When the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for Mike Dunleavy Jr. this summer, the goal was to solidify their wing depth. The Cavs now have three very quality options to play at the three in Dunleavy, Richard Jefferson, and (of course) LeBron James, and all three can also play minutes at the four in small-ball lineups. Adding Dunleavy gives the team another solid shooter who can defend and rebound. Even with his injury history, Dunleavy should be able to contribute significantly this year.
However, adding Dunleavy creates an interesting question. Who should play more between Dunleavy and Jefferson? The 2001 NCAA title game foes are of similar age, size, and production level, and both could conceivably offer solid value as a bench scorer. Arguments began during our #CavsRank series, as people were torn over who should be rated higher. The comparison that follows is an attempt to answer that question: Which player is more valuable?
Dunleavy is a little bit younger than Jefferson. Dunleavy has also played far less minutes than Jefferson, playing about 6,100 less minutes in the regular season and a full 3,000 less playoff minutes over his career. While Jefferson was playing for the Nets and Spurs in his prime, Dunleavy spent a majority of his prime on very, very bad Warriors and Pacers teams. That’ll create a disparity like that.
However, the advantage Jefferson has on Dunleavy is that Jefferson hasn’t had an injury as significant as the ones Dunleavy has had. Dunleavy missed 51 games last season due to a low back injury that required surgery, and also has dealt with knee issues in 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, per prosportstransactions.com. And while Dunleavy was able to come back to the floor and be reasonably effective for the Bulls last year, chronic back and knee issues are nothing to laugh off. Jefferson might break down due to his past minute totals, but Dunleavy’s injury history concerns me more.
Slight Edge: Jefferson
Jefferson is the slightly better shooter for his career, hitting 38.0 percent from three compared to 37.6 percent for Dunleavy. However, Dunleavy’s probably the better shooter overall. Dunleavy’s much better as a catch-and-shoot threat, hitting 40.7 percent on these looks last year, compared to 34.8 percent for Jefferson. Dunleavy is better at moving off the ball, and he gets a lot of his quality looks by sliding into space above the break after a player drives, similar to how J.R. Smith gets a lot of his open looks. Jefferson, meanwhile, is much more of a stationary threat.
However, Jefferson takes a lot more corner threes than Dunleavy has, and that could make him a more effective weapon for the Cavs. Dunleavy took just 22 corner threes last year, compared to 77 threes from above the break, and he took 18 of those corner threes from the right corner. Compare that to Jefferson, who shot 88 corner threes compared to 85 from above the break, and he hit 44.3 percent of those corner threes. Jefferson is much more comfortable shooting from the corners than Dunleavy, which is a more necessary spot in many Cavs lineups because Dunleavy, Smith, James, and Kyrie Irving are all most comfortable shooting from above the break. Dunleavy can hit those threes, certainly, but it’s not his preferred spot. That may make Jefferson the more important shooter, despite Dunleavy being better overall.
Neither player creates for himself that much at this point in their careers. Just 11.7 percent of Dunleavy’s shots were unassisted last year, and Jefferson had just 17.5 percent of his baskets unassisted. Both players can slash a little bit, and will get plenty of opportunities at the rim through drives or cuts to the basket along the baseline. Dunleavy’s an above-average finisher here, converting 57 percent of his shots in the restricted area. However, Jefferson blows him out of the water, finishing an insane 72.7 percent from that range. Jefferson’s also better at drawing contact, posting a 27.9 percent free throw rate, compared to just 19.7 for Dunleavy. Both players are effective in a similar role, but Jefferson was fantastic last year at the rim, compared to just solid for Dunleavy.
Dunleavy gets the slight advantage here, as he averaged 2.0 assists per game and had an assist rate of 8.1 percent, compared to 1.6 and 6.4, respectively, for RJ. This is basically a wash, but Dunleavy has been slightly better.
Slight Edge: Dunleavy
Dunleavy and Jefferson are not very useful on the offensive glass, primarily because they’re commonly posted up on the three-point line. Defensively, though, both players can make an impact. Jefferson was a very strong rebounder in the playoffs last year, posting a 17.7 percent defensive rebound rate as he operated more as a stretch power forward. However, that run was a bit of an anomaly, and his regular season numbers, which were actually lower than Dunleavy’s (9.6 DRB% for Jefferson, 11.0 for Dunleavy), are probably more of the norm. Jefferson has the strength advantage, but Dunleavy’s height and instincts have made him the slightly better rebounder over their careers.
Per NBA.com player tracking data, Dunleavy was better on the perimeter last year. He forced shooters to shoot 4.8 percent worse on threes than their overall average. Jefferson, meanwhile, allowed opponents to shoot 1.4 percent better from three. Jefferson, however, was the better defender on the interior. He allowed 58.8 percent shooting at the rim, compared to 61.3 percent for Dunleavy.* Jefferson is also the better post defender (75th percentile), where he can use his strength to bother opponents more than Dunleavy ever can.
When it came to isolations, Jefferson was very good, allowing 0.47 points per possession (PPP) in 53 regular season possessions. Dunleavy was still acceptable, allowing 0.87, and this season, I’d expect the gap there to close, as Jefferson’s season was probably a bit of a statistical outlier. It’s a similar story in defending the pick-and-roll, where Jefferson allowed 0.05 fewer PPP than Dunleavy.
On-ball defense is likely a spot where Dunleavy and RJ are very close. Dunleavy’s probably better one-on-one on the perimeter, whereas Jefferson is better at battling on the inside and navigating the pick-and-roll. Both are pretty average, overall, so this is probably a push.
Dunleavy’s off-ball defense is solid, which is no surprise. He has a length advantage and is more physical with opponents off the ball, which helps him defend the three-point line to a more effective degree than Jefferson. Dunleavy allowed 0.97 PPP on spot-ups last year, compared to 1.03 for Jefferson, and he defends those plays at a higher volume than Jefferson. Jefferson’s better suited at this point to defending slower players on the perimeter, while Dunleavy can still be effective against most bench wings.
Edge: Jefferson, obviously.
Jefferson is one of the foundational glue guys of the team. He, along with Channing Frye, helped to create the cohesive togetherness that we saw from this team during their playoff run. He’s an extremely likable guy that the entire team seems to love, and his impact off the court is probably second on the team behind LeBron.
Dunleavy, meanwhile, will help give this team an edge. He’s a cagey defensive player, a guy who’s unafraid to get in your face, bump you coming around screens, and give you a hard foul on a closeout. He’s a guy who can be used to give an extra edge against a good offensive team, because while he’s not the best defender in the league, he’s a player who can throw you out of rhythm.
Both of these aspects of the game will make Dunleavy and Jefferson valuable to the Cavs this season. However, Jefferson’s will probably matter a small bit more.
Jefferson appears to be the more important player to the Cavs’ success, to me. While Dunleavy’s shooting, rebounding, and off-ball defense will be valuable, Jefferson’s leadership and skills that fit the niche the Cavs want him to fill mean that he should be the more valuable player this year.
Both players will still likely get an even amount of playing time, and it’s important to note that the possibility exists that one or both falls off significantly due to injury or age. This question could resolve itself right away if Dunleavy gets hurt again, or if Jefferson’s early retirement decision ends up being an omen that it was time. However, until then, Jefferson appears to be the more vital piece for the Cavs’ success, while Dunleavy is close behind as a very important luxury piece.