As Our Fearless Leader reminds me, the practice of NBA veteran stars bouncing from also-rans to contenders late in their careers to pursue the championship that eluded them in their heydays goes back a bit. We saw the likes of Bob McAdoo (with the Los Angeles Lakers) do it in the early 1980s, Bill Walton (who won a title with the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, but later joined up with the Boston Celtics for another run at a ring) do it in the mid-'80s, Mychal Thompson (Lakers) do it in the late '80s, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler (Houston Rockets) do it in the mid-'90s, and so on. It feels like we didn't really start regarding "ring-chasing" as a distasteful, wholly unseemly thing, though, until Gary Payton and Karl Malone inked one-year deals to join the Shaquille O'Neal-and-Kobe Bryant-led Lakers before the 2003-04 season.
Gifted, fringier types (Mitch Richmond, J.R. Rider, et al.) preceded their march to Hollywood, but watching two future Hall of Famers who'd come up short for more than a decade (and in Malone's case, nearly two) hitch their wagons to a proven winner seeking resuscitation rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. People seemed to enjoy the fact that it didn't work out, thanks (in part) to Malone re-injuring his knee during the Western Conference playoffs and (in larger part) to a really, really good Detroit Pistons team. It didn't stop the practice — Payton wound up winning a title with the 2005-06 Miami Heat, and we now see multiple veterans make the same decision every year — but it solidified the way many fans think and talk about formerly great players who stick around a bit longer for another shot. They're "blatant." They're "undeserving." They "jeopardize their legacy in an attempt to complete it."
Well, after a dozen years in the NBA, Richard Jefferson isn't buying that. During an interview with Kenny Smith and Jason Goff on SiriusXM's "Off the Dribble" on Thursday, the 33-year-old forward — who was traded from the contending Golden State Warriors to the rebuilding Utah Jazz this summer as part of the sign-and-trade that brought Andre Iguodala to the Bay — spoke in no uncertain terms: he's absolutely down for chasing a ring after he becomes a free agent this summer.
Here's the audio:
And here are the relevant quotes, via Jazz beat man Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune:
"I want to play for a championship team," he said. "I want to win a championship. I've come that close. People think just the NBA, but I'll take it back a little further for you. I lost in the [NCAA] national championship game. Then I went to the Olympics and lost to a quality Argentina team and won a bronze medal. Then I lost in two NBA finals. I want to win." [...]
"If I get an opportunity to play for a championship team, I'm going to go hunting for that," he said. "I have no loyalty. I'm not one of those guys that played for the same team for 15 years like a Reggie Miller who has to decide whether or not he's going to do that. No. I'm a gun for hire."
Jefferson's comments (the "no loyalty" and "gun for hire" parts, specifically) might strike some readers as a bit untoward, and you can understand that. Who among us didn't respect Reggie Miller's decision to (allegedly) turn down a chance to join the Boston Celtics after his career had ended because it wouldn't have been the same as winning it with the Indiana Pacers? And while we might not necessarily love the terms of the deal, who among us doesn't like the idea of Kobe Bryant finishing an illustrious 20-year NBA career with the only franchise he's ever known? Such loyalty and connection to a franchise tends to inspire admiration in an era where players change teams so frequently that "Who He Play For?," while a joke, is also sort of kidding on the square.
Here's the thing, though: When we talk about how "such loyalty and connection to a franchise" don't really exist anymore, we often focus on players seeking top dollar in free agency, and infrequently consider the role teams themselves play in the process. Absence of loyalty is very much a two-way street.
Jefferson has been traded five times, including on the very first day of his 13-year NBA career. On the night of the 2001 NBA draft, the Houston Rockets (who picked him 13th overall) shipped his draft rights, along with those of Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong, to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Eddie Griffin. After seven good-to-very-good years, the Nets shipped him to the Milwaukee Bucks for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. After one last-place finish, the Bucks sent him to the San Antonio Spurs for Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas. After parts of three lackluster seasons in Texas, R.C. Buford packaged him with a conditional first-round pick and moved him to the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Jackson. After 1 1/2 years of not doing very much, the Warriors packaged him with Brandon Rush, Andris Biedrins and a bundle of draft picks and sent him to the Jazz to clear cap space for Iguodala.
Each time, Jefferson's own play and productivity were considered secondary to the larger needs of the team. New Jersey had already shipped out Jason Kidd to start a rebuild and wanted to get out of the large contract they'd given Jefferson, a wing in his prime coming off his best season and leading the team in scoring. The Bucks wanted to get out of the large contract that the Nets had given Jefferson, despite hm averaging 20 points per game, shooting 40 percent from 3-point land and making all 82 starts in his sole season with the Bucks. The Spurs wanted to get out of the large contract that they had given Jefferson — remember, he opted out of a $15 million one-year payday to re-up for four years and nearly $39 million — after he hadn't proved to be quite the high-scoring perimeter piece for whom they'd initially hoped.
The Warriors wanted to get out of the large contract the Spurs gave Jefferson (and the large contract they gave Biedrins, and the reasonable contract they gave Rush) to add a do-everything wing in Iguodala to a high-scoring core they believed to be championship-ready. And come the end of this season, despite Jefferson occasionally providing (somewhat surprising) pockets of production and shooting 40 percent from 3-point land, the Jazz will allow his $11 million salary to fall off the books to create more space for their own rebuilding project ... unless, of course, they find some other team willing to part with a future draft pick or young asset in exchange for Jefferson's services before the February trade deadline. (This seems unlikely.)
With the exception of the opt-out/re-up in San Antonio, the last half-dozen years of Jefferson's career have been determined by the vicissitudes of his employers, with the decisions tending to have more to do with Rod Thorn's choice to pay Jefferson $78 million in 2004 than with anything Jefferson did beyond saying, "Yes, money, please." And now, with nearly $107 million in career salary under his belt, Jefferson's looking at the chance to make his own decision for a change, and thinking that it might be nice to take a job as an end-of-the-bench guy who can play a little in a pinch for a team with title aspirations, because continuing to love the game and wanting to pursue something bigger mean more to him than money or leisure time. In that context, it sounds kind of admirable, doesn't it?
Whether any contender would desperately want Jefferson remains to be seen, but that doesn't really matter right now. What matters is that he's making no bones about embracing the opportunity to, as Heat forward Rashard Lewis put it this past summer, "win a championship — by any means possible." That's a rare thing, and a pretty interesting one.
Players like Jefferson and Lewis — who were quite good for a while but never really great — don't have to carry the same sorts of legacy baggage as Hall of Famers like Payton, Malone, Ray Allen, which can afford them more of an opportunity to speak candidly about their status in the league and their lots in life. Sometimes, those opportunities can offer a pretty revelatory bit of perspective into what life is like on the other side of having someone else determine the authenticity, validity and worth of your accomplishments for you.
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