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What’s Left in RJ’s Tank?

Posted by Neil Paine on August 4, 2009

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:

Year Ag Tm Ht Pos G Min trORtg %Poss trDRtg Stat+/- OWS DWS WS
2002 21 NJN 79 F 79 1917 107.9 18.8 104.3 -0.19 1.8 2.9 4.7
2003 22 NJN 79 F 80 2878 115.8 19.5 104.0 1.06 5.5 4.5 9.9
2004 23 NJN 79 F 82 3133 115.3 22.2 105.0 1.85 6.5 4.4 10.9
2005 24 NJN 79 F 33 1355 102.4 27.8 105.9 0.55 0.6 1.8 2.4
2006 25 NJN 79 F 78 3059 118.7 21.7 105.6 2.64 7.5 4.1 11.6
2007 26 NJN 79 F 55 1956 107.5 21.2 110.9 -1.93 1.9 1.4 3.4
2008 27 NJN 79 F 82 3200 112.5 24.9 113.0 0.26 6.1 1.5 7.5
2009 28 MIL 79 F 82 2939 109.9 23.3 110.0 0.34 4.2 2.5 6.7
2010 29 SAS 79 F Proj 0.03

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.

8 Responses to “What’s Left in RJ’s Tank?”

  1. KneeJerkNBA Says:

    Jefferson's defensive numbers probably dropped the past few years because his teams weren't very good. When the other forward is Villanueva or Carter, you're doing a lot of helping off of your guy.

  2. Jason J Says:

    I think Jefferson could have a nice synergy with Manu and Timmy who are both creative passers who see guys on the move. He's also got a nice catch and shoot from 3, which they always need. Defensively he's no Bruce Bowen, but he ought to be fine inside the Spurs system. I just wish putting him and Tim on the floor together didn't remind me so much of the 2004 US Olympic team.

  3. rhett Says:

    I think jefferson has some interesting comparisions with artest in la. Highly structured systems that already have deep pecking orders that limit them to 3rd or 4th options. It will be interesting to see how they adjust to rigid systems and fairly limited roles.

  4. chucksalot Says:

    At this point in their careers Jefferson is a much better defender than bowen. Bruce is pretty washed up

  5. KneeJerkNBA Says:

    @Jason J: good point about Jefferson's ability to cut and move without the ball. Those guys will find him. Jefferson's a good offensive rebounder, too. He'll got lots of easy buckets.

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Actually, Jefferson's a dreadful offensive rebounder -- among forwards who played at least 500 MP last year, he ranked 139th out of 149 in ORB%.

  7. Kaveh Says:

    I've always hated this trade for the Spurs and this article merely justified by opinion. The Bucks, point wise, were WORSE when Jefferson was on the court last year by -2.4points! Furthermore, it is not like the Spurs were a great team last year without Jefferson. Even when Manu was playing, the team did not look like a threat to win the championship. When Manu was off the court, the team looked down right horrible as they were ousted in the first round by the Mavs, who were ousted by the Nuggets who were ousted by the Lakers.

    I actually like the Mcdysse move better than the Jefferson move. Mcdysse is someone who can be effective without taking his shots. And I love the Blair pickup. Jefferson on the other hand is a volume shooter and very inefficient. His defense is horrid. Let's just say that Jefferson is what his PER says he is ---average as his PER is around 15 from memory. Does Jefferson/Mcdysse/Blair turn this team into a championship contender? I highly doubt it.

    Much more important to the Spurs is TD, MG and TP. TP is awesome, and in my opinion the best PG in the league. TD and MG are both past their primes and are on the downhill slope. Currently, Pau Gasol is BETTER than Tim Duncan. Manu, even when healthy does not seem like the Manu of old.

    Out of the elite 5 (LA, Orlando, Cavs, Celtics, Spurs), I give the Spurs the lowest ranking. I have a suspicioun that they are defeated by the Nuggets next year in the 2nd round.

  8. Caleb Says:

    Manu is one season removed from his best season in the NBA... in 2007-2008 he was close to 20/5/5 in 31 minutes a game, 40% 3-pt shooting, a 24.3 PER. Surely the guy who was playing in 2008 isn't gone already?? Unless those ankle injuries really did him in, which is possible I guess, but even in his 44 game season last year he still posted a 22.9 PER - equal to what he did in 2004 through 2006. He just needs to get his 3-pt stroke back, which was the main decline in his stats last year.

    And Jefferson is not at all inefficient. His FG% is a bit low, true... but he draws fouls and makes threes. His points per shot last year was 1.31 (Career 1.36) - That's elite level scoring.

    Finally, while Parker is indeed awesome... he'll have to be happy with "second best PG in the league" as long as Chris Paul is around.