How LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers Fell in Love with the NBA's Old Dudes

Jesse SpectorFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2017

LeBron James has developed a fondness for reliable veterans such as Channing Frye, left, and Richard Jefferson, center.
LeBron James has developed a fondness for reliable veterans such as Channing Frye, left, and Richard Jefferson, center.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Kyle Korver will join Richard Jefferson and James Jones as Cleveland's resident 35-and-up players this week.
Kyle Korver will join Richard Jefferson and James Jones as Cleveland's resident 35-and-up players this week.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The day before the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for ace shooter Kyle Korver, general manager David Griffin reminded an inquiring reporter about how the defending champs approach team-building. It could have foreshadowed the following day's transaction, but it sounded like a subtweet directed at the Golden State Warriors, his team's opponent in the past two NBA Finals.

"We don't set up to be a superteam that's gonna win 70 regular-season games," Griffin says. "We look at it as playing for the playoffs. We're trying to line everything up to be the freshest and best we can be when the playoffs start."

But Griffin has assembled a team built for more than the postseason. The Cavaliers (28-8) have the best record in the Eastern Conference, after all.

There is a key difference between the regular season and the playoffs that Cleveland is positioned to exploit. The Cavaliers did it last year on the way to the championship and are poised to do it again.

Cleveland is one of the few teams that view age not as a debilitator but as a strength. With an average mark of 29 years old, the Cavaliers have the third-oldest roster in the NBA, younger than only the Clippers and Spurs. It feels surprising when you consider that the starting five boasts a fair amount a youth, with Kyrie Irving at 24, Tristan Thompson at 25 and Kevin Love at 28.

The recently acquired Korver is 35, and in March he'll join Richard Jefferson and James Jones as the team's 36-and-over trio. Channing Frye, at 33, is a baby by the standards of Cleveland's bench.

Cleveland's bench features older players for multiple reasons.

For one, Cleveland's veterans can shoot: Frye is a center who's averaging 2.2 three-pointers on 45.3 percent shooting in 19 minutes per night. James Jones has hit 16 of 26 threes during limited action. Korver is a career 42.9 percent three-point marksman from deep.

Then there's the LeBron James factor.

"It's stability," James says. "When you've got professionals who know what their role is and they've been doing it for years and years, it just makes your job that much easier. It's always great to look on the bench and see those guys. They're always ready to go. It's good for our team."

"We're limited in the sense that if you want to come and be part of what we're doing here—and San Antonio's been the same for yearsif you want to be part of what we're doing, you really can only come on our terms," Griffin told Bleacher Report prior to the Korver deal.

"That's been helpful, in terms of weeding out the wrong veterans from the guys who are going to be the right fit," Griffin continued.

"They make a conscious decision to want to come here, which makes it easier to find the right fit. … We're gonna give you a great culture, a great environment, a great team, a chance to play for a title, and we're gonna give you LeBron James. But I can't give you $5 million."

That is exactly how it went for Jefferson, who signed with Cleveland in the summer of 2015 for the veteran minimum and then re-upped last summer for a piece of the taxpayer mid-level exception. Having played for the Nets, Bucks, Spurs, Warriors, Jazz and Mavericks since he entered the NBA in 2001, Jefferson not only knew what he was getting into but also understood that the promise of more money and minutes elsewhere might have drawbacks beyond being out of the championship mix.

"I had options," Jefferson says. "I've been in Utah, and they wanted me back. Dallas, I almost went back to. Yes, I've been around this league, but it's more by choice. This, to me, was the best option for me, and I'm just glad it's worked out.

"With a lesser team? I couldn't do that job. Mentally, I couldn't do that job, so this is the only job I could do, from a mental standpoint. If you were to ask me to go to a really young team and try to play more, mentally, it would take a lot more. Physically, it would take a lot out of you. This is the best position that I could possibly be in, and that's part of the reason I enjoy it so much, and I'm happy to be here."

You can question whether the performance of veteran players is helped more by playing fewer minutes and having a less demanding role, or whether it has more to do with being happy in a situation. The Cavaliers offer both, and there's no questioning the results.

Jefferson posted a 9.7 player efficiency rating during the 2015-16 season and then a 12.5 in the playoffs. Frye's PER was 11.8 in 44 games with Orlando before he was traded to Cleveland last February, and then it jumped to 14.9 during 26 regular-season games for the Cavs and 20.5 in the postseason.

"Richard Jefferson is still jumping like he's 24," says Celtics forward Gerald Green. "Channing Frye is a stretch big who's very valuable in this day and age of basketball in the league.

