LeBron James might not look like the best teammate when he's yelling at the Lakers for being out of position or making a key mistake in the middle of a game. But know that's just James in the heat of the moment and once the game's over and wine's flowing a different LeBron shows up.
"When he calms down and he has a couple of glasses of wine, he’s lovey-dovey, he’s apologetic because that’s him," says Richard Jefferson.
The always entertaining and opinionated Jefferson has plenty of stories about LeBron and all the love and respect in the world for the living legend. After all, James helped Jefferson win his only NBA championship when Cleveland completed its epic comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals over Golden State and after spending two of his 17 season in the NBA playing with The King, Jefferson has even more reverence for LeBron the man. But all the love and wine in the world doesn't mean Jefferson will blindly anoint LeBron and the Lakers the favorites to win it all down in Orlando.
"If I had to bet on one team, I would bet on the Clippers because of the depth of their talent," says Jefferson.
We caught with the NBA analyst for ESPN and the YES Network and peppered him with all kinds of playoff questions because we knew he'd tell it like it is. And because of his signature candidness, we couldn't resist asking him about what LeBron's like after a couple of glasses of wine, how he owned his buddy Luke Walton during the summer of 2016, and why he's partnered with one of his favorite brands, Rockin' Protein.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
In terms of the intensity and quality of basketball we’ve seen in the first-round of the playoffs, given the unique circumstances of the bubble, is it what you expected?
I think it’s been exactly what I would expect. I expected there to be guys that would struggle with the lack of energy a little bit inside the arena. I think [no] home-court [advantage] changes things. You look at Portland, going into Game 3 and 4 in Portland, it would normally be one of the most intense situations you experience in playoff basketball in Portland. And they didn’t have that to fall back on and you could see a little bit of a lack of energy. Sometimes that boost from the home crowd can be just enough, maybe that’s the difference. In the NBA, the home team wins 57 percent of the time. That is by far the largest difference in all of the major sports. That just lets you know what the home crowd can actually do. Not that they help you make shots, but they definitely give you energy.
Speaking of the Blazers, were you one of those guys that gave them a legit chance against the Lakers?
Yeah, 100 percent gave them a chance. You look at what Portland was able to do [in the seeding games] and they went 6-2. And you know why they went 6-2? Because they have the talent to go 6-2. And that’s not just Dame [Lillard]. That’s CJ [McCollum], [Jusuf] Nurkic being back, that’s Carmelo [Anthony], that’s Gary Trent Jr. The Lakers weren’t playing great basketball [in the seeding games] and it’s not a surprise that Portland won Game 1. The Lakers didn’t shoot the ball well [in Game 1], still haven’t shot the ball better, but their defense has just been so, so impressive and I think their cream is starting to rise to the top.
So you’re picking the Lakers to roll to the title?
No, no. I think the Clippers. I stand by this, man—the Clippers are the team that has the most talent, in my opinion. If I had to bet on one team, I would bet on the Clippers because of the depth of their talent. You have Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Will[iams]. One thing you worry about the Lakers is they struggle to hit shots. And when you say shooting, it is not just 3-point shots. You gotta have an Adam Vinatieri. You gotta have your field goal kicker at the end of games seal games. [The Lakers’] best players aren’t in the 85-90 [free-throw percentage] range. If you look at LeBron James and the guys he always had on his team—whether it was Kyrie Irving, Ray Allen, or Mike Miller—all of those guys he could get them to the final minute and if they’re up by 2 with 40 seconds to go and teams are forced to foul you had your closers from the free-throw line. That’s not a knock, but LeBron’s a 75 percent free-throw shooter [editor’s note: career 73.4 percent], Anthony Davis is 80 percent, then you have Kyle Kuzma who is one of the better free-throw shooters. So if you don’t have 3-point shooters and it becomes shot for shot at the end of the game, or free-throws for free-throws, that’s where the Lakers kind of lack.
Settle this debate for me: Is LeBron a point guard?
Everyone talks about positionless basketball, and since he came into the league 17 years ago he’s always had the ball in his hands. Point-forward, stretch-four, everyone comes up with these names, but ultimately it’s because the game continues to evolve. The point-forward was invented right around the time of Scottie Pippen and Penny Hardaway. What is LeBron? Is he a point-forward? He led the NBA in assists. That’s all you need to know. That’s really all there is. He led the NBA in assists and it wasn’t even close.
