2017 NBA Finals
2017 NBA Finals

'Basketball Jesus' LeBron James resurrects some teammates' careers en route to NBA Finals

Variety of veteran role players get new hoops life playing alongside Cavs' superstar

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Archive

Jun 1, 2017 10:43 AM ET

Kyle Korver is one of many late-career role players benefitting from teaming with LeBron.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It has been said, written, witnessed and rehashed how the skills of LeBron James allow him to score almost at will, chase down blocked shots, rebound, pass and take annual trips to The NBA Finals. But less is known about his otherworldly talent: He can heal the wounded.

Yes, this particular "Basketball Jesus" brings a touch that’s unique in the NBA and it could bless the Cleveland Cavaliers in The NBA Finals if one of the wounded springs to life and surprises the rival Golden State Warriors.

By “wounded” there should be some clarification: Wounded careers. Meaning, the condition that Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye and a few others found themselves in before arriving in Cleveland and suddenly became new and improved, thanks mainly to the consensus best player in the game.

“Oh my gosh,” said Jefferson. “We look at a guy like that and say, `We owe him.’ He’s helping us achieve our dreams.”

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In various ways, the contributions of those players, all in their twilight to a degree, have jumped once they began wearing the same uniform as LeBron. It would be a stretch to say LeBron is the sole reason for their rejuvenation; their own hard work and determination certainly played a part. Yet it’s also no coincidence that those four have found useful roles in the rotation of a championship contender next to LeBron after being all but given up by their previous teams.

It has become cliche to say great players make their teammates better, yet in this instance, this appears to be the case. LeBron’s ability to draw double- and sometimes triple-teams, along with his precise passing and court vision, create chances for others. He’s the rare high-volume scorer who can also win games by finding open teammates. And there’s more: Not only does LeBron find these teammates, he encourages them to take shots, sometime big shots.

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It’s that level of faith that LeBron has in these players that stokes their fires and lifts their confidence. Therefore, there’s a spiritual healing in play as well, especially considering these players didn’t come to Cleveland in huge demand.

Williams, who turns 33 this month, was cut by the Mavericks in March after he lost his job to Yogi Ferrell, a D-Leaguer.

Jefferson, 36, arrived from the Mavericks a few years ago after playing just 16 minutes a game, and the year prior, was a salary dump by the Warriors in order for them to sign Andre Iguodala. Likewise, Frye, 34, was a salary dump by the Magic.

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Korver was perhaps the exception; he still held value with the Hawks before they traded him to Cleveland last spring. But he began to lose minutes at the swing positions to Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr., both younger.

By getting them in the latter stages of their careers, the Cavaliers were able to do so at minimal cost, since the payroll is being gobbled up by James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. It was the only way the Cavs could fill out the roster, by going after such veterans, similar to how the Heat stocked up during the Big Three era. Two of those players in Miami, Mike Miller and Shane Battier, delivered a big performance in Miami’s title-clinching win against the San Antonio Spurs.

Can this happen again in Cleveland?

Already, Jefferson made his case last summer when pressed into a starting role for Love for one game. Williams has given the Cavs a steady hand at backup point guard, which was a concern. Frye was a significant contributor last season and is the Cavs' fifth leading scorer in the 2017 playoffs, feasting on open looks from deep where he’s shooting 52.6 percent.

And Korver is making 41.5 percent of his 3-pointers in the playoffs, padding a dimension to the Cavs that has made them a dangerous team from long distance, perhaps their biggest strength.

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“From the time I got here,” said Korver, “he told me that when I get the ball, just shoot it. He didn’t care if I missed or not. Just shoot it. To have a guy like that have the confidence in you certainly helps you out.”

LeBron’s confidence came from respect for their past accomplishments but also because he knew he might need them when it truly counts, like in this championship series. It’s not unlike the respect Michael Jordan had in Steve Kerr and John Paxson, a pair of role players whose big shots helped win titles in the decisive game.

The work done by general manager David Griffin to acquire the players, and with LeBron helping to polish their skills, has made the Cavs far deeper and arguably better than a year ago when they won the title.

“The teammates that he has surrounded himself with, we’ve been able to compliment him at a level that probably hasn’t been done in his career in Cleveland,” Jefferson said. “It only helps to elevate his game.”

Jefferson was ready to call it quits last summer, telling himself that there was no way to top what he helped the Cavs do in bringing a title to Cleveland. Then he caught himself. He can still be teammates with LeBron James. And get paid for it, too?

“If we win this, Kyle Korver has a chance to get a championship. Deron Williams. Myself and Channing Frye get another. So much is due to the guy who leads us in scoring, defense, leadership, everything.”

Richard Jefferson, on LeBron James

“There’s so much respect I’ve had for him ever since he came into this league,” Jefferson said. “I’ve gone from having to guard him to start to finish and now being on his team and knowing how hard he works and how much this matters to him. To have an opportunity to be his backup and what he’s trying to accomplish, and what he means to everybody else, this makes the story even greater for me.”

Richard Jefferson has forged a deep bond with LeBron James.

Jefferson, Williams, Frye and Korver spent their whole careers trying to reach this point. Jefferson did reach The Finals twice with the New Jersey Nets, but lost both times. Williams was part of an aborted attempt to make a title contender in Brooklyn, which bombed. Korver was swept twice by LeBron while a member of the Atlanta Hawks.

“If we win this, Kyle Korver has a chance to get a championship,” said Jefferson. “Deron Williams. Myself and Channing Frye get another. So much is due to the guy who leads us in scoring, defense, leadership, everything.”

Williams said: “It’s better than I thought, and I came here with high expectations. He challenges you but not in a negative way. You come here and you want to make sure you’re doing as much as you can to compete on his level.”

“A lot of guys say the right things but don’t always work hard. There’s guys who work hard but don’t always say much. He’s been the absolute best that I’ve been around in terms of doing both."

Kyle Korver, on LeBron James

While the Warriors added Kevin Durant and obviously enhanced their chances of winning for the second time in three years, the Cavaliers fortified with numbers and bringing players who only needed a fresh start and a shot at a ring. Williams has looked fresher than he has in years. Korver and Frye are dangerous to leave open, Jefferson still has energy for defense.

Most of these players in their sunset are benefitting from receiving passes, open shots and confidence from a player who has them turning back the clock.

“He’s the best,” said Korver. “He’s the best player but he also really cares about the team. He knows the team needs to play well in order to win the championship. He goes out of his way to check on everyone, to make sure everyone is right. He’ll always be there for you.

“A lot of guys say the right things but don’t always work hard. There’s guys who work hard but don’t always say much. He’s been the absolute best that I’ve been around in terms of doing both. He’s the leader of this team. He’s for everyone.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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