As the NBA Finals near its ending, the players who really made an impact on the biggest stage become obvious. For the Warriors, their three stars, as well as Andre Iguodala, were their best performers. For the Cavaliers, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are clearly on a tier of their own.
But the next-most-consistent player in terms of overall contribution has arguably been none other than Richard Jefferson.
No one would have predicted that before the series started. It's not just that Jefferson is 35 years old and on a minimum contract. You really need to go back a few years to understand how surprising his resurgence has been. It's only after looking at his entire career that one realizes how surprising this stretch of smart, team-oriented play really has been.
Jefferson had a great early career with the Nets as an athletic slasher, which included two finals appearances but no title. He was moved from the rebuilding Nets after his first seven years in the league to the Bucks, where he posted an efficient, high-volume scoring season on a team that won 34 games. Jefferson was 28 then and still in his prime, so he got another shot at joining a contender when the Spurs traded for him.
In hindsight, that relationship was doomed to fail. To that point Jefferson had only been a high-volume scorer that was used to overpowering opponents, and relied on his physical tools on defense. He was all of a sudden asked to completely overhaul his game to become the disciplined, role-playing wing the Spurs needed. To his credit, he tried, but simply couldn't do it. He just didn't have the mindset of a role player or the wiles to make up for his declining athleticism.
His production dipped so much that San Antonio had to include a first-round pick to trade him for a cranky Stephen Jackson, who is now out of the league. Jefferson didn't play for the Warriors in one and a half seasons in Oakland and was salary dumped again, this time to the Jazz. That's when the seeds of his revival began to blossom. He sopped up minutes for a terrible Utah team in 2013-14 and, like many veterans, did a solid job in a small role with the Mavericks the year after.
Still, the time in which Jefferson was relevant seemed to have long passed. When he signed with the Cavaliers, it was hard to differentiate him with ring-chasers James Jones or Mike Miller, both there more for their wisdom than on-court contributions.
Then the playoffs rolled around. As the rounds went on, Jefferson started to become a bigger part of the rotation. He struggled against the Pistons, then came alive -- as did everyone else in Cleveland's roster -- in the series against the Hawks. By the time the conference finals started, he was part of the Cavaliers' best lineup that completely dismantled the Raptors. His impact has only grown in the finals, as he has been that second big wing that Cleveland needed to match the Warriors' small lineups.
The strangest thing of all is that it's been his basketball I.Q. and effort level -- once considered his biggest weaknesses -- that have made it all possible.
Jefferson is shooting only 20 percent from beyond the arc, but a ridiculously high 68 percent on two-pointers. He plays great off James, who has assisted half his field goals. Jefferson can't really create for himself anymore, as he's not as explosive as he used to be, but has learned when to cut, still has a good first step and is strong. He's burned Draymond Green on straight-line drives and punished him for playing him loose, something Kevin Love simply can't do.
Yet scoring isn't Jefferson's biggest contribution. He's making smart defensive plays that don't show up in the box score, but are key for a team that is switching to contain elite offensive threats. Whether it's taking on Shaun Livingston to prevent him from posting up smaller players or making up for a teammate's mistake at the last second, Jefferson has helped prevent easy Warriors buckets.
He's also brought the hustle, ranking fifth in total defensive rebounds for the Cavaliers and third in steals despite averaging just 17 minutes a game. He tries to deny the ball when possible and has been flying all over the court trying to get back in transition to prevent fast-break points.
As good as Jefferson has been, he's still a flawed player. There are times when he makes the same mistakes that drove past coaches crazy. His impact is only amplified by a Cavaliers' bench that has struggled greatly to contribute and Love's struggles defending anyone on the Warriors' roster in space. On the rare occasion in which Jefferson looks like a poor man's Iguodala, it's only because the ineptitude of some of his teammates makes him shine. He's not late-career Grant Hill. This is not a new beginning. Far from it.
It is, however, an unexpected chance to alter the narrative surrounding his career. Jefferson was first considered an athlete who benefited from playing with Jason Kidd, then a player putting up empty stats on bad teams before becoming one of the few high-profile failures the Spurs had. The following years had him playing the part of journeyman collecting a check on mediocre teams.
Now, in what will likely be the last chapter of his career, he's become the wily veteran on a team near a championship. Whether the Cavaliers lift the Larry O'Brien or not, that makes the oft-maligned Jefferson a winner.