Are you really sure you really want what you see?
Be careful of something that's just what you want it to be.
Personally, I always thought the second line was one of the best lines in any song. Ever. It perfectly captures how I think people can fill in the blanks of what they don't know about a person. Without evidence, you can make them be the things you would like them to be. You have to be careful because you are setting expectations for them that they can't hope to meet. Generally, I think of it being in relationships that people do this.
When the trade went down, I did a little bit of research -- mainly looking at his 3pt shooting percentages from the corners, and combined with the words of the Spurs front office, came away thinking that he was a HUGE piece for the Spurs. I thought he was a giant upgrade at the small forward position and a great fourth wheel.
It went wrong. Or rather, it didn't go well. I can't imagine the Spurs, any fan, or RJ himself would say that his year went well. Or that the team enjoyed success. But why?
And further, what can we expect? I think as we head into the draft and free agency that RJ is the key to the Spurs offseason.
My evaluation of RJ's season is based off my exectations of him. I can't tell you what you expected and I can't tell you what the Spurs expected. My expectations were that RJ 1) would be the primary perimeter defender, 2) wouldn't be worth $14.2M, 3) would periodically take over segments of games by both scoring and creating for others, and 4) would fill the scoring roles of the big three when they missed games to injury. In short, I expected him to be the Big 4th. A guy who helped to space the floor and be dangerous, thus providing more room for the big three.
I'm not even sure where I went wrong, but I know Rage didn't deliver what I was expecting from him. Some of those expectations were set by the Spurs themselves. They said they told him they expected him to be their primary perimeter defender. They said he was a big piece. They markted Tony, Manu, Tim, and RJ as the big four.
I remember precious few times during the season that RJ was on the other team's best perimeter scorer. I remember even fewer times that he was on the best perimter scorer and played well against him. The only one that jumps to mind is a few times against Carmelo. Mostly, I remember George and Bogans taking turns on guys. Then, a little less often, Manu covering guys. I also remember Popovich making a statement in the middle of the season that he was really pleased with Bogan, when he had started him several games in a row, because he had finally found somebody they could build the team around defensively. I have to think this was an indirect shot at RJ. Ideally, I believe the Spurs could have build their defense around RJ. It didn't happen.
Judging and evaluating the Spurs rotations is tricky at best. Judging and evaluating the rotations of a specific player is almost impossible for a fan. We just don't know who has what responsibilities. However, anybody who was attending games and paying attention this season would know that RJ DID NOT have any easy go at understanding his defensive responsibilities. I think I attended around 20 games. It seemed like 3-4 times per game a coach or a player would be yelling at RJ because of his defense rotations and/or assignments. And it didn't seem to get better as the season went along. About the only thing that changed was the level of frustration. Of both the coaches and RJ.
Um, not so much. Rage showed me nothing in his ability to create shots for others. While I didn't expect him to be Manu in the pick and roll, I did expect that he'd have a little bit of Tony's ability to drive and dish. To beat his man, suck in a help defender, and kick out to an open shooter. Nope. Not only that, I was really disappointed in two aspects of his game. One, he didn't have near the handle I thought he would. If he had to take more than one dribble, I thought our chances of scoring dropped tremendously. In fact, I thought our chances of a turnover increased tremendously. This meant we were never able to isolate him and let him attack a defender. Two, while being an exceptionally fast player up and down the courth, he really isn't good at changing direction. He had to have led the team in charges. And, again, it really hampered his ability to score in isolation situations or off kick outs where he drove.
I think his shooting could best be described as erratic. The only places he shot well from were the right corner 3 and the right corner long 2. Unfortunately, he didn't take most of his shots from those spots. He shot 31.6% from 3-pt for the year. His 47% FG is skewed by the fact that he took 40% of his shots right at the rim and made 62%. He shot 38% from the field if it wasn't a 3 and if it wasn't a layup. That's not just the long 2 shots. This included the short 2's. The shots just outside the paint and just inside the free throw line. In fact, he shot just 27% on the short 2's.
