Spurs take big stride back toward top of West by acquiring Jefferson

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Hold off on burying the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs' pending trade with money-saving Milwaukee for Richard Jefferson breathes new life into a franchise that has won four titles since 1999 but has struggled with age and injury issues during the last two seasons.

In exchange for Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto, the Spurs are set to receive a 29-year-old swingman who can play two positions and whose offensive skills will relieve Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of some of the scoring load. Jefferson is coming off a season in which he averaged 19.6 points and shot a career-high 39.7 percent from three-point range.

With this move, the Spurs have addressed their need for more athleticism and playmaking on the wing. Michael Finley, 36, started at small forward last season.

"This is a great trade for San Antonio," a Western Conference scout said. "[Jefferson] gives them another reliable scorer. He thrives in open-court settings, and with Parker and [backup point guard] George Hill on the floor, he will get plenty of opportunities. He's not the defensive stopper Bowen was, but he will buy into their defensive system and fit in smoothly."

Equally important for the Spurs is that they did not have to break apart their core to make the deal, which was awaiting league approval late Tuesday. Bowen was a key contributor to three title teams, but his playing time declined sharply last season as he played a reserve role for the first time in his eight-year tenure in San Antonio. Oberto and Thomas were valuable role players who protected Duncan by defending the top frontcourt players early in games, but neither was considered indispensable. The Spurs also were able to keep young prospects Hill and power forward Ian Mahinmi, who will be counted on to be rotation players next season.

The trade, however, leaves the Spurs thin in the frontcourt and pushes them over the luxury-tax threshold, a rarity for them. (Jefferson is owed $14.2 million next season and $15 million in 2010-11, while the three players going to Milwaukee have one year left on their deals.) San Antonio has three second-round picks (Nos. 37, 51 and 53) in Thursday's draft. The Spurs also have their mid-level exception available in a free-agent market that includes big men Rasheed Wallace, Anderson Varejao, Antonio McDyess and Chris Andersen. Wallace is expected to garner a lot of attention from top contenders. Cleveland is believed to be the early front-runner, but the Spurs -- if they're willing to plunge deeper into luxury-tax territory -- could tempt Wallace with the chance to play alongside a dominant big man in Duncan.

Even with a few roster moves still to be determined, the Jefferson trade has catapulted the Spurs back into competition with the Lakers for next season's Western Conference title.