"Having those two guys on their team, plus, you've got a guy like James Jones who knows his role—arguably one of the best shooters in the league today, even if he doesn't get a lot of minutestheir bench is really deep. I think everybody knows their role on that team, they play their roles well, they've been together for years, and that's why they're probably the best team in the East."

One of the things that may have helped Jefferson impress Green so much? He played a manageable 19 minutes and 23 seconds in a game the Cavaliers played after two days of rest.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20: James Jones #22 of the Miami Heat poses for a portrait with the Larry O'Brien Trophy after defeating the San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 20, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

As good as Jefferson can still look at timeshe scored 11 points in Cleveland's win over the Celtics at the end of Decemberhis PER this season has slipped to 7.3. Some of that probably has to do with an increased workload as a result of J.R. Smith's injury. Jefferson has been pressed to play 21.9 minutes per game, compared to 17.9 during nights Smith has played.

For a player in his 16th professional season, those extra four minutes per game can make a difference. 

Jefferson's best performances of last year's playoffs also came in games with at least two day's rest. He had nine points and 11 rebounds in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors on May 17, when the Cavs hadn't played since May 8. Jefferson's nine-point, eight-rebound effort during Game 3 of the NBA Finals came on June 8, three days after Cleveland fell behind 2-0 in the series.

"There was a lot said about how well I played in the playoffs, and a lot of it had to do with no back-to-back games," Jefferson says.

"We had swept our opponents in our first two rounds, so we had eight-day layoffs. When you have eight-day layoffs in between games, you're going to feel really, really fresh. Yeah, there might be a little rust, but I'll take rust with rest any day. I'll take that rest. That was part of the reason we played so well. The older guys were able to recover a little bit more, get extra conditioning, extra shots."

Having a heavy veteran presence on the bench is not a new concept. Griffin points to the Phoenix Suns teams built around Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire when he was an up-and-comer in that organization, as well as the recent-vintage Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and especially the Spurs. But you can also think back further to the 1986 Celtics with Bill Walton and Scott Wedman providing a boost to the NBA champs.

Tyronn Lue, now the head coach of the Cavaliers, experienced it as a player. He was 24 when the Lakers won the NBA title in 2001, part of a second unit that included veterans Robert Horry and Brian Shaw, with Ron Harper also getting occasional minutes.

"It's great to have RJ, Channing, JJ and also Mike [Dunleavy]," Lue said in December. "Having those guys, just being professional, showing young guys how to do it, it's great for your team and it makes my job a lot easier."

It's notable that Lue is quick to mention Jones, because as the last player on Cleveland's bench, one who doesn't get into every game, it would be easy to leave him out of the conversation.

But Jones is an important part of the culture that Griffin views as such a key selling point. Jones puts as much effort into fostering a positive locker room as he does into making sure he's ready to make the one shot per game that he might be called upon to make.

"There are a lot of young teams that want to get better that would love to have a veteran presence, and there are teams that are right there on the cusp that want a little bit extra in the locker room to allow them to get over the hump," Jones says.

"For me, I've developed a relationship with LeBron. I've developed a relationship with Tristan, with Kevin. Guys who are continuing to improve. To be able to be a part of that, to be able to have an impact in the game, away from the game, is gratifying. At this stage, winning is everything, and I want to have that experience. … As a kid, I wanted to be an NBA player. As a kid, I wanted to be an NBA champion. Here I stand with three NBA titles."

Jones is a three-time champion because, in addition to last year with the Cavaliers, he won a pair alongside James in Miami. And Griffin puts it quite simply, "Let's face it, these guys want to play with LeBron."

Having James serves as a powerful recruiting tool for veteran free agents who want to chase a ring as their careers wind down. It also makes it easier for a player acquired in a trade to handle the idea of a bench role. Korver spent a lot of his early career as a reserve but had been a starter since joining the Hawks in 2012. Frye had started 420 of 701 games before he came to Cleveland.

"It's super rare that all of us just embrace it," Frye says. "For all of us, we embrace the opportunity, and the younger guys, we're here to help develop them while we're winning, and we're going to stick with it."

That they are. The Cavaliers' trade for Korver not only puts one of the game's best three-point shooters on one of the NBA's top three-point shooting teams; He's also another veteran who knows what his role is and figures to benefit from the less taxing schedule in the playoffs, where Cleveland hopes that its lions in winter can once again roar in the spring.     

   

Advanced stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes were obtained firsthand.