About last summer
Tomorrow afternoon marks the deadline on the NBA’s amnesty clause. Back on December 7, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Spurs had decided to use the NBA’s amnesty provision on Richard Jefferson. Since that moment, everyone has treated the information as established fact. There is the small problem, of course, of Jefferson’s continued place on the Spurs’ roster.
By this time tomorrow, Wojnarowski will probably seem like a man a full eleven days ahead of the events of the universe. He is the most news-breakingest guy in the entire tribe of NBA observers. But I still think there are good arguments for the Spurs not to amnesty Richard Jefferson. The Spurs, we trust, are well aware of those talking points.
One of those arguments involves timing. Another involves cost.
Part of that decision of whether to amnesty RJ hinges on the Spurs’ pursuit of other players, such as their reported contract offer they have out to Josh Howard. One presumes Howard’s determination to sign with San Antonio is also a decision for or against Jefferson’s future with the team.
But all of this points to a bigger question, one that Spurs watchers usually don’t need to discuss. What were the Spurs thinking? Specifically, what were the Spurs thinking when they re-signed Richard Jefferson?
It’s easy to forget that RJ opted out of his contract last summer. The Spurs chose to re-sign him, despite the fact that his contract was an onerous burden to the franchise even before the ink had dried. Simply put, the Spurs overpaid for a player who was already under-performing. R.C. Buford and his staff don’t make many mistakes, but Richard Jefferson is undoubtedly that—a rare, unquestioned blunder by the Spurs’ typically blunder free front office.
The cost of this mistake is compounded if the Spurs not only amnesty RJ, but sign a replacement player to fill out his spot on the roster. CBA and cap aficionado Filipe Furtado (@filipefurtado) summarizes the Spurs cap situation this way:
If recent rumors are true and the San Antonio Spurs do amnesty Richard Jefferson and pursue a veteran SF with their MLE no fan can complain about ownership’s lack of commitment to winning. In this scenario, accounting for TJ Ford, assuming Antonio McDyess is retiring, and the Spurs adding a veteran big man to the roster, the Spurs’ payroll would be around 70.73m, which is just above the luxury tax.
The Spurs recently waived Da’Sean Butler, whose non-guaranteed deal would have cost the team an additional $250,000 had he survived training camp. This put the team just beneath the tax penalty under the aforementioned scenario, but the Spurs still risk re-entering tax territory with any additional signing (Steve Novak?).
It’s hard to identify the precise cost of Peter Holt’s total RJ-related expenses because we don’t know exactly how much money the Spurs will need to pay Jefferson post-amnesty. If Jefferson clear waivers, the Spurs would be in for something between 79-82m (depending on willingness to pay tax), but it’s very unlikely that happens as there is no reason to think a below cap team like the Nets wouldn’t at least offer to pay minimum for his services. It’s safe to assume something between 1.5-3m of 9.28m owned to RJ this season will be paid by another team. So in the most likely scenario Spurs should pay somewhere between 76-80m on salary this year.
That’s a steep level of spending for the small market Spurs.
To put things differently, the cost of last summer’s Richard Jefferson resigning was 38.8 million, a number the team is looking hard at swallowing. It didn’t make sense then—the collective hoops blogosphere responded with a “Wait, wha?”—and it continues to problematize things now. Combine that number with the cost of replacing him with even a modest contract (5 million over two years for a new small forward), and the Spurs might be looking at more than 44 million in sunk cost, give or take, on the decision to re-sign RJ.
But let’s put RJ’s boondoggle contract in broader perspective. Bruce Bowen’s Spurs career earnings were 26.1 million. Robert Horry earned 15.5 million from his tour of duty in San Antonio. Unless someone eats part of his contact, or the Spurs find a trade partner for him, Richard Jefferson will make 53 million from his two seasons donning silver and black.
But the actual cost of Richard Jefferson is 53 million + the cost of a replacement player + whatever tax penalties are associated with Jefferson and his replacement’s contract. Re-signing Richard Jefferson last summer is something like a 60 million dollar mistake.
This, Spurs fans, is the cost of a single front office miscalculation. Place Richard Jefferson in the Jackie Butler file of regretful Spurs contracts.
And this, for what it’s worth, is why I’m concerned for the Spurs’ current pursuit of players like Josh Howard. There is no need to add insult to injury by paying another past his prime veteran to gum up the books as the Spurs advance toward their rebuild years. One bad contract can throw the entire train off the tracks. Just ask Mark Cuban.
This takes us back to the question of when and if the Spurs will use the amnesty clause on RJ. Despite it all, I don’t think they will. Patiently seeking a trade partner has always made more sense. You can see the cost of amnesty. It’s ugly. And besides, Kawhi Leonard will need time to adjust to the NBA. RJ’s primary value to the Spurs is helping that process along.
*Big thanks to Filipe Furtado for his help with this post.