What’s Left in RJ’s Tank?
Finishing out our series on big-name veterans who switched teams this summer, we turn to Richard Jefferson, acquired by the San Antonio Spurs in a predraft trade for Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas. Jefferson is not quite as old as the other guys we profiled in this series — at 29, he’s still theoretically hanging on to the tail end of his prime — but just as with Shaq, VC, and ‘Sheed, you get the distinct feeling when you look at RJ’s career numbers that his best days have come and gone.
Is that feeling true, though? Is RJ done as a star? Or was he ever even a star in the first place? And what can the Spurs expect to get from him going forward? First, check out Jefferson’s advanced numbers:
So, looking at Jefferson’s career stats, we see that he was scarcely ever a “star” in the first place, certainly not in the way Carter and O’Neal were stars. He has had two very good seasons to his name — 2004, when he ranked 10th in Win Shares, and 2006, when he posted a career-best 11.6 WS. And in each case, he was actually far from the top banana on the team: the ’04 Nets saw both Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin use a higher percentage of possessions when on the floor than RJ, and in ’06 he was well behind Carter in Poss% and barely ahead of Kidd and Nenad Krstic. So we know Jefferson was never really cut out to be a star player; even last year with Milwaukee, a team that happened to be missing Michael Redd for most of the year, he was 3rd in Poss% behind Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions.
Fortunately, the Spurs aren’t asking Jefferson to be a star, a second option, or even the 3rd banana on the team (he’ll be firmly ensconced behind Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker in the team’s pecking order). And that’s a good thing for everyone, because we’ve already established that RJ plays his best when he isn’t the focal point of the offense; instead, he thrives when he’s able to get chances in transition, attack the basket, draw fouls, and keep the D honest with his serviceable jumper. Also, playing with strong passing PGs in Kidd and Sessions has helped Jefferson’s efficiency in the past, so it’s nice that he’ll be suiting up with another top-flight creator at the point in Parker. That said, he’ll be expected to slide into a role that’s a more advanced version of the Michael Finley (“make some shots and don’t turn the ball over”) or Bruce Bowen (“play tough/dirty D and stand around in the corner waiting for a 3 on offense”) style we’ve been seeing from the Spurs at SF in recent years. Jefferson’s a far better offensive option than either of those two, even if he is past his prime.
So it’s a clear upgrade from Finley/Bowen on offense, to be sure. But the real issue is how effectively the Spurs will be able to integrate Jefferson into their defensive concept. Once upon a time, RJ was a very good defender, a guy who could neutralize the opponent’s top wing scorer and still contribute meaningfully at the other end of the floor. Unfortunately, one needs to look no further than his defensive on/off-court numbers to see the decline in Jefferson’s performance since 2005-06. That year, the Nets’ D was a full 1.1 points/100 poss. better when RJ was in the game, and as a result he was one of the league’s best all-around SFs. But after suffering injuries to both ankles in 2007, Jefferson has not been the same on defense: the Nets’ D was 1.4 pts/100 worse with him in the game that year, a staggering 5.6 pts/100 worse in ’08, and 0.4 pts/100 worse last year in Milwaukee. It’s true that neither the Nets nor the Bucks’ situation has been the most inspiring over the past few seasons, so some have written off RJ’s defensive decline as simply a loss of interest. But I say it’s more than that — he’s noticably less nimble on his feet since the injuries, and I think he’s nowhere near either Bowen or the 2006 version of himself as a defender anymore. He’s certainly better than Finley, who has completely fallen off the face of the planet defensively in recent years, but whether Jefferson will be able to do a passable Bowen impression on D will determine to a great extent how successful his stay with San Antonio will be.
The bottom line is that Jefferson is a nice, efficient offensive player when he’s not the focal point and he has a good passing PG to set him up, and luckily the Spurs pass on both counts, so he’ll be a boon to a San Antonio offense that’s been merely average for a few years now. The real question, though, is how much he has left in the tank defensively, and whether he can reclaim his pre-injury form at that end. With Bowen gone and Finley on his last legs, the Spurs need a bounceback performance from Jefferson on D for this trade to truly pay big dividends.