Plenty of Cavaliers altered their legacies and the way we'll look at them forevermore after defeating the Warriors in the NBA Finals. LeBron James, obviously. J.R. Smith, who's gone from a knucklehead and a throw-in in a trade --the Knicks were that desperate to get rid of him-- to a vital, steady, two-way contributor. Tristan Thompson, who took forever to agree to an extension last summer and had pundits debating his value, now looks like a bargain for his defensive versatility and powerful board work. Kevin Love was mocked for being a soft, defensive liability who could never win, but he played his best game of the series in Game 7 and denied Stephen Curry a clean look at a three when it mattered most. Kyrie Irving, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft, was looking like the fourth-best player of the class, behind Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson, but after these Finals he's probably vaulted over the latter two behind only Leonard in a do-over.
For Spurs fans though, these redemption stories hit a rough schadenfreude patch with one Richard Jefferson, known quite non-affectionately around these parts as He Who Shall Not Be Named.
To say that Spurs fans have a complicated relationship with Jefferson would be as polite as it's inaccurate. We despise him. We loathe him. He is the most-reviled Spur of the Duncan/Popovich Era. Not the worst, mind you, but most-reviled. There's nuance there, and you have to be an avid follower of the team to understand it.
When the Spurs traded for him a couple days into the off-season in 2009, giving up a couple of beloved but also washed pieces in Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto, Jefferson was supposed to be the missing piece to get them back to the top of the mountain, an athletic wing who would streak down the court in transition and finish above the rim. The Spurs had gotten to the end of the road with old-hands like Bowen, Brent Barry and Michael Finley and were desperate for some youth and vitality, especially since they had no guarantees Manu Ginobili would ever regain his old form after undergoing another ankle surgery. Yeah, Jefferson turned 29 a couple days before the deal, but that made him a greenhorn compared to the rest of their wings.
Popovich was so excited by the move, and the draft pick of DeJuan Blair, that he remarked "If we don't win, I should be fired."
Blair had a terrific debut. Jefferson, not so much. But the Spurs won their opener, routing the NOOCH, and looked like they were gonna be awesome.
They wound up finishing 50-32 and got the seventh seed, despite healthy seasons from Ginobili and Duncan. Tony Parker played only 56 games and was mostly meh, to the point that the Spurs reportedly were shopping him for a high lottery pick. They upset the Mavericks in round one, but got swept by the Suns in the semis.
Time does fuzzy things to the memory. We try to look back on RJ's time with the Spurs (a period we'd love to forget) and it feels as though he lost his explosiveness the second he got off the plane. It turns out it wasn't so, not exactly. Are you ready for a stat that will blow your heads clean off your bodies? Here, I'll wait while you lay down some newspaper all around the floor and tape some pages from The New Yorker to cover your walls and shield your laptop by wrapping it with Saran-wrap.
Okay, are you ready? You can't blame me and say I didn't warn you.
Getting to the rim wasn't a problem for Jefferson his first year. Nearly a third of his attempts came at the basket and he converted 69.5 percent of them, the best of his career at the time. His rebounding and play-making weren't too far off from his established norms, and he turned it over far less than he had in his previous stops with the Nets or Bucks.
So what was the problem?
Well, he hardly ever shot the ball, with just 16.1 attempts per 100 possessions, tying a career-low he set in his rookie year. He only got to the line 6.0 times per 100 possessions, by far a career-low. He made just 31.6 percent of his threes, which killed the offense. And worst of all, he frequently looked lost and confused on defense, taking months and months to understand the system.
Even worse, whatever issues he had were exasperated in the playoffs. He struggled so mightily that Popovich felt more comfortable using a three-guard lineup of Ginobili, Parker and George Hill in big spots. Jefferson attempted five threes in 10 playoff games, out of his 70 field goal attempts overall. He either purposefully or sub-consciously moved a step inside the three-point line during the half-court sets where he was supposed to be in the corner, and it ruined the offense's spacing. After an underwhelming regular season in which he managed a meager 13.1 PER (think Harrison Barnes), he followed that up with a 10.9 PER in the playoffs.
