OAKLAND, Calif. — Richard Jefferson has had the good fortune to play with several All-Stars, some all-time greats, and the two biggest names in these NBA Finals: LeBron James and Stephen Curry. One stands above all of them.
“LeBron is number one,” Jefferson said. “He’s just a monster.”
The list of players he’s called teammates is an impressive one for Jefferson, who completed his 15th NBA season with Sunday night’s championship-deciding seventh game between the Warriors and Cavaliers.
He played with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter on the Nets, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili with San Antonio, Curry and Klay Thompson with Golden State, Dirk Nowitzki with Dallas and now James with the Cavs.
Kidd led the then-New Jersey Nets to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003, and helped Jefferson get a $78 million contract 12 years ago. James was trying to get Jefferson his first championship ring Sunday night.
Jefferson put Kidd second in best players and leaders he played after behind James, and he didn’t go any further with his list.
“You want me to rank them,” Jefferson said. “That’s the ranking.”
Jefferson spent parts of two seasons with Curry from 2012-13, but he couldn’t have predicted he would turn into a two-time MVP.
“The first year I was with him he broke the three-point record,” Jefferson said. “But I don’t think anybody knew how good he was going to be. I think a lot of things happened right for their team and for their system.”
Jefferson had nothing but positive things to say about Curry. But Jefferson noted that he’s only been in the spotlight the past few seasons. James, the NBA’s most complete player, has been under the microscope since high school, and he’s had to handle much more scrutiny and criticism.
James has led his teams to six straight Finals and seven overall. But he went into Sunday night’s game just 2-4 in the championship round, and dropped the last two series, including last year to the Warriors.
Jefferson said James shouldn’t be judged by his Finals’ record, but by what he does for his teams to get them there. He led the Cavaliers back from 3-1 down in this series to force a Game 7 by scoring 41 points in each of the past two games.
“It’s a joke,” Jefferson said. “People want to talk about his Finals record. When was the last time LeBron was favored in a Finals? When was the last time he went into a Finals when he had the quote-unquote Hall of Fame coach or the most talented team?
“He goes to Miami, they won two of four. Then he comes back here last year and without Kevin (Love) and without Kyrie (Irving) he puts on a show. We come back here again against a 73-win team. So when people are like, ‘He’s only this in the Finals.’ Look at his teams. Look at Cleveland’s record without LeBron. The man is amazing.”
It’s easy to say Jefferson chose James first because he’s his current teammate. But the outspoken and forthcoming Jefferson has bigger reasons than that.
He’s gotten to know James this year, and admires and respects how committed he is to basketball, winning and trying to bring a championship to Cleveland.
“There are so many other things that get said (about him) at times,” Jefferson said. “Not many people in the history of sports have said, ‘Everyone get on my back. The city, state, organization, team, get on my back. If we win or we fail, I’ll take the blame. But I’m going to lead you.’ I can’t think of too many players who have put that type of pressure on themselves and then delivered more times than not.
“Whether you’re a fan of him or not, whether you like him or ‘The Decision,’ how many people in the history of sports has come from a hometown that’s had a ton of disappointment in sports and says, ‘I’m going to come back home and I’m going to take on that challenge. Even if we fail, I’m going to come back next year and I’m going to be stronger and I’m going to do it again. I’m going to do every single thing in my power until I can do it.’ That shouldn’t go unnoticed.”