Jefferson could survive Amnesty Day

By Jeff McDonald

Today is Amnesty Day across the NBA, the date by which teams must decide whether to exercise their so-called “amnesty provision” on a player for this season, or save it for a campaign to come.

For Richard Jefferson, long named near the top of every speculative “to-be-amnestied” list, today could mark the last day of his Spurs career. Or it could be the first day of the rest of his third season in silver and black.

A red-letter day indeed, except Jefferson didn’t exactly have it circled on his calendar.

“I didn’t even know until you told me,” a grinning Jefferson said after Thursday’s practice. “I could have gone to bed tonight a happy man.”

Judging by the way his head coach has been raving about him, not to mention the way the free-agent market has been drying up, perhaps Jefferson needn’t lose sleep anyway.

Though Gregg Popovich didn’t go so far as to rule out the prospect of amnesty for ? Jefferson, it certainly sounds as if the coach is preparing to open the season with the 31-year-old small forward still in the fold.

“It’s kind of interesting,” Popovich said. “Everybody’s always asking about amnesty, and I’m always wondering, ‘Why Richard?’ As if we didn’t advance in the playoffs because of Richard.”

Under the amnesty provision, teams are granted one “get-out-of-a-bad-deal” card, allowing them to waive one player and scrub his contract from the payroll for salary cap and taxpaying purposes.

Waiving Jefferson, who is owed $30.5 million over the next three seasons, would nudge the Spurs’ payroll below the luxury-tax line, allowing them access to the full $5 million mid-level exception in free agency.

With speculation swirling since the start of camp, Jefferson has deflected questions about his future.

“It’s one of those things where you just approach this game like a professional,” Jefferson said. “There’s trade rumors, things always happen. I respect the Spurs and whatever they decide to do, I’ll support.”

Absent a readily available replacement, however, the Spurs seem disinclined to part with their starting small forward. Josh Howard’s decision Thursday to accept a one-year deal in Utah made keeping Jefferson an even more attractive option, at least for this season.

It also helps explain Popovich’s impassioned — and largely unsolicited — Amnesty Day Eve defense of Jefferson’s two-season tenure in San Antonio.

“Each year, he’s understood the system more and done a better job,” Popovich said. “I think he wants to come back and have an even better year than he did last year. I think he was fifth in the league in shooting his threes, and he got better defensively. I think he’ll move forward from there.”

Though Jefferson’s scoring average dipped from 12.3 points to 11 last season, he was more efficient in his second year with the Spurs than his first. His 44-percent clip from 3-point range was not only the fifth-best in the NBA, but also a career high.

Jefferson became a lightning rod for criticism during the top-seeded Spurs’ disappointing first-round playoff ouster against Memphis, totaling 10 points in the final four games. He was benched for the second half of the Game 6 clincher.

Jefferson was not the only player to sag in that series, Popovich noted.

“I don’t think anybody played great,” Popovich said. “Maybe I should have coached better. Maybe three or four players should have played better, but everybody kind of singled out Richard, which was pretty unfair.”

The Spurs could opt to save their amnesty card until the offseason, when they will also have Tim Duncan’s $21.2 million coming off the books and a deeper free-agent pool to chase.

For now, signs point to Jefferson surviving to Saturday, when the Spurs open the preseason at Houston. Until Amnesty Day has come and gone, however, he will sleep with one eye open.

“I’ve had a great time here, and I’m looking forward for it to continue,” Jefferson said. “If something does happen, I’ll be the first to know.”

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