Gregg Popovich has established a philosophy in San Antonio that values and rewards an understanding of one's limitations and a capacity to adapt. It has allowed the Spurs to seamlessly experience a lot of roster turnover while still remaining highly competitive and it has been the reason other team's castaways succeed here. You figure out what you can do to help the team and focus on doing that. If you can't, you are gone. It's the "Spurs' way."
The problem from a player's perspective is that the self-exploration and optimization of certain skills can end up having a negative effect in his career prospects and his general enjoyment of the game. At least that's what seemed to happen with Richard Jefferson and what I fear is happening to Nando de Colo.
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You know all about the Richard Jefferson experiment and why it ended up being a mistake. But the reason most of us were excited about the trade that brought Princess Peanut to SA was that RJ was actually very good at basketball at the time. It seems crazy to think about it now that he is wasting away in Utah, enjoying the back end of an undeserved contract. But before the Spurs acquired him, Jefferson was coming off arguably the best two seasons of his career, statistically speaking.
With the Bucks in 2008/2009, Jefferson averaged 19, 4 and 2 while shooting 40% from three. He got himself to the line and was efficient even with a high, star-level usage of 24.6%. There were no smoke and mirrors: at 28, Richard Jefferson was still good enough to handle a heavy offensive load in an efficient way while contributing at an average rate for his position in the other aspects of the game. That's what made him an attractive trade target despite being on a big contract. And that's why I'm assuming the Spurs traded for him.
But once he joined the Spurs, he had to change his game completely, going away from what attracted the Spurs in the first place. After being a featured offensive player that got a lot of his half-court offense through post-ups and isolations, 33.9% of Jefferson's offense in his first year with the Spurs came on spot-up situations. Jefferson was asked to cut down on mid-range looks and he did, reducing the percentage of his total attempts from the in between area by almost 10% and getting to the rim more often. The idea was to take the scoring burden off him, make him an efficient offensive player and have him focus on other areas, like rebounding and defense.
The first year was rough but Jefferson got the message and started working on his three-point shooting. Spot-ups became his bread and butter, with almost 48% of his offense coming in those situations in his second season. His three-point rate (percentage of field goals taken behind the arc) sky-rocketed to 48% and his efficiency climbed with it to a stellar 44%. His usage declined even more, to a role player's 15% and his shot selection was limited to beyond the three point line and the rim. Richard Jefferson had his most efficient scoring season by turning into a spot up three-point shooter - and was one of the best in the league at that.
But that wasn't the Richard Jefferson that was considered a second-tier star before joining the Spurs. He wasn't getting to the line as much, his versatility as a scorer disappeared and he remained a mediocre defender and rebounder despite seemingly making an effort to improve. The Spurs changed the one thing that was special about Jefferson to make him fit their schemes and it inevitably turned him into a run-of-the-mill three-point shooter, which he remains as to this day.
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Before joining the Spurs, Nando de Colo was known for his creativity on the pick-and-roll and his ability to create his own shot. The latter often involved pulling up from mid range after a screen but it was a good tool to have against big men that stayed too close to the rim in P&Rs. His most alluring asset was just how natural the game came to him. He was never going to be a star, but he had all the makings of a solid back-up point guard. DX's comparison to Beno Udrih seemed to be right on the money.
He arrived in San Antonio and put those skills to use early, often pulling off dangerous passes and developing instant chemistry on the pick and roll with Tiago Splitter. Sharing the court with Ginobili meant the ball was not going to be in his hands as much as in Europe, but he still managed a relatively high 17% usage and found a balance between having his offense come as a pick-and-roll ball handler (28.8%) and in spot-up situations (25.9%). De Colo assisted his teammates on over 20% of the buckets scored when on the floor and he was good at getting steals. His problem was turnovers.
De Colo coughed it up a lot -- too much even for a point guard. That was the downside to his creativity and court vision: he often attempted passes that were too risky. That fact, combined with his mediocre defense and his struggles finishing at the rim, were enough for his position to be usurped by the boringly steady Cory Joseph late in the season. De Colo barely saw the court in the playoffs, and showed dissatisfaction with that, but continued to work on his game by playing with the Toros and joining the Spurs' Summer League team before playing with France at Eurobasket.
But it seems that instead of helping him clean up those turnover issues and continue to be a good playmaker, the Spurs worked on transforming de Colo from a ball-dominant pick-and-roll creator into a spot-up shooter. Nando played off the ball for most of the summer and in his limited appearances this season has taken on a passive off-ball role while sharing the court with one of the Spurs other back-up point guards. I don't think I've seen de Colo run a pick-and-roll so far this season and five of his six total shots have come from behind the arc.
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Just like with Richard Jefferson, the Spurs asked a player to selflessly transform his game to fit their needs, despite possibly losing what made him special and therefore, valuable, in the process. Had Jefferson continued to be an 18-point scorer, teams would have been interested in him because players that create for themselves even semi-efficiently have value. Spot-up shooters, however, are a dime a dozen.
Nando de Colo will enter free agency next season not as a creative playmaker that can score a little when needed, but as an end-of-bench spot-up shooter with no redeeming qualities. By sublimating his style for the good of the team, he very likely cost himself some money and perhaps even a chance to remain in the league. And yet it's not hard to find people ready to deride De Colo - and especially Jefferson - for doing exactly what the team asked them to do. It's not their fault that the Spurs actually wanted a different type of player all along, just like it's not their fault that they failed to turn into that player despite their best intentions.
As fans we all love "the Spurs way", and we should: it's helped create one of the most successful franchises of the last two decades. But I can't help but feel that some players might not be as thrilled by it as we are. Maybe that even plays a part of why San Antonio is not a good free-agent destination. And maybe that's why I can't help but live in fear of the day Timmy hangs them up. All I know for sure is that the selflessness we as fans always ask of players sometimes clearly works against them.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference