There was just something a little too convenient about Richard Jefferson's extension with the Spurs. To recap: the rapidly declining Jefferson was owed an onerous $15 million this coming season; this salary would have pushed the Spurs well over the luxury tax threshold and made bringing over Tiago Splitter a much more fiscally painful proposition.
But then...mirabile dictu, Jefferson opted out of his contract! I repeat: a 30-year-old small forward coming off the worst season of his career decided against picking up his $15 million player option. This was either inexplicably insane or insanely inexplicable. Or perhaps Jefferson simply enlisted the inestimable Eddy Curry as his financial advisor. Regardless, what could have possibly motivated Jefferson to turn down a cool $15 million after sputtering through the past year in San Antonio? His rationale was that he hoped to secure a long-term contract, in part due to the uncertainty of a new CBA next summer. In an interview with Fanhouse, Jefferson mentioned that he hoped to land a four-year, $40 million deal if he indeed opted out of his current one.
And then...there was nothing. Predictably, teams weren't too interested in an aging player whose game is based on athleticism and who had entered the "precipitous decline" portion of his career. Jefferson seemed to have made a mistake of Sprewell-ian proportions. Until, of course, the Spurs rescued him with a...(wait for it)...four year, $39 million extension. Nearly the exact amount Jefferson asked for a few months prior. This deal was especially expedient for San Antonio because it slashed Jefferson's salary this coming season from $15 million to $8 million, allowing them to keep their nucleus and add Splitter without incurring any crippling luxury tax penalties.
And other NBA executives have taken note, as ESPN's John Hollinger explains:
[The Jefferson re-signing] raised eyebrows in front offices around the league, many of which suspected that there was a prearranged deal between the two parties. [...]
That said, we have no smoking gun that there was any kind of prearranged deal between the Spurs and Jefferson. We don't even have a smokeless gun. All we have is the circumstantial evidence above, as well as two other pieces of information:
1. The Spurs don't sign bad contracts.
2. This is the worst contract of the summer.
In a summer that saw Darko "Manna From Heaven" Milicic net $20 million from the comically inept David Kahn, calling Jefferson's contract the worst of the bunch is a bold statement. But an accurate one -- at least taken in a vacuum. Jefferson is five years older and paid twice as much as Darko, making his contract (slightly) more indefensible. However, there's more going on here. Again from Hollinger:
Follow the money, however. Jefferson's opt-out and lower-salaried return means the Spurs will save about $17 million in salary, luxury tax and tax distributions this year (if one presumes Splitter was coming regardless). Jefferson's new deal cost $31 million after this season, which is all we care about since the Spurs were paying him in 2010-11 either way. Subtract $17 million from $31 million and you end up with Jefferson's deal as a three-year, $14 million extension, which seems eminently reasonable … if you were going to prearrange such a thing.
Suddenly, the Jefferson contract doesn't like quite so bad, does it? The Spurs effectively got him to renegotiate his salary and deferred part of it into the future -- a common practice in the NFL, but which is usually impossible in the NBA due to contracts being guaranteed. Of course, there's absolutely no way to prove that Jefferson and R.C. Buford et. al. colluded on the opt-out/re-signing, but can you think of a better explanation of why the vaunted San Antonio brain trust would throw $39 million at a player on a dramatic downward trajectory?
As long as the ghosts of Joe Smith (whose similar shenanigans cost the T'Wolves four first-round picks) don't visit the Spurs, count this as another coup for Buford and Popovich.