The Spurs' trade for Richard Jefferson was not a great one, and the new contract the Spurs recently gave him could easily be questioned. But he's a player they believe can make a crucial difference for them, and, word has it, is a favorite of coach Gregg Popovich.
But this year, Popovich did something that sounds completely alien. Even though he's a head coach who makes millions and treasures his offseason (when he usually disappears from public life) he personally oversaw the on-court skill development of Jefferson.
Can you name another NBA head coach who has done something like this?
In this day and age, NBA head coaches are multimillionaire executives. They oversee large staffs. They appear on television. They dress well. There are a lot of qualifications for that job, and one of the biggest is having deep credibility with owners and fans. Basically, when things go bad, when there are losing streaks, or crunch time is bungled, you want someone who will live to ride another day, with credibility intact. (This is why former players get so many jobs -- fair or not, fans already know their names and trust them.)
That's why nobody cares much how well you can teach a jump stop. And that's why that kind of on-court skill development is a shockingly small part of what most NBA teams do at all, and an even tinier part of what head coaches do. (That's also why a lot of NBA players hire their own trainers for offseason workouts -- there is not a ton of skill development in the NBA.)
But Popovich is not afraid to do things his own way. And on NBA.com, David Aldridge tells us what he did:
Popovich knew he could not stomach another season with the Jefferson that showed up in San Antonio last season. It wasn't just that Jefferson, like any number of new arrivals in San Antonio, had a tough time adjusting to what Popovich demanded. Jefferson was sluggish and uncertain, and Popovich couldn't trust him at the ends of games to do the right thing. ... So Popovich gave Jefferson a choice, telling him there would be no hard feelings either way. Jefferson could agree to meet Popovich and assistant coach Chip Engelland during the summer in San Antonio to go "back to school," as Popovich put it, on regaining the fundamentals that the Spurs' coach thought Jefferson had lost over the last few seasons. He would also work with Spurs assistant Chad Forcier in New York. And he'd take part in Tim Grgurich's skills camp in Vegas in August.
Or he could refuse, and enjoy his summer.
"And I would have definitely tried to trade him on the spot," Popovich said. "I told him I would definitely go to work on getting your ass out of Dodge."
So Jefferson chose summer school, working out for two hours at a time with the Spurs' coaches all over the country. It was all basics: pivoting with the ball, jump-stopping, drills designed to improve his efficiency of movement on the court. On the defensive end, Jefferson got reinforcements on the Spurs' defensive concepts, which go into much greater detail than simply pushing everything baseline and keeping guards from dribble penetrations in the paint. He reported to camp last week with 7 percent body fat and a cut-up physique.
"I asked him if he wanted to reach his potential, or just let the next few years slough away and just put money in the bank," Popovich said. "He said 'I want to reach my potential.' "