DENVER — For a 17-year veteran who’s played with some of the league’s G.O.A.T.S., including LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Kidd, gone to the playoffs 13 different times, the Finals on four separate occasions and has a ring with Cleveland in 2016 to his name, Richard Jefferson is setting his personal expectations fairly low this season.
“I’m so old, I don’t care about what my playing role is,” Jefferson said after his first practice with the Nuggets, a response that was met by a chorus of laughs from an assembled group of reporters. “I’m glad to have a job and contribute in any way.”
Jefferson’s contract, a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal that will pay the 37-year-old $2.3 million this season, became official this morning and was signed in conjunction with the release of veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, who wasn’t with the team for Denver’s regular-season opener Wednesday in Utah.
Ironically, the Nuggets are hoping what they get from Jefferson is along the same lines as the wisdom and guidance Nelson provided for some of the younger players on Denver’s roster over the past few years both on the court or off it.
“He’s a vet who can still play,” Malone said. “He helped Cleveland win a championship two years ago and I think he’s about all the right things. If he’s not playing, he’s going to help lead these guys the right way. If he is playing, I think he can help us on the court because of his ability to space the court make shots have a high IQ guard multiple positions.”
The 6-foot-8 swingman is buying what the Nuggets are selling. Although he’s bounced around veteran-laden teams over his last few years, it wasn’t too long ago that Jefferson was one of the more experienced players on a young Golden State Warriors team that was looking to take the next step as a group.
During the 2011-12 season — Jefferson’s first in The Bay — he watched as a rookie Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, who was entering his third year, started to blossom into All-Stars. A year later, Jefferson tutored a trio of rookies; Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Kent Bazemore, played 1-on-1 against them after practice and helped the three mature into the highly-successful NBA players that they are today.
There’s some symmetry between those early Golden State days and what Denver’s been up to over the past two years. While it’s too early and probably a bit comical to forecast the Nuggets as the next Warriors, the parallels between growing a team through the draft with a few franchise cornerstones and adding supplemental veterans via free agency are clear.
“He had a profound impact on those players, I really believe that,” Malone said. “And I think he can have the same impact here.”
Denver’s coach is privy to that opinion because he’s a bit familiar with Jefferson. During his two-year stint with the Warriors, Malone was a rising assistant in Golden State known for his defensive chops and was clearly in Jefferson’s mind, a future head coach.
Having a prior relationship with Malone was a factor in deciding to link up with Denver but it wasn’t what determined his decision.
“He was a guy that you’d expect to be in this position,” Jefferson said of his former and now current coach. “He’s able to teach young guys, he was a part of the thing that helped turn Golden State around and got those young guys that had very little experience, had them get to the second-round of the playoffs unexpectedly. I definitely think he’s the man for the job.”
What also sold Jefferson on Denver is the potential. The budding crop of young talent on the Nuggets’ roster surely reminded him of the 2012 or 2013 Warriors that were on the verge of making a leap on their own.
He’s also a West Coast guy. Jefferson was born in Southern California, grew up in Phoenix and starred at the Univerity of Arizona. You can bet that he’ll be in Boulder to watch his Wildcats when they visit Colorado this winter.
The deciding factor for Jefferson turned out to be a little bit of everything. The fact that he considers Denver a “free agent destination” and wants to help the Nuggets get back to the playoffs weighted heavily. His prior relationships with Malone and Nuggets’ president Josh Kroenke, who Jefferson has had a long friendship with and called a “terrible fantasy football player,” surely weighed on his mind as well.
“My job is to kind of get here and be the old grumpy man and make sure everybody’s working and making sure guys are putting in that extra time,” Jefferson said. “Because the first step is figuring out how to belong in this league, the next thing is figuring out how to contribute and the next thing is learning how to win.”
Jefferson brings 140 career playoff games and a wealth of late-game experience to Denver and with how the Nuggets handled the final quarter in their regular-season opening night loss to the Jazz on Wednesday, the veteran will be a valued addition.
He won’t be in Denver’s rotation for their home opener Saturday night against Sacramento and probably won’t see the court much in the interim, but as a coach on the floor who’s been through it all in this league, it wouldn’t come as that big of a surprise to see Jefferson playing a significant role for the Nuggets at some point this season.
“He stays ready, a pro’s pro’,” Malone remarked. “(I have) no hesitancy to put him in a game.”