According to an account from Richard Jefferson in the most recent issue of ESPN the Magazine, Tim Duncan gave Jefferson a single, very simple instruction upon his arrival in San Antonio:
“When I first got here, Tim Duncan told me, ‘Don’t suck. As long as you don’t suck, you’ll be helping the team.’ He basically told me that I wasn’t very good. Now, most nights, if I play okay, Tim says ‘Yo, you didn’t suck tonight.’ So for the most part, I try to not think about anything other than not sucking. It’s good to know that as long as I don’t suck, as long as I don’t hurt the team, as long as I’m neutral, I’m okay.”
Duncan isn’t wrong. If Jefferson could have created some offense out of thin air, knocked down his wide open, spot-up jumpers now and again, and played intelligent team defense, he would have been a huge boon for San Antonio.
He wasn’t. Duncan told Jefferson not to think about elephants, so RJ did nothing but think about elephants. He told Jefferson not to suck, so RJ did nothing but, well, suck. Jefferson managed to fall short of the one goal the Spurs’ captain placed before him. A 13.1 PER? Ick. 31.6% from three? Yikes. A career-low in FTAs per 36 minutes? Oy vey.
A lot of Jefferson’s sucktitude is relative; he was considered a huge addition when the Spurs traded for him last off-season, and he never quite measured up to the player he was supposed to be. After all, as bad as Jefferson was, he could easily have been far worse. He wasn’t the worst or least productive Spur last season by any standard, he just had the misfortune of having to live up to his own bloated reputation. RJ has never been great, but he was good enough in his seven years with the Nets that we all expected better. He wasn’t good enough last season, though. He sucked.
Now RJ is under contract in San Antonio for the next four years, and his efforts in ’09-’10 netted him $38.8 million, somehow, in spite of all the sucking. That’s the cost for keeping the band together, apparently.
Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Gregg Popovich can work with Jefferson to make him more comfortable, to teach him the defense more thoroughly, to get him even better looks. In the final evaluation though, the responsibility for not sucking falls squarely on Jefferson’s shoulders. The Spurs clearly have enough faith in him to assume the best going forward, but is there really any legitimate reason to plug in the same small forward and expect different results?
Hat-tip to Jon Santiago.