Commentary

Jefferson-for-Yi deal all about LeBron and Nets

Originally Published: June 26, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider

If you're a Nets fan, you had better hope LeBron and Jay-Z are reaaaaaaaaal tight. Like sardine-can tight. Because the only way to make hay from what amounts to a giveaway of Richard Jefferson on Thursday is if LeBron decides to bolt for Brooklyn in 2010.

Yes, the Nets also will get Yi Jianlian in Thursday's deal (along with Bobby Simmons), but that's small consolation in return for one of the league's top small forwards. The Nets now have a gaping hole at that slot, one which may or may not be adequately filled in Thursday's draft, and one has to question whether LeBron will be willing to make the jump in 2010 to a team that, at the moment, looks to be a 30-win squad.

Look, I know the issues with Jefferson. He's not worth what he's making ($42 million over the next three seasons), he's struggled with ankle problems the past two seasons, and he makes poor decisions when asked to be an initiator offensively.

But let's not overstate things. He's 28, he's a quality defender -- even if he slipped a bit last season -- and he ranked 13th among small forwards in player efficiency rating last season while playing all 82 games.

Or look at it this way: Even if Yi becomes a decent player, which remains a question to be answered, it's hard to imagine him becoming any better than Jefferson.

Obviously, New Jersey didn't do this deal with the hope of improving its roster in 2008-09. No, this was done to improve its cap space in 2010 -- Simmons' expiring deal will cut $10.6 million off the payroll two summers from now, and the clear-as-day idea is that King James will ride in to the rescue the Nets at that point.

In the meantime, maybe Yi earns them a few more Nets fans from the New York area's large Asian population, and maybe he'll play a little better now that he's not in Wisconsin culture shock.

But for a team that's business side has been focused on the 2010 move to Brooklyn for some time now, it only makes sense that the basketball side starts getting in line. The hope for the Nets is that the nucleus of Yi, Devin Harris, Nenad Krstic, Josh Boone, Marcus Williams, Sean Williams, and whomever they draft will be decent enough to attract James to join the crowd; if Vince Carter is still chugging along by then so much the better. But the Nets are clearly rolling the dice.

Meanwhile, the Bucks obviously consider themselves closer to being a good team than last season's record indicates, and they may have a point. Milwaukee has been able to score, but the team hasn't defended well. Under new coach Scott Skiles, whose defenses in Chicago were consistently among the league's best, one has to think that might improve.

Additionally, with the trade, the Bucks address a massive weakness at small forward without giving up a starter. Simmons was a big-money free-agent bust, while Yi was splitting time with Charlie Villanueva -- apparently they figured one soft, perimeter-oriented power forward was enough. And since new Bucks GM John Hammond wasn't the one who drafted Yi or traded for Villaneuva, he didn't feel any compulsion to ride it out with those two.

Jefferson can guard the opponent's top perimeter threat, much like he did in New Jersey, and should be effective in that role. Additionally, the presence of Michael Redd and Mo Williams means Jefferson won't be asked to be the creator that he was in New Jersey, saving everyone some headaches. It's enough to make you take Milwaukee's playoff hopes seriously again.

Still, at the end of the day this deal is all about the Nets. Either LeBron joins the Nets in 2010 and the deal looks like a stroke of genius ... or he doesn't and the team is left wondering why it gave away one of its better players two years earlier.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.

ALSO SEE