Standing still, Richard Jefferson struggles

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With apologies to Manu Ginobili, when the Spurs acquired Richard Jefferson fans were expecting more than a (sometimes solid) bench player. Starting alongside Duncan and Parker, Jefferson was suppose to help move the Spurs to the top of the standings.

The only movement Jefferson has seen so far this season, however, is his name up and down the lineup card. For much of this season Jefferson has been stationary in the corner, as if he were Bruce Bowen or Sean Elliott before him.

And there are still questions why Jefferson has struggled?

It has been far too simple to say Jefferson is a bad fit or struggled without explaining why. People assume that a scorer in his prime can simply transition into any system without ever taking into account how that player created all his points in the past.

But Jefferson is not a scorer. Scorers are those who, like a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, can create their own offense. Too often people miscast a player once they hit the 20 ppg mark.

Some, like Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton, were shooters whose system allowed them a lot of opportunities. Others, like Amare Stoudemire, are great finishers who rack up a lot of points on the tail end of plays created by others. But to the point, rarely are these players asked to, or successful at, creating their own offense from a standstill.

For Jefferson, his scoring prowess and skill set can be summed up in one word: movement.

If you want to delve a little deeper into that, just read the man’s own words, courtesy of a recent Express-News story.

“Anybody who watches the game with an intelligent eye can see I was doing a lot of things I had never done over the course of my career,” he says. “I’ve never guarded guys like LaMarcus Aldridge. I’ve never been a swing guy. I’ve never taken the ball out of bounds.

“Keith Bogans was brought in here to play defense and hit corner threes. (Antonio) McDyess was brought in here to rebound and hit pick-and-pop jumpers. You can’t really say that my role on this team is the same role you’ve seen me do the last eight years and be successful.”

“I played in the Princeton offense for six years, a movement offense,” Jefferson says. “Now I’m on a team with a dominant guy like Tim (Duncan), and we have pick-and-roll guards who are quality scoring guards.”

For all Jefferson’s athletic ability, he is not a very creative slasher. He can drive, but only in straight lines. He’s an athlete, but not one with a superb first step or great agility.

For all intents and purposes, he’s a secondary offensive player who excels in exploiting the driving lanes a teammate’s playmaking or the movement an offensive set creates but has trouble creating his own.

Therein lies the problem. The Spurs offensive system of the past decade has simply asked its small forward to stand in the corner and shoot threes. Bruce Bowen was reliable, and Sean Elliott had a quick enough first step to take advantage of defenses that crowded his shot.

Throughout the season, Popovich has tinkered with Jefferson in the post to incorporate him in the offense, but even that is playing more to a capability rather than a strength. In short, handing the ball to Jefferson at a standstill against a set defense was never going to work.

Does that mean I believe the Spurs front office was short sighted in acquiring such a poor fit? Without any insight into the team’s line of thinking, what makes sense is that if the team was not going to move Jefferson around it could at least move the defense.

In last year’s playoff series against the Mavericks, Tony Parker was able to collapse their entire defense. Only, with the rest of the supporting cast being nothing but spot-up shooters, Dallas was able to sell out in chasing shooters off the three-point line without fear of anyone outside of Parker getting to the rim.

In theory, even in a pick and roll offense Jefferson should be able to exploit the scrambling defense created by Parker and Ginobili’s penetration. Rotating defenders create opportunistic driving lanes.

Unfortunately, the Spurs pick and roll attack has not been as dynamic this season with the injuries to Parker and the slow start by Ginobili. Defenders have been more apt to stay at home, turning Jefferson into a spot-up shooter.

It’s little wonder that Jefferson was able to find somewhat of a niche when paired with a resurgent Ginobili off the bench. Over the past several weeks Ginobili has gotten back to drawing that third or fourth defender, moving defenses out of position and opening up Jefferson’s game for the occasional 20-point night.

If Jefferson is to become more than just an expiring contract and valuable trade asset at this point, the Spurs must hope for one of two things.

That Parker returns at some point as a reasonable facsimile of himself, creating the driving lanes that were present in last year’s playoffs. Or that over the offseason the Spurs pick up some of the personnel needed to incorporate more of their motion offense.

Anything less could leave the Spurs, like Jefferson, stuck in neutral.