No one saw it coming. Richard Jefferson had played in relative obscurity for a couple seasons, first for a pre-championship Warriors team and then for a rebuilding Jazz squad.
No one thought Jefferson was still the same athletic freak who made two NBA Finals appearances with the New Jersey Nets. Then with one offensive foul, Jefferson reminded everyone why he was still playing on an NBA team.
In a February game against the Hornets, Jefferson, then a Maverick, took a pass from Devin Harris and completely posterized Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Even though Jefferson was called for a foul, the veteran couldn’t help but scream at the crowd after his thunderous dunk.
“I’m 35, and I can still jump a little bit,” Jefferson told SI.com with a smile. “Dunking on people is still my favorite thing to do. I know that there’s not as many left. Everyday I’m closer to it being my last dunk.”
Jefferson left Dallas after one season to join Cleveland, where he’s played a sizeable role on the best team in the East. A year after veterans Mike Miller and Shawn Marion yo-yo’d in and out of the lineup, Jefferson has been a rotation stalwart as the Cavaliers deal with early season injuries.
Jefferson has played in every game, averaging 24 minutes per contest. One night after tweaking his ankle against the Knicks, Jefferson played 39 minutes in the second leg of a back-to-back, scoring 14 points. The key—as every veteran will tell you—is staying prepared.
“One thing I’ve learned in 15 years is expect the unexpected,” Jefferson said of his role. “You have to stay ready for whatever opportunity presents itself.”
Jefferson was certainly excited for the opportunity to join the defending Eastern Conference champs. He described it as a compliment when Cleveland reached out to him in the off-season. Nearing the end of his career, Jefferson wanted another taste of the success he experienced early in his career with the Nets.
In those days, Jefferson was more of a slasher and midrange shooter. Now, he’s playing the role of a quintessential three-and-D player, filling the role of an injured Iman Shumpert. The change in his game, and in the NBA’s game, has been obvious, says Jefferson.
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“One-hundred percent, I’ve seen it," Jefferson says. "The game now is dominated by point guard play, more pick-and-rolls, more corner threes. But I think the formula for winning is still very similar, in that you have to be a great team defensively.”
Although a championship is still the ultimate goal for Jefferson, he says he feels no pressure playing for a team with high expectations and he enjoys having the target on his team’s back. He just wants to soak up as much as he can while his time in the league winds down.
“When you know every team is giving you their best shot, and you’re still winning, nothing is more fun,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson’s importance to the Cavs hasn’t been just his availability, it’s been his utility. He’s hit nearly 39% of his threes, making him a legitimate floor-spacer for the offense. Jefferson says if he’s not shooting a bunch of open shots during games, it’s because defenses are respecting his shot, opening up the lane for LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Jefferson’s role will certainly change once Shumpert is ready to play. Cleveland’s roster is crowded on on the wing, and though coach David Blatt said they signed Jefferson with the intent of giving him playing time, minutes on the perimeter will be tight.
It’s these mental gymnastics, Jefferson said, that will make it tough for him to play much longer in the league. He believes his body will hold up, but the grind of constantly changing his role may make him want out in the next couple years.
Of course, if Jefferson keeps dunking on people, he’ll always have a job in the league. Nearly eight months after dunking on Kidd-Gilchrist, Jefferson victimized 7’3” Hawks rookie Walter Tavares in the preseason with another slam. Tavares, by the way, was a 10-year-old when Jefferson made it to his first NBA Finals.
“I don’t even know how to address the dunks anymore,” Jefferson said. “I’ve done it for so long.”