By Marty Burns
September 24, 2003

So you're an NBA GM seeking to add one final piece to your roster for the 2003-04 season? Maybe an athletic guy who can run the floor, shoot the three and play more than one position? How about a guy with playoff experience? That would be nice.

So you start perusing the list of available free agents, only to find the usual assortment of journeymen, castoffs and over-the-hill types. Then, suddenly, one name jumps out at you: Stephen Jackson. Stephen Jackson?

You mean the the 6-foot-8 swingman who started for last year's NBA champion Spurs? The guy who averaged 12.8 points and 4.1 rebounds during the playoffs? The guy who poured in 17 points in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, helping the Spurs clinch the title?

OK, so maybe Jackson wasn't exactly the strongest link on Tim Duncan's chain gang. So maybe the 25-year-old basketball nomad, still coming into his own as an NBA player, sometimes treated the rock like it was laced with plutonium. And maybe he's still massaging the marks on his neck from coach Gregg Popovich's quick hook in favor of Emanuel Ginobili in the Finals.

But, still, he's a pretty big name to be waiting by the phone at this late juncture, isn't he? "He started for an NBA championship team last year," notes Magic GM John Gabriel. "For him to still be out there, I would say that's pretty unusual, yeah."

What happened?

Call it bad planning. Or bad timing. Or maybe a little of both.

After last season Jackson had a chance to re-sign with the Spurs. Although Popovich wasn't thrilled with Jackson's penchant for turnovers and uneven play, he was willing to reward him for his contributions. The Spurs even offered Jackson, who made $700,000 a year ago, a three-year deal worth around $10 million, according to sources.

For a team that had been burned badly a few years before by another playoff hero named Jackson -- guard Jaren Jackson, who got a three-year $10 million contract and was never heard from again -- it was a significant risk for the Spurs.

Instead Jackson and his agent, Dan Fegan, chose to test the market. Denver was interested, but Jackson's asking price (a reported multi-year deal starting at around $4 million) was too rich. The Nuggets instead signed Voshon Lenard and Jon Barry.

While Fegan worked his magic for fellow client Gilbert Arenas, Jackson's options withered on the vine. Houston, Jackson's hometown team, signed Eric Piatkowski and Adrian Griffin. The Spurs moved on and acquired Hedo Turkoglu and Ron Mercer.

Now Jackson finds himself sitting at home by the phone. The Hawks, Clippers and Jazz are still possibilities, but none is a sure thing. Atlanta is said to be close to re-signing Jason Terry and Dion Glover. The Clippers already have Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette. Utah, with Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko, has bigger needs at point guard.

Jackson certainly will sign with somebody, but probably not for the big payday he was hoping. Meanwhile, San Antonio can hardly be blamed for moving forward. By acquiring Turkoglu and Mercer, each in the final year of his contract, the Spurs added two quality scorers for practically nothing (they gave up only the soon-to-be-retired Danny Ferry) while maintaining $12 million in cap space next summer.

"Stephen was a significant contributor to our championship run," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. "He had a scorer's mentality ... and an edge that our team fed off.

"We did want to bring him back. We made him an offer, but it just didn't work out."

Gabriel points out that Jackson also appears to be a victim of the new NBA economics. With so many teams at or near the expected luxury tax threshold, there just isn't the same demand for players seeking mid-level money. "A lot of players think they can get it," Gabriel says. "But they find out the market just isn't there."

We don't know what Jackson is thinking, since he didn't return phone calls seeking comment, but we can assume he'll be OK wherever he winds up. After all, this is a guy who was playing in Venezuela and the CBA just a few years ago and has seen his share of personal heartbreak -- including the beating death of his brother. For him, just playing in the NBA is a blessing.

But it's unlikely he will find a better situation than the one he could have had this year in San Antonio. By choosing to play the free-agent game, he not only lost a chance to sink roots and play for another championship in his home state. He lost all those open looks gained from playing alongside Tim Duncan.

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