Playing the 4
RJ's inability to pick up the system was most notable is his inability to play the 4 when the Spurs went small. It ended up being Keith Bogans who played the 4 when RJ was on the court. While a lot of people hate the Spurs playing small ball, I think it is something they have to be able to do effectively to compete. They have to be able to do it well on the offensive end and they have to do it well on the defensive end. They have to be able to create mismatches offensively and they have to be able to adjust to mismatches defensively. You can't be longer than the Lakers. But, if you can isolate one of their bigs with a smaller guy, you might be able to take advantage of him. You can't play a traditional big lineup against the Suns. You have to play small defensively (or have a 3/4 like Odom/Horry/Frye/etc who can play on the perimeter. Somewhere around February the news broke that the Spurs were no longer going to play RJ at the 4 because he was uncomfortable. They wanted him to focus on playing the 3. RJ lauded this plan so that he could do what he knew and what he had been doing. I think this decision, while probably good, would be a key to why we played so poorly against the Suns. We needed him to be a comfortable 4 in that series. Instead, I thought we had too many breakdowns, both offensively and defensively, in critical moments. I'd bet they are related.
Overall, it really seemed that RJ was frustrated, the other players were frustrated, and the coaches were frustrated. I can't remember how many times I saw Pop yell at him. I can't remember how many times I saw a disappointed/confused look on his face. It was obvious, to me at least, that all season he tried like hell to learn. You could see him asking questions. You could see the players talking to him. You could see the coaches pulling him aside to explain something. As the season progessed though, those conversations and asides appeared to be more frustrating to everybody involved. For me, the most telling happened late in the season. It was either the Cavs or Magic game at home. So late March or early April. The Spurs had a mini-break. The rarity where the first Spur down court is Tim. Tim went to the right block and posted his man. Well before the rest of the team's were down court. RJ brought the ball across mid-courth on the right side. Looked at Tim posted up with his man behind him and calling for the ball. Then turned and threw it to the Spur at the top of the circle. Something happened, say a foul, which led to a time out. As Tim walked off the court, but still at mid court (because he was coming from the far end), he looked at Pop and raised his arms out to his side like "what the hell?" For me, it was the most damning assessment of RJ's decision making. 75 games into the season and within the system and he still didn't know to get the ball to Tim.
What will the Spurs do with RJ? That's a hell of a question. I think there are a fair number of possibilities. He is tradeable. In fact, since he's entering the last year of his contract, he's fairly valuable as a trade asset. However, I think the key component is whether or not the Spurs organization thinks he would be better in his second year. I would say that the evaluation of RJ is a critical component to the Spurs assesment of the team. Can they, and will he, work to correct some fundamental flaws in his game? Will he adapt better to the system after a full season? Can he execute the defensive game plan as the primary perimeter defender? These aren't really yes or no questions. What makes it tricky is that they have to judge the degree to which they think any of these will happen and what that will mean for the team. Then, they have to compare that to anything they think they can get in a trade. And then, they have to consider money.
The Spurs could buy him out. He's in the last year of his contract. He's 30 and lockout is looming. He had a frustrating season. He might be happy to take some cash and go get another contract from a team that plays a system more conducive to his skills. This is NOT a good option for the Spurs and, to me, would be a sign that they were horribly unhappy and pessimistic with RJ. Why? Because as far over the cap as they are, they wouldn't be able to replace him with anybody. It means that they thought their chances of winning would be just as good with a minimum salary veteran.
Keep him. Work with him all summer. Give him some more time. See if he can break old habits, learn new techniques, learn and understand a different system. He certainly isn't the first vet to come to San Antonio and have a hard time.
Trade scenarios. I'll propose one trade because I think it outlines all the facets and permutations of what would work. I'm not suggesting this one. Just allow for the assumptions that I make, look at the factors, then find other players who fit the criteria. The Spurs could trade RJ to Toronto for Hedo Turkoglu. One, RJ makes $15.2M. Hedo makes $9.8M next year. From the Spurs point of view, they save $10.8M next year with this trade since they are over the luxury tax line. Hedo has another 3 years after next year at about $11M per year. That first year savings pays for one of his three remaining years. The Raptors wmight do this for a couple reasons. One, Hedo wants out. Two, they get out from under his 4 more years and get a guy with an expiring contract. Three, RJ might fit their system better. Four, they might be able to buy RJ out. In this scenario, besides the money question, is whether or not the Spurs think Hedo would fit their system well. Do they think he can fulfill the role they need from that position? Then, when you consider the economics of the Spurs taking on so much salary, the Raptors might have to throw in some sweeteners. Once you get into that mode, anything can happen.