In an incredible interview with Fox Sports Ohio's Allie Clifton, Richard Jefferson announced his retirement after game 7 of the NBA Finals last summer. No one was sure what to make of it at the time, but it seemed like a good way to go out. RJ (in case you forgot) was a huge piece of the puzzle for the Cavaliers against Golden State. With Kevin Love concussed, Jefferson started games 3 and 4, helping Cleveland claw back into things with a huge win in his first start. The then-35-year-old (he turned 36 two days after game 7) averaged 24 minutes per game in the Finals, pulling down an unusually high 5+ rebounds per contest while helping contribute to the Missing Person case for someone named Harrison Barnes. In short, RJ was a huge, wonderful surprise. It was a beautiful bow on top of his solid career.
Then he changed his mind.
Maybe it was because he felt like he could still play. Maybe it was because the Cavaliers are a fun group of guys who he clearly enjoys spending time with. Maybe it was because another $7.5 million was offered for three more years of playing the game. Whatever the reason, he came back to the Cavaliers after briefly calling it quits.
It's hard to quantify what Richard Jefferson has meant to the Cavaliers. LeBron James made headlines last year when he talked about how Jefferson represented the first time in LBJ's career that he could come out of a game and have a true small forward to keep things together during a rest. RJ responded by producing all year long. This year has been no different.
The near-retiree has been Cleveland's 2nd man off the bench. Jefferson hasn't just been an old guy who contributes when called upon (although this team has some of those right now with Birdman and James Jones collecting checks and doling out hard fouls). Quite the opposite, he's been a major role player again. While six games is hardly a full sample size, RJ's minutes have lined up comparable to last year's.
During his fake final season, Jefferson averaged a hair under 18 minutes per game. This year he's just over 19 minutes per game. The only non-starter who has played more has been Iman Shumpert, and part of that is because JR Smith wasn't ready to jump in and play 35 minutes per night after missing the entire preseason. (It should also be noted that another part of the reason is that Shumpert has been playing well thus far. He's always had great hands on defense, but he's getting time as the backup point guard on this team and has done OK. They're forcing it on him a bit and aggressively getting him minutes there, so it's an ongoing experiment. Off the ball, he's been knocking down shots. His shooting was much maligned over the past 18 months, but he has found his stroke early. Fingers crossed this continues.)
There are plenty of happy stats: Jefferson's per-36 minute numbers are right in line with last year, showing almost no decline. His shooting has been a little cold in the early going, which means his scoring numbers will pick up a tiny bit. As it stands, he's rebounding the ball a lot better this year and has seen an uptick in steals through the first two weeks of the campaign. He's also been getting inside slightly more often and continuing to take care of the basketball.
The advanced stats are a bit murky, but as a rule of thumb, you can almost always find ones to serve your point. With that in mind, RJ's +/- is about half a point better than Kyrie Irving's thus far. Net Rating tells a similar story: Jefferson has a monstrous 12.8. That number is over three times as high as Kyrie, nearly four times better than Kevin Love, and is several points better than JR Smith.
Again, these statistics can be a little odd, particularly when we're just six games into the season. However, all of these signs are pointing to a Cavaliers team that plays as many as seven players without a real need to define their position. Looking at lineups, how do you determine the positions for a lineup of Dunleavy, Frye, James, Jefferson, Shumpert? In limited minutes, that lineup is decimating opponents. How about Irving, Frye, Jefferson, Dunleavy, and Smith? Irving isn't the typical PG, nor is anyone else in that group. Frye is kind of a power forward, but nobody else is a PF or center.
The truth is that it doesn't matter who is playing which position in these cases and the Cavalier are toying with dozens of combinations. Richard Jefferson has been instrumental in allowing that to happen. He defends the SG, SF, and PF positions semi-regularly and plays well in a team-oriented offense. He's content to wait for an open shot, and he'll slash to the basket when the opportunity arises.
Essentially, he's the same player he was last year. That's a lot better than if he were off writing erotic essays.
All stats per nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted.