solid, athletic brand of defense should thrive in Pop’s system.  Spurs fans: be excited, be-be excited.  Everyone else: prepare to grumble, and sigh deeply.

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