In the 2012 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat exposed the Oklahoma City Thunder by playing LeBron James at the power forward position on offense, and saving him defensively with Shane Battier guarding Serge Ibaka. Since then, it has been a common wisdom that this is the ideal way to take advantage of LeBron James's ability to score inside and out, while keeping him away from excess banging on the defensive end.
Every team LeBron has been on since 2012 has attempted to utilize a player who can spread the floor on offense and guard power forwards on defense next to LeBron. Battier in 2012 and 2013; Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley in 2014; and Shawn Marion and James Jones last year. Some obviously were more successful than others, but the basic player archetype is there. In 2015-2016, the Cavs will likely attempt to incorporate this strategy again into their rotation, with the signing of Richard Jefferson from the Dallas Mavericks.
Jefferson certainly fits the mold of what the Cavs would want in this role, and has experience doing similar things for the Dallas Mavericks last year. Standing 6'7" and weighing 222 pounds, he's a little small to be a true stretch four, but he is a player who has always played tougher than his size, and Jefferson has played significant minutes at the four before. He's been a good defender for his career, and while that slipped a little bit last year, Jefferson still provided a net positive defending on the perimeter (Opponents shot 1.7 percent worse than their average from three last year with Jefferson defending), and allowed 50 percent shooting when he was defending at the rim. He's got quick hands, he's a good rebounder, and he was above average at defending isolations and pick-and-roll roll men last year, per NBA.com Synergy data.
Offensively, he fits the role he'll need to fill as well. Jefferson used to be an off-the-dribble monster with the Nets, but in the last two years has transitioned into exactly the type of player the Cavs need in their offense. He shot 42.6 percent on threes last year, and is a career 38 percent three-point shooter, which is made more impressive by the fact that he shot 33.8 percent in his first seven years in the league. He shot 43.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and did most of his damage from the corners:
But unlike Jones and Matthew Dellavedova, who also did their highest amount of damage from the arc, Jefferson adds more to the offense than just spacing. Jefferson scored 1.31 points per possession on cuts last year (74th percentile), and that was with the best player feeding him being a comatose Rajon Rondo. Imagine how successful he will be breaking for the rim in the space of the Cavs offense catching passes from LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as the defense collapses.
If all goes according to plan, Jefferson should slide right into the role assumed by Jones last year. Jefferson brings more to the table on both ends than Jones, and his cutting skill is probably on par with Iman Shumpert's (Exactly on par, per Shumpert's Knicks numbers), important given than Shump will sit until January with a wrist injury. Lineups with Jones, LeBron and one big were killer last season, but only on offense - they often gave up just as many points as they scored. Jefferson, meanwhile, was excellent in lineups where he played as a small-ball four or next to Dirk Nowitzki, who the Mavericks similarly are trying to save from defensive grinding. Jefferson's top three lineups with those two stipulations had an average offensive rating of 108.7 and defensive rating of 101.2, which doesn't sound impressive until you remember how positively ghastly the Mavericks' defense was last season. The hope is that a lineup of Irving, J.R. Smith, Jefferson, LeBron, and Tristan Thompson could get to around 110 points per 100 possessions on offense and 101-102 points/100 possessions on defense.
This all sounds great, especially when you throw in the fact the Cavs still have Jones around to slot in next to Jefferson when the Cavs want to spread the floor with something crazy like an Irving/Smith/Jones/Jefferson/Love lineup and just play five-out. However, the problem, of course, is age.
Shawn Marion made perfect sense for the 2014-2015 Cavs, until his hip decided to retire from basketball four months before Marion's brain did. Jefferson is 35 with 34,000 total NBA minutes under his belt, and while he can do everything the Cavs want him to do in theory, the potential for injury or drop-off is there, and then the Cavs are rolling out 36-year old Jones for 17-18 minutes a night again. Jefferson can work, and if he does, he'll work out fantastically for this offense. But he needs to beat out Jones's experience and friendship with LeBron for minutes, and stay healthy.