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Original Issue

Sputtering Spur

Expected to push San Antonio back into title contention, Richard Jefferson has found it difficult to fit in

It appeared to be a perfect move: Add a high-scoring swingman with endless energy to an aging lineup in need of a small forward and presto, the Spurs' championship window would swing open again. At least that was the thinking when San Antonio acquired Richard Jefferson from the Bucks in the off-season. But as the Spurs have struggled—through Sunday they were seventh in the Western Conference at 33--24—explanations for their slide have focused on the 29-year-old Jefferson, who is putting up his lowest numbers (12.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game) since he was a rookie.

Part of the problem is that the role of the small forward in San Antonio's complex read-and-react offense differs significantly from the systems used by Jefferson's previous teams. An example: With the Nets and the Bucks, Jefferson's responsibility after a defensive rebound boiled down to throwing the outlet pass and filling a lane. With the Spurs, he is often asked to push the ball himself. If the break stalls—and with the Spurs, who rank 23rd in the NBA through Sunday in fast-break points (12.3 per game), it often does—the ballhandler must then create offense with screen-and-rolls, which is not Jefferson's strength. "We've done a poor job of incorporating Richard into a break situation," says coach Gregg Popovich. "Perhaps [doing so] is just antithetical to the makeup of our team. We're possibly not built for it."

Playing multiple positions hasn't helped the transition either. An injury to Matt Bonner in December pressed Jefferson into part-time duty at power forward. That left him screening for guards on pin downs and trying to find offense out of pick-and-pops, which—again—is not his strength.

As the Spurs have struggled to involve Jefferson, their offense has become predictable. "In the past they were all on the same page, cutting and moving and playing early offense," says an Eastern Conference scout. "This year they are not doing any of it. They are running pick-and-roll or posting [center Tim] Duncan. Any of the stuff that calls for reads they aren't doing, and that cuts Pop's playbook in half."

Jefferson's frustration has at times been visible—and it hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates. "It's been tougher on Richard than it has been on any other new guy they brought in," says forward Antonio McDyess. "They expect him to come in and save the world or something. I think that's how he [feels]: 'It's on my shoulders to get this done.'"

Compounding Jefferson's disappointment is that despite his slow start, he actually likes his surroundings. "My biggest frustration," he says, "is that I'm so happy." He enjoys playing for Popovich and calls Duncan "the smartest player I've ever seen." All he wants, really, is to help them out. Last week Jefferson came off the bench for the first time since his rookie season. "It has been a lot of ups and downs," says Jefferson. "This is one of the most talented teams I have ever played on. We can win. We just have to figure a few things out."

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Going Down

The Grizzlies' decision last week to demote the No. 2 pick in the draft, 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet(below), to the D-League was an indictment of Thabeet's work ethic. The Memphis coaching staff has grown tired of Thabeet's seeming indifference to being out of the rotation.... Expect the Bucks to be major players this summer and at next year's trade deadline. Milwaukee has significant expiring contracts in Michael Redd ($18.7 million), Dan Gadzuric ($7.2 million) and John Salmons ($5.7 million), which will appeal to teams eager to reduce payroll before a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. (The current CBA expires next summer.) Owner Herb Kohl has given G.M. John Hammond a green light to swap the expiring deals for players with long-term contracts.



HAVE A SEAT Jefferson was benched after a February in which he scored 10.1 points per game and shot 35.5%.