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News » New piece for new era

New piece for new era

New piece for new era
Stepping off a private jet onto the tarmac at San Antonio International Airport on Wednesday, Richard Jefferson felt a blast of triple-digit Heat boiling up from the blacktop and believed he finally had arrived in the place his NBA career was meant to be.

Born in Los Angeles, raised in Phoenix, and with a summer home in San Diego, the newest Spur had no problem adjusting to the sizzling temperatures that have kept most South Texans seeking artificially cooled interiors for nearly two weeks.

"Everyone is talking about how hot it is here," Jefferson said. "But this feels like home to me."

Home is a relative concept in professional sports, but Jefferson has reason to believe San Antonio could be his final stop before retirement. His acquisition Tuesday in a three-team trade that involved the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons was the first step in what Spurs general manager R.C. Buford called "transitioning our team into a new era."

If the next three seasons are to be the last of the Tim Duncan era - Duncan's contract expires after the 2011-12 season, when he will be 36 - All-NBA point guard Tony Parker, All-Star Manu Ginobili and former U.S. Olympian Jefferson will be the prime pieces of the Spurs' post-Duncan era.

For now, Jefferson is content to be relevant again after a cold winter in Milwaukee, where he had a hard landing that followed the first trade of his career.

Unhappy about leaving New Jersey last summer, Jefferson's frustration was perceived in Wisconsin as disrespect. The fact he didn't show up there to speak with reporters for nearly two weeks after the trade didn't help.

In stark contrast, his quick visit to San Antonio, less than 24 hours after learning about the trade while en route to the funeral of his girlfriend's great-grandmother, made a good first impression on South Texans.

Jefferson's lasting effect will depend on his ability to help the Spurs position themselves for a run at another NBA title. Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nets' general manager who helped orchestrate his departure from New Jersey, has no doubt Jefferson's presence has made the Spurs the primary threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference.

"First off, understand that Richard was one of my favorite players when he was here, a really great player," Vandeweghe said. "We didn't make that trade (with Milwaukee) because we didn't love Richard. We made it because we were going in a different direction."

Money management dictated the Nets' direction. Trading the final three seasons of Jefferson's six-year, $76 million contract made sense to a team positioning for the 2010 free-agent market.

"But, if you have a team already set to compete for a championship, you want a Richard Jefferson type of player," Vandeweghe said. "The Spurs made a great, great move. They already had a great team, and they improved it dramatically. They upped the ante for everybody out West."

New Orleans Hornets coach Byron Scott, Jefferson's coach in New Jersey through 2004-05, would like to disagree but can't.

"I wasn't happy when I heard about that trade," said Scott, whose Hornets won the Southwest Division in 2007-08 and engaged the Spurs in a memorable, seven-game Western Conference semifinal playoff series. "That was a steal for the Spurs . I just think he's a hell of a player."

Scott called Jefferson "the ultimate teammate."

"This guy just wanted to win, and he would do whatever it took," he said. "I loved him because he was so personable, and as honest as they come. He's definitely not a headache for a coach."

Whatever it takes

Jefferson's willingness to adapt his game to the needs of the team will be vital to his transition to the Spurs , who already have a Big Three. He said settling into a lesser role will be simple.

"I've been very fortunate most of my career to be on teams with two All-Stars," Jefferson said. "(Jason) Kidd and Kenyon (Martin), J. Kidd and Vince (Carter), multiple-time All-Stars. The best teams I've been on have had multiple guys who could carry a load."

Jefferson was asked to be the featured scorer for the Bucks after Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut were injured before midseason.

"The one thing I've been very fortunate to have is versatility, in the sense that if they need me to play defense, if the need me to score, if they need me to post up, I'm able to accomplish that," Jefferson said.

What the Spurs need most from Jefferson is his ability to get to the foul line. He averaged 7.3 free throws per game each of the past two seasons and is a career 78 percent foul shooter. Duncan, with a career free-throw percentage of 68.5, averaged 6.2 trips last season.

Jefferson's athleticism and driving ability fill what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called the team's most pressing need after his team's first-round playoff elimination in April - more firepower.

"What I mean by firepower is just basic talent that's athletic enough to compete for a championship," Popovich said. "That firepower can mean scoring, as far as getting to the rim, getting to the free-throw line, shooting. Richard shot 39-and-a-smidge (percent) from three, which is fantastic, and he can get to the free-throw line, which we had trouble doing, because Manu, Tim and Tony are the ones that get to the free-throw line the most. Timmy is shooting more jump shots these days and not getting there as often. So having another body who really gets to the line is important."

Popovich said he would ask Jefferson to focus "kind of backwards," to return to a status as one of the league's better perimeter defenders. Jefferson will be happy to expend less energy on the offensive end and more on defense.

"The past few seasons, I've been more of an offensive player, out of necessity, given the roles of our team, in New Jersey and Milwaukee," Jefferson said. "Now that I won't be needed to score 20 points a night, to just go out there and put up whatever numbers come my way and really focus on the defensive end, that's something that I did when I first came into this league. And that team had quite a bit of success in New Jersey because we were a defensive team.

"To get back to those things, I'll make sure I'm in shape for the beginning of camp and get ready for that."

If he works out in the searing Heat of South Texas, it won't take long.

Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: June 29, 2009


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