INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — At 36 years old in the 15th season of his career, Richard Jefferson has certainly contributed to a fair share of championship contenders in the NBA.
Whether it was his seven-year run with the New Jersey Nets, two years in San Antonio or a couple of stints between the Warriors and the Mavericks, the veteran forward has been a part of some great teams.
But Jefferson didn’t win an NBA title with any of those aforementioned organizations, and it ultimately landed him in Cleveland over the summer, where he’s already noticed an inseparable bond in his short time there.
“They’re a pretty together group,” Jefferson told Amico Hoops. “I think whenever you have a combination of success and disappointment, it brings people together.
“You work out together, you grind together, and you’ve been to the mountaintop without accomplishing your goal. I think the next year that allows everyone to kind of focus a little bit more.”
Jefferson, of course, is referring to Cleveland’s NBA Finals loss to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors last June. Plagued by injuries to key players, the Cavs’ literally rode the back of LeBron James and fell short of achieving their goal of a championship.
In response to those circumstances, Cavs’ general manager David Griffin went out and added Jefferson and Mo Williams to the team as an insurance policy in case of history repeating itself.
But was a better bench really the missing piece to last year’s run, or was Cleveland simply missing too much firepower?
“Had Kevin or Kyrie both not gone out, I think depth wouldn’t have been as much as an issue, because you had two starters that played between 35—and some nights—40 minutes,” Jefferson said.
“So because of those injuries, depth was an issue. If this year we don’t have those injuries, the lineup is going to get shorter. In the playoffs, you’re going to play eight, maybe nine guys depending on foul trouble. It’s a great luxury to have, but it’s more important if there’s injuries.”
Through five games with the Cavaliers, Jefferson has already provided a boost off of a bench that was entirely lacking production last year. His legs are spritely, he’s knocking down 47 percent of his threes and he’s enjoying every minute of his role.
Jefferson hasn’t only contributed on the floor, however, as he’s already taken a liking to a young teammate of his—Jared Cunningham, a player that the veteran believes can turn heads some day and “go very far.”
“He’s an extremely talented guy,” Jefferson said. “It’s been unfortunate because he’s had injuries and he’s bounced around a little bit, but as far as talent wise—he’s extremely talented. I think the preseason really helped him and helped the coaches see who he is as a player, because there were injuries and guys not playing.”
“But there’s a mentality that’s involved in the NBA. There’s a mentality of a guy who’s trying to survive. There’s a mentality of a guy who’s comfortable and is just a vet and works consistently.”
The 36-year-old said that he’s had a number of conversations with Cunningham, passing down his words of experience and wisdom to help mold the 24-year-old into a better professional.
“I try and let Jared know, ‘Hey, I know you’re in a position where you’re trying to prove yourself and you’re still trying to show people what you can do, but that doesn’t supersede high basketball IQ.’
“Instead of driving it and trying to score every time, having the ability to drive and kick it. Work on your game and develop a floater. You can develop a lot of things in three, four years—but it takes time to put that time in.”
For both Jefferson and Cunningham, opportunity has come knocking in light of the news that J.R. Smith will be out for the next couple of games—and it’s not the first time Jefferson’s seen this happen, citing Jeremy Lin in New York a few years ago as an example.
“I think for [Cunningham] this a great situation where he’s got a lot of people that are trying to help him, but he also has an opportunity where he gets to play,” Jefferson said.
“That’s the part of this league where you get that opportunity,” he continued. “I’ve seen guys not able to get off the bench because two or three guys were healthy all season long, so they never got an opportunity to play.
“And I’ve seen guys go and get a 20-30 million dollar contract because somebody got hurt and they were able to start and play for 15-20 games.”
As for well-established players in this league, Jefferson said the Cavs have rallied around the mentality of their captain—LeBron James.
“A lot of times you take on the personality of your leader. He’s an unselfish, hard-working, win-first kind of guy.”
So with that leadership combined with the togetherness of the players and a 4-1 record to start the year, is this the best group that Jefferson has been a part of?
“It’s a few games,” he said. Everyone at the beginning of the season is optimistic. So you try and understand it’s a long haul and try not to get too emotionally high.
“Is this a close team? Yes. Will we get closer as the season progresses? Yes. As far as what we can accomplish and how good we are, only time will tell.”