Reason Popovich deserves amnesty

The Spurs had used economic smoke to trade for a smart, genial, talented man. No one knew at the time little fire would come in return.

They were thrilled about Richard Jefferson.

R.C. Buford called the trade “an exciting day in our franchise’s evolution,” and Gregg Popovich gushed similarly.

“He’s got a toughness to him,” Popovich said then of Jefferson. “He’s a competitor. He gives us that added quality, which is important when trying to get a championship.”

Franchises say such things after trades. But these words are stunning in review, and not just because Popovich was wrong. He was wrong as he rarely has been. He was wrong about the one trait he values above all others.

It’s an aberration, and history supports that.

Such as?

The last time Popovich faced a shortened season.

Before this one, Popovich and Buford face a few decisions. Whether to amnesty Jefferson and his contract is at the top of the list.

These things are often just business. Dallas used the amnesty clause on Michael Finley, for example, and he won a ring with the Spurs while still receiving a paycheck from Mark Cuban.

But Finley’s story isn’t the same. The Mavericks had rewarded him in his prime, then later found his contract too pricey for his declining ability.

The Spurs, in contrast, accepted Jefferson’s contract as part of the deal. There have been times when he’s been effective, especially when he lined up his 3-point stroke last season. But mostly he’s been, well, odd.

“You know, in football, when there’s a pile and the runner is tackled?” a Spurs coach said not long ago. “Richard is the guy who runs in when the play is over and jumps into the pile.”

Popovich surely had some idea Jefferson might underperform. The two had been together during the summer of 2004 for the Olympics.

But Popovich liked Jefferson, and maybe he thought a reasonable person could be reached through reason. The summer of 2010, when Popovich did one-on-one work with Jefferson and made some headway, was an extension of that.

Maybe, too, Popovich had grown tired of cobbling together wins without traditional NBA scoring. Popovich wanted to believe, both in himself and in a seemingly well-intentioned player.

But in trading for Jefferson, Popovich had gone against his instincts. He doesn’t want guys he has to talk into competing; he wants those who are built for it.

He addressed that directly in the previous post-lockout world. Then, in January of 1999, he would be on the phone with one agent, with Buford on another line with another agent, changing their franchise one call at a time.

It was a free-agent scramble, as this one will be. And when the papers settled, the Spurs had added either physical toughness (Jerome Kersey) or mental toughness (Steve Kerr) or both (Mario Elie).

The Spurs had similar personalities already on the roster, such as Avery Johnson. But when Popovich sprinkled like-minded veterans around Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Sean Elliott, he reset the Spurs’ locker room.

Elliott felt that from the first day. “I’m gonna push him in practice,” Elie announced before a game had been played. “I’m gonna beat him up. I’m gonna make him tough.”

If Elliott rolled his eyes — and Duncan did at times — the impact was real. Popovich had created a theme that would last through the next decade, from Bruce Bowen to Robert Horry to Antonio McDyess.

Jefferson doesn’t fit with that group, and he never did. That’s why the trade wasn’t his fault.

That’s also why the term amnesty isn’t meant for him. Jefferson wouldn’t be getting a reprieve or a pardon if the Spurs buy him out. He would just be getting money.

The amnesty, instead, is for Popovich.

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