Like many of you, I recently read a Chris Sheridan piece in which he asserted the Spurs are the front-runners to trade for Al Jefferson. I think Sheridan is a fine NBA scribe and I don't doubt he is well connected but this rumor makes so little sense to me, I can't help but feel it was pedaled by an interested party--either Jefferson's people or the Jazz's front office--to increase interest in him. The Spurs carry a certain aura of respectability and it would benefit Big Al and the Jazz if PATFO was interested in Utah's big man.
There are a number of reasons to doubt this will ever happen, some more subtle than others. But I'll start with the first thing that came to my mind: after trying once without success, why would the Spurs trade for another Jefferson that doesn't fit?
Al Jefferson is a high-usage, medium efficiency player that thrives in particular offensive sets and hasn't shown that he has the versatility to adjust. He's a mediocre to bad defensive player that will need to somehow improve by leaps and bounds to really make a difference. If that doesn't sound a lot like the 2009 Richard Jefferson trade to you, you probably think this potential acquisition would be awesome.
RJ was far from an awful player during his stint with the Spurs, but he was definitely not the piece to put San Antonio over the hump. He got the benefit of the doubt early on because he had never been in an environment where he could tap his full potential, especially on defense, and was considered exactly the type of player the Spurs needed.
If you read any articles giving a thumbs up to the potential Big Al trade, you'll notice the similarities. Unfortunately, when players reach a certain age and don't have the physical attributes needed to play above average defense, I don't think there's any environment that can turn that around. Types of players are different than actual players, too. Here's Sheridan on last year's Spurs defense:
The inability to protect the rim was one of the prime reasons for their collapse in last year's Western Conference finals when they had won 20 in a row and had a 2-0 lead on the Thunder, only to lose the next four.
Oversimplifications aside, Sheridan might have a point. The Spurs couldn't contain the Thunder from getting to the basket as much as they would have preferred but, and we've been over this, the Spurs' biggest problem was hedging and recovering on pick and pops and their inability to match OKC's small ball lineups on both ends of the floor. How the addition of the plodding Al Jefferson would help is unclear. Is he going to guard Kevin Durant when the Thunder go small? Is he going to punish OKC in the post even when their guys leave their assigned men to bring help on him, like they did with Parker? We are talking about a glacial defensive player who thrives on post ups. That doesn't sound like the player the Spurs need to get past the Thunder.
Before that part there's this:
So the time for the Jazz to move him is now, and the team with the biggest need for an upgrade at center is the Spurs.
Why? Are the Spurs in a bigger need of a center than the Heat, who start Bosh at the 5, had a lot of trouble dealing with Roy Hibbert last post-season and could realistically get the Sixers and Bynum in the first round, the Nets and Brook Lopez in the second round and either the Knicks or the Pacers in the conference finals? How about the Thunder, who play the underwhelming Kendrick Perkins at the 5 and have Hasheem Thabeet backing him up? Last I checked the Spurs had Duncan and Splitter at center and both rank high up at their position and either better or very close to Jefferson by any advanced stats, be it RAPM, PER or Wins Produced. There's also Blair and now Aron Baynes. Anyone who has watched the Spurs knows that they aren't exactly lacking post defense and pick and roll finishers. Despite perception to the contrary, the Spurs do a great job of protecting the paint. They allow the 5th lowest field goal percentage in the league on shots under eight feet. And Tim Duncan ranks top ten in blocks per game and per 36 minutes.
I'm not saying Tiago Splitter is inherently better that Al Jefferson; he isn't. What Jefferson brings (post offense, post defense, shot blocking) is extremely valuable, but the Spurs already have it in Tim Duncan, and the way the league is evolving towards a more perimeter-oriented game, they can survive with a single post threat. The Spurs could use an upgrade down low but what they need is someone like the Jazz's other big time F/C, Derrick Favors, who can cover a lot of ground on pick and rolls and block shots from the weak side. Someone who is flat-footed and could very well be one of the worst starting centers at defending the pick and roll wouldn't help the Spurs, regardless of how big an upgrade he might be in generating his own offense.
And that's the thick of it: during a season where the Spurs seem to have focused on defense, bringing in Al Jefferson would represent a move in the wrong direction. The Spurs' pick and roll defense is far from elite but bringing in Al would mean surrendering to the fact that the Spurs will never be good at a play that more and more teams are making the linchpin of their offense. The reason people don't consider it crazy to think a 20 and 10 guy like Jefferson might be available in exchange for a solid center in his prime, an aging wing and a replacement level back up point is because the best teams in the league are built to exploit the weaknesses plodding post centers have. This type of move would likely make front offices in LA and OKC happy.
It's possible that Jefferson could become a good pick and roll player on offense and an average one on defense. He could give the Spurs another offensive weapon with his excellent post offense. The range on his jumper couldn't hurt. But, not unlike what they did with Richard Jefferson, the Spurs would be gambling on Al changing pretty much everything that has made him a successful NBA player and expecting him to improve defensively even though his track record and physical limitations suggest that might be impossible.
I don't overrate Patty Mills and Stephen Jackson. They are fan favorites because of their personality but I do believe their production is eminently replaceable. I don't think Tiago Splitter will become anything more than a good starting center while Jefferson can be a number one option on a good team. At first glance, this seems like a good trade. But when fit and potential cost come into the equation, going forward with it would be one of the least Spurs-like moves ever. No one is perfect, not even PATFO. But I'd like to think they learned from the RJ fiasco. That's why I believe that there's no way they trade for another niche offensive player that will have to be re-signed to an onerous contract. Especially not one who figures to be a drain on defense.
But then again, maybe there's just something about them Jeffersons...
Stats via NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference