For a lot of the season, it wasn't clear Richard Jefferson had much left in the tank. The Cavaliers outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions during the regular season as a team. When Jefferson played, they were actually outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions over 1326 minutes. Offensively, he was fine. He made over 38 percent of his three point attempts on a small usage and as a savvy veteran didn't take anything off the table. His defense was problematic.
But much of the criticism that plagued Jefferson during the regular season (and I'll admit, I was a huge part of this), was misguided. As the primary backup for LeBron James, they almost never shared the court together. When they did, per NBAwowy.com, the Cavs actually outscored opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions (note that this calculation is slightly different than the one used for the nba.com numbers above). What's the lesson here? Well I should be humble in trying to tell you, since on the subject of Richard Jefferson I've been so wrong, but I think there are a few. The first is that LeBron is really good. The second is that it's probably unfair to ask Jefferson at age 35 to back him up. And the third, and ultimately most important one for the context of this article, is that Jefferson was a fantastic wing to pair next to James. He didn't require the ball, hit shots, and worked his tail off defensively to put himself in position to win his first NBA title.
There was a debate among people who followed the Cavs at the trade deadline as to whether or not the Cavs should prioritize acquiring a big or a wing. Timofey Mozgov had struggled to be productive, and Anderson Varejao was tough to count on. On the flipside, there was the notion that Tristan Thompson was doing fine, and that Varejao was healthy. Plus, Kevin Love could play some center and LeBron would ultimately play a lot of four in the playoffs.
That last point led to the argument to prioritize help on the wing. It didn't appear that Jefferson was of the right quality to be counted on by the Cavs as a wing that could counter the Warriors so-called "death lineup". So I, and others, wanted another wing that could shoot and play some defense. It was going to be tough to rely on Iman Shumpert's shooting, and J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova lacked length.
In the end, the Cavs prioritized size and shooting and went with Channing Frye. This move was ultimately vindicated in more ways than one. First, Frye was hugely important in spurts for the Cavs. Tyronn Lue didn't go to him consistently, but when his number was called in the playoffs, he delivered. The Cavs decision to forego wing help likewise ended up working out just fine, and Jefferson was a huge reason why.
In 66 minutes with Jefferson swapped in for Love with the regular starters in the NBA Finals, the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 26.9 points. It's a small sample, and it's obviously not all on Jefferson, but his whole job was to be good enough in his role. He was. He didn't take many shots in the playoffs, but compiled a 61.4 percet true shooting rate when he did assert himself in the offense. The 15-year vet was in the playoffs for the 11th time, but he compiled his second best total rebounding rate in this trip.
It's worth noting that Jefferson's contributions to the Cavs extended in ways that are difficult to quantify. He was a steady voice in an unsteady locker room. His snapchat account became a must-watch, and a rare look into the Cavs' genuine chemistry. As the season rolled into April there was a clear change in the tone of the locker room before and after games, and Jefferson and Channing Frye had a lot to do with it. Jefferson had not won a title in his NBA career. He didn't win one at Arizona, and his appearance for Team USA in 2004 didn't end with a gold medal.
Cleveland and Jefferson finally got their happily ever after. I'm looking forward to a sequel.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted