Did The Spurs Pull A Joe Smith With Richard Jefferson?

In a summer filled with scores of exorbitant contracts handed out to marginal players ($20 million for Darko?), Richard Jefferson's $39 million extension with the Spurs hardly sticks out. Sure, we expect better of the R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich brain trust, but hey, bad contracts happen to good GMs from time to time, right? And besides, perhaps San Antonio is just hoping that Jefferson hasn't really entered the "precipitous decline" portion of his career, and will regress to the mean after a down year. That's more or less the case that Kelly Dwyer over at Yahoo!'s Ball Don't Lie makes:

They had all the bargaining power on their side, and still went ahead and gave the guy a ton of dough. Why, for them?

Teams have hubris, too. They think they can shoehorn any type of player into their system no matter how much on-court struggles are around as proof to the contrary. And Jefferson looked absolutely clueless with the Spurs last season. But they're forgetting next season, which they're right to do, and thinking about last summer. When we lauded them incessantly for grabbing Jefferson, a corner-three shootin' machine who can defend and get to the line.

That's certainly plausible. But isn't it ignoring an equally compelling possibility; the elephant in the room? Consider the facts. Jefferson rather inexplicably opted out of the final year of his deal that would have paid him a ludicrous $15 million. It was as if he suddenly started taking financial advice from Eddy Curry. The rationale Jefferson and his agent gave was that he wanted to sign a long-term deal before the current CBA expires next summer. That makes a glimmer of sense, but it assumed that whatever presumptive gains he'd make in Years 2-4 of any deal would outweigh his losses over the next season; a dubious proposition at best. Until that is, the Spurs even more inexplicably decided to keep Jefferson for $39 million, with only $8 million of that coming in 2010-11.

In other words: Jefferson did the Spurs a favor, opting out of the $15 million he was owed, and they returned the favor, giving him much, much more than anyone else would have likely even conceived, to the tune of $39 million. The end result is that the Spurs were able to bring over Tiago Splitter and hold onto Tony Parker without going over the luxury tax line -- they would have been $15 million over with Jefferson's old salary -- while Jefferson secured a bit more in terms of long-term security than he otherwise would have. The whole arrangement seems a bit too convenient; the chances that the two sides had some sort of wink-wink, quid pro quo worked out the entire way are simply too large to be dismissed.

Of course, we can't prove that the Spurs promised Jefferson they'd re-sign him to a larger, long-term deal if he opted out of his current one, but it's worth remembering that this is almost exactly what David Stern eviscerated the Timberwolves for doing a decade ago. Then, Minnesota signed journeyman Joe Smith to three consecutive one-year deals, after promising that they would then sign him to a near-max contract. When Stern & Co. caught wind of this brazen effort to circumvent the salary cap, they not only voided Smith's deal, but stripped the T'Wolves of five first-round draft choices (which was later reduced to four).

So maybe the Spurs did just make an uncharacteristically poor free agent signing, but there's plenty of smoke here that something else was going on.

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