The Spurs signed him to an extension in the off-season, which actually improved their cap flexibility in the long run. Pop vowed to personally work with Jefferson on his three-point shooting. San Antonio was determined to make the RJ Experiment work.
Well, they did it. They fixed his stroke. Jefferson shot a career-best 44 percent from three. But he struggled even worse in practically every other area. He shot even less frequently, averaged fewer free-throws, fewer rebounds, fewer assists, and a had a 15.4 usage rate. Basically, career-lows in everything, including a 12.4 PER (which is 10th-man stuff) while starting. The Spurs were undergoing an offensive metamorphosis, playing with more pace and space and turning the offense over to the guards, and still Jefferson's game couldn't get unlocked. He averaged 6.5 points on 5.2 shots during the Spurs first-round upset loss to the Grizzlies and played all of 10:13 in Game 6.
By this point it was clear that the signing was a disaster and the Spurs gave up all pretense of thinking it was going to improve. They were hellbent on finding a wing in the draft, and wound up sacrificing Hill to move up to the 15th slot to nab Leonard.
The writing was on the wall, but still PATFO didn't cut the cord with Jefferson, maybe for fear of putting too much on Leonard's plate early. Danny Green was just starting to establish himself then too, but hadn't earned much trust yet. Jefferson was still the "steady veteran," even though he had completely abandoned going to the basket by this point, a whopping 7.8 percent of his attempts coming at the rim, with three dunks in 41 games.
The Spurs had plenty of talent, a scintillating mix of young and old, but it still looked uneven and unfocused for much of the year. They looked soft. But then they picked up Boris Diaw, and unloaded Jefferson to the Warriors for Stephen Jackson, giving up a 2012 1st round-pick to get rid of him. "Cap'n Jack" was everything Jefferson wasn't. He was bold. He was brash. He was unafraid. He "made love to pressure." They went 22-3 afterward and won their first 10 playoff games before... well that's not important.
There have been plenty of Spurs who weren't great players. By definition, only a few can be. That wasn't why Jefferson was so despised. His unpardonable sin was violating Pop's number one requirement for players: He didn't compete. He wasn't mentally strong. The brighter the spotlight, the more he shrank from it. The Spurs were renowned for their orneriness and toughness, especially come playoff time. Jefferson was the antithesis of that.
By the next season, Jefferson was reduced to a deep reserve for the 2012-13 Warriors and Spurs fans delighted in him missing two free-throws with 1:57 to go in Game 1 of their second-round series, when Golden State was up eight. If he makes those, the game is probably over. Instead, the Spurs rallied from 16 down with less than four minutes to go and won in double-overtime.
Jefferson became a journeyman after that, moving on to Utah, then Dallas, and finally Cleveland. He was going to re-sign with the Mavs but Mark Cuban let him out of it to join the Cavs after DeAndre Jordan changed his mind and returned to the Clippers after originally agreeing to sign with Dallas. RJ was ring-chasing, but who cared? It was Richard Jefferson. It's not like he'd do anything but sit the bench.
Well he played 74 games, seeing more time on the court than either Ginobili or Kyle Anderson did for the Spurs. He didn't play well, mind you, but dude's 35 and his game always depended on his athleticism. The more surprising aspect was that he continued to have a big role even during the playoffs and that he actually played better in the postseason, often looking more useful for the Cavs against the small-ball Warriors than Love.
Jefferson hustled. He competed. He played without fear. What was the difference? Were James and Tyronn Lue able to reach him in ways that Duncan and Pop could not? Did the reality that this would be his last, best chance to get a ring light a fire underneath him? Or was he finally unburdened by expectations? We'll probably never know what the reasons were.
What I do know is that it's probably time to unburden ourselves of any remaining bitterness or resentment toward RJ. Everything ended up working out in the long run. If he played the way we all expected him to for the Spurs, they probably would have one fewer title and one fewer 24-year-old superstar. Let's be happy for him that he gets to go out a champion.
Richard Jefferson NBA titles: 1— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 20, 2016
Kawhi Leonard NBA titles: 1.
Okay, now that might be taking it a bit too far.