Jefferson finally moves forward
In the seven years I have known Richard Jefferson, I have always considered him to be three things:
1. Outspoken. Though he has toned it down considerably in the last few years, Jefferson has always been one of the NBA's most charismatic players, a characteristic that manifests itself in emotional outbursts on the court as well as the "occasional" round of trash talking. As a rookie in 2002, Jefferson engaged in a brief tabloid war of words with Kenny Anderson during the Eastern Conference Finals. And in '05, he called Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace "not very talented."
2. Underrated. Despite staggeringly consistent numbers -- Jefferson holds career averages of 17.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in seven seasons and has averaged at least 15 points since his second year in the league -- R.J. has never made the All-Star team. He was left off in 2005-06 when he averaged 19.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, and again last season despite averaging a career-high 22.6 points. Few small forwards in the league run the floor as well as Jefferson. Though he will never be confused for Ron Artest, his ability to decently defend both swing positions was an asset for the Nets. At the very least, he was never a liability.
3. Uncertain. There is a part of Jefferson that has always wanted to be 'The Man' and that was never going to happen in New Jersey, not as long as Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Vince Carter were still in town. Over the last few years and in numerous conversations, Jefferson has gone back and forth about whether he wants to finish his career in a Nets uniform, or if he would rather start over in a situation where he would be a team's No. 1 option.
I hadn't spoken to Jefferson since he was traded in July to Milwaukee in a cost-cutting move (Jefferson is owed $42 million over the remaining three years of his contract) that also brought the Nets forwards Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. He practically went into witness protection after the trade was announced, conducting no media interviews before surfacing at his introductory press conference in Milwaukee about a week later.
I read the quotes from Jefferson's press conference. He claimed not to be upset about going from one of the NBA's biggest cities (while technically playing in New Jersey, Jefferson lived in Manhattan) to one of its smallest, that the only reason he was upset was because he was leaving the only team he had ever played for.
"It was an emotional thing for me," said Jefferson in July. "Only because I wanted to be a Net for my entire career."
Still, I wasn't entirely convinced. Jefferson is a city guy -- he recently purchased a new home in Manhattan -- who was now being required to spend at least seven months out of the year in a town not exactly known for its nightlife. That's not a knock on Milwaukee, it's just a fact.
And I wasn't entirely sure Jefferson wasn't ready to leave New Jersey, for the reasons I enumerated earlier. When Carter signed a four-year, $61 million contract with the Nets before last season, it effectively ensured Jefferson would continue his role of second banana. Third, really, if you factor in Kidd, but I think Jefferson saw surpassing Carter on the star chart as his biggest obstacle.
So with the dust from the trade long since settled and a few weeks to go before training camp, I figured now would be a good time to ask Jefferson the question: Are you at all upset about no longer being a Net?
"You know, I was frustrated," said Jefferson in a telephone interview. "But now I'm excited. People misconstrued that I was unhappy going to Milwaukee. Man, I was unhappy about leaving the only team I had been a part of. I was the last one standing from the team that went to the Finals, the guys that won three straight division championships, the guys that made the Nets respectable -- and respectable for a long time. I didn't want to go. But it wasn't about Milwaukee."
"For the last two or three years, my name has been brought up in trade rumors. Before it was about trading me to Chicago for Luol [Deng]. Now I'm with [former Bulls coach] Scott Skiles in Milwaukee. I saw the correlation. It wasn't surprising. I saw this as an individual who wanted me on his team. Even though he changed teams, I know he has tried to get me for years. He wants me on his team. I'm excited about that."
Jefferson said he also understands that the Nets, who are slashing payroll in order to get under the salary cap in 2010, would want to move his salary.
"The organization is trying to cut costs," said Jefferson. "When you are a part of an organization for seven years, you hear about things on the business side. You hear that they might want to go in a different direction."
That direction is probably why Jefferson is no longer upset about being traded. As the Nets began to decline (the '03 Finals appearance was followed by a second-round exit in '04 and a first-round sweep in '05) there appeared to be a rift forming between the core of the team -- namely Kidd, Jefferson and Carter -- and management, specifically head coach Lawrence Frank and president Rod Thorn. Good players -- particularly big players -- were being allowed to leave with the Nets getting little or nothing in return. Kenyon Martin in '04. Mikki Moore in '07. The Nets expended draft pick after draft pick trying to replace them (Mile Ilic in 2005, Josh Boone in '06, Sean Williams in '07, Brook Lopez in '08). But to date, no one has been able to fill the holes.
I know some players privately seethed about Frank's unwillingness to play and develop young players. And free agency? The Alonzo Mourning gamble didn't pay off and low budget free-agent pickups like Jeff McInnis and Jamal Magloire didn't pan out.
With the talent being drained around them, the pressure on the Nets Big Three began to build. And it certainly didn't sit well with any of them when the critics blamed them for the Nets struggles, not when they were practically begging management to bring in some help. And to stop letting the talent that they had walk away.
Does that rift still exist? I think so. Kidd and Jefferson are gone, but Carter is being asked to play hard for a team that: a.) doesn't expect to win for the next two years and b.) is subtly courting someone -- LeBron James -- to replace him. How long will it be before Carter demands a trade? Midseason?
None of this seems to concern Jefferson. Not anymore. He talks about the potential he sees in a frontcourt with himself and rookie Joe Alexander, who visited Jefferson in San Diego this summer. "We can be a lot like me and Kenyon," said Jefferson. "We're two athletic guys who can score and play multiple positions." He says he loves the Bucks fast-breaking potential. He thinks he'll be able to take some of the pressure, both on and off the court, off Michael Redd. And he loves the possibilities that come with playing with a legitimate low-post presence like Andrew Bogut.
"We're going to have a good season," said Jefferson.
Will New Jersey? Nope. I didn't bother asking. I already know the answer.