Is Richard Jefferson Enough Small Forward Insurance Behind LeBron James?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJuly 27, 2015

Dallas Mavericks’ Richard Jefferson, left, drives past Cleveland Cavaliers' Mike Miller during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

LeBron James is getting old.

Ok, so 30 isn't that old, but for an NBA athlete, it signals the beginning of a decade of decline.

With James set to turn 31 in December, his minutes need to be closely monitored, especially if he signs a five-year max extension next summer.

For much of last season, the Cavs extensively used James out of necessity. They simply had little reliable depth behind him.

Now with Shawn Marion retiring and Mike Miller freshly traded to the Portland Trail Blazers (per Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group), the Cavaliers must rely on newly signed veteran forward Richard Jefferson as James' primary backup.

Led by Jefferson, do the Cavs have enough talent to realistically give James the rest he needs every night, or is there more work to be done?

James' Playing Time

Last season's plan to use Marion as James' backup lasted exactly three games.

It took that much time for coach David Blatt to realize that using ball-dominant Dion Waiters in the starting lineup with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love wasn't such a great idea. Marion was then inserted as the new starting shooting guard, giving Cleveland few reliable options to go to when James needed a breather.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to pass against the Los Angeles Lakers during their NBA game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California on January 15, 2014.  AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AF
FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

This proved disastrous for James, who had to take a two-week break in December and January to nurse his ailing body. Up until that point, 30 games into the season, James had played 29 and was registering 37.5 minutes a night.

Having just turned 30, playing James near league-leading minutes count was something Cleveland needed to avoid at all costs.

Following his return to the team on Jan. 13, James' minutes dropped to 35.1 for the remainder of the season. In total, James ended up missing 13 games due to injury and rest, the most of his 12-year career.

James isn't a typical 30-year-old forward, of course. He's already logged 43,330 minutes during the regular season and playoffs. This doesn't count his time as a member of the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams as well.

Among players on active rosters, only Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce have logged more court time than James. All began their careers in the 1990s, while James didn't enter the league until 2003. Over the past five years, no one has come close to logging the kind of minutes that James has, per Cork Gaines of Business Insider.

Cleveland, given the golden ticket of James' career when he re-signed last summer, needs to handle its star player wisely. He's committed to the Cavaliers, and it's up to them to ensure his remaining time in the league is both healthy and prosperous.

To the Cavs' credit, James' final minute average of 36.1 was a career low. Despite the drop, this kind of court time was still ample enough to rank sixth in the NBA.

Ideally, the Cavaliers would like James' time to come down even more, thus saving his body for the rigors of the postseason. Somewhere in the 34-36 minute range would be perfect with reductions in the following years as he ages.

The health of Irving and Love will play a big role in determining how much James gets to rest, given that either can carry an offense at times.

In the end, however, Cleveland needs to establish reliable pieces behind James, starting with Jefferson.

What Jefferson Brings

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 25: Richard Jefferson #24 of the Dallas Mavericks drives against the Atlanta Hawks on February 25, 2015 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using th
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Jefferson doesn't provide the defensive versatility that Marion did, but he's a far better shooter and looks like he's still got a few good years left. He should be an overall upgrade to Miller as well and will hopefully earn Blatt's trust early this fall.

A star with the New Jersey Nets, both he and former teammate Vince Carter have made the transition from athletic specimen to knockdown shooter. As Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted, Jefferson has undergone a successful career change.

Once upon a time, Jefferson was a 17-point scorer in his first seven NBA seasons with the Nets. Four times in his career, he's averaged at least 19 points a season.

But the athletic Jefferson has recreated himself as a stationary 3-point shooter. It's how you stay in the league for what will be his 15th season. Jefferson has shot at least 41 percent from 3-point range in six of his last seven season — including .426 (66-of-155) with Dallas in 2014-15.

With the trade of Miller and J.R. Smith and still unsigned, Cleveland needs to surround James with shooters. The team brought back James Jones on a one-year deal (via Haynes), but currently has few other perimeter-shooting options.

Having played 16.8 minutes (18 starts) for the Mavericks last season, Jefferson doesn't bring much else to the table besides his floor-spacing and experience in the league. He's viewed as a middling defender at this point, allowing opponents to shoot slightly higher than their average (plus-1.1 percent) from the field, per NBA.com.

While Marion and Miller seemed to age before our eyes and ultimately fall out of the rotation last season, Jefferson should have a little more to offer.

His minutes, scoring and shooting percentages all increased after the All-Star break last season, an impressive accomplishment for a then-34-year-old. In seven April games, Jefferson scored a monthly-high 10.4 points on 45.8 percent shooting from deep.

Peeking ahead, the Cavs need someone to spell James in the playoffs for stretches as well. Blatt avoided Marion like the plague during the 2015 playoffs, pushing James to near exhaustion during the Finals.

Jefferson should be ready to contribute on the biggest of stages. He's got 105 games (73 starts) worth of postseason experience with the Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Mavs. In 31.2 minutes per contest, Jefferson is averaging 12.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in his playoff career. 

If James can give the Cavaliers 34-36 minutes a game, that means they'll need 12-14 from Jefferson and others. After logging 16.8 clicks a night with Dallas last season, Jefferson will likely be enough to cover for James, although Cleveland should have a backup plan in place as well.

Cavs' Other Options

Outside of Jefferson, Cleveland only has three options at small forward, and one of them technically isn't on the team yet.

Last season, Jones split his time between the two forward spots, often serving as a backup stretch 4 when the Cavs went small. Although this allowed Cleveland to play a similar style as when Love was in the game, Jones would often struggle to guard bigger, stronger opponents.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 7: James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of the 2015 NBA Finals on June 7, 2015 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, CA. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

With Anderson Varejao set to return from injury, Jones may be bumped from the post for good. The Cavaliers already have Love, Timofey Mozgov and Varejao at power forward and center, and they expect to bring back restricted free agent Tristan Thompson as well.

This means we should see more of Jones at the 3 playing his natural catch-and-shoot role.

The only member of Cleveland's 2015 draft class not traded or playing overseas is guard/forward Sir'Dominic Pointer. At a slender 6'6", the Cavs view Pointer as an energy and defense-type player, far from what Jefferson and Jones bring to the table.

In five summer league games, Pointer averaged 5.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game. He impressed with some athletic finishes at the rim and flashed the ability to guard three or four different positions.

He fits the bill as an NBA small forward, but lacks an outside shot and could stand to add muscle. Currently, Pointer's not even guaranteed to make the roster, much less the rotation.

This leaves us with Smith, who's yet to strike a deal with the Cavs, but has few other options open on the free-agent market. Expect him back in Cleveland.

Smith, 6'6", spent 31 percent of his total court time at small forward last season despite starting at shooting guard. He's proven to be a valuable member of the Cavaliers, even after a poor showing in the Finals.

The Cavs should be in good shape with enough insurance behind James, and that's before making any other moves with their new Mike Miller and Brendan Haywood trade exceptions.

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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