"My running joke with him is that anytime I’m down in volleyball, any game that we’re playing—doesn’t matter if it’s cards, FiFA—all I say is, 'Guys, I’ve been down worse.'"
He’s a point guard. He plays point guard for the Lakers.
My thing is this: Why does it matter?
That’s a fair counter.
That’s not to knock your question. Is Steph Curry a shooting guard or a point guard?
He’s a bit of a hybrid.
That’s what I’m saying. More and more great players are hybrids. Steph Curry is more shooting guard than point guard. By far. Without a doubt. Like Allen Iverson. Was Allen Iverson a point guard or shooting guard? Shooting guard that could pass the ball. The only reason why they didn’t want Allen Iverson bringing the ball up was that he was going to shoot the ball every damn time he touched it, right?
Do you believe in the Bucks?
I’ll tell you this: Trust is earned. It’s not just given. Do I believe in them? I believe that they can [win a championship], but they have to prove that they can. I just mentioned Steph Curry, no one believed in [the Warriors] because no one in NBA history had ever won a championship only shooting threes. But they had Klay [Thompson] and Steph and they were the greatest 3-point shooting team we had ever seen so they were able to overcome what had never been done before. Do I believe in the Bucks? I believe they can, but they have to prove it to us. I do believe they are the best team in the [Eastern] conference and I swear to you today if I were to tell you there are five-to-six NBA teams that could win a championship no one would be surprised.
What should Golden State do with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft?
If you can get James Wiseman now you have a dominant big who’s skilled and you combine that with Steph and Klay and then you also have Andrew Wiggins you’re right back in the thick of it. When has it ever been in NBA history where the top two teams that could potentially meet in the NBA Finals next year aren’t in the postseason the year before? Because if you were to tell me next year that the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets are going to meet in the NBA Finals you would say, “Yes, because they have four All-Stars and studs around them.” That’s crazy those teams aren’t in the postseason [anymore]. I think Wiseman would be good. I think if they could bring in a perimeter guard…listen it’s tough, man. The Warriors mastered small ball so they could take a young guard like [LaMelo] Ball and see what happens, but ultimately it’s a matter of need and I think a big would be a great, great addition to that team.
You bring up the Nets. Who would be the best coach for Brooklyn?
I have no idea. I think it’s less about who is the best coach for the Nets and more about who is the best coach for Kevin Durant and Kyrie. Who is the best coach that can get the most out of those guys? Who is the coach who can maximize who those two players are? I don’t know who that is. That’s a legitimate question. There’s some really good coaches out there. I think there’s some really good teams out there looking for a coach—Philly’s looking for a coach, you have Chicago looking for a coach—and as this bubble ends there’s going to be at least one more opening.
We saw JR and LeBron have another funny, memeable moment in Game 4 against the Blazers. What’s the funniest interaction you saw between those two during your days on the Cavs?
Those guys are brothers. Those guys are hilarious. My funniest interaction was Bron being a big brother, him yelling at us, us yelling at him. I remember one time [LeBron] was being, not sensitive—there’s a term I want to use…being grumpy during the game. That night, some of us went to dinner and then we met up at another place for some wine and he had a couple of glasses of wine and me and Channing [Frye] walk in with JR and he just comes over to us after a glass or two and he’s just like, ‘Guys, I’m sorry. My bad. I owe you guys one.” It was like, dude, we’re brothers, you don’t ever have to apologize. But it is funny watching you have two glasses of wine and start apologizing like a housewife.
It’s funny because we had Channing on this week’s Load Management podcast and we asked him what LeBron’s like after a few bottles of wine.
He’s happy. That’s cool because he’s such an intense individual and he cares so much about winning and he cares so much about his teammates and wants everyone to succeed, very similar to [Michael] Jordan. But you have to bring something to the table. I’ll say this about the Lakers in Game 1 [against the Blazers], not that it was any other guy’s fault, but imagine being in that hotel room and you turn on the TV and see that LeBron James did something that had never been done in NBA history with 25 points and 15 and 15 and you lost the game because you guys shot 12 percent from three. You have this feeling of like you know how much he cares, you know how he plays, you just have to do more to contribute to that table. So when he calms down and he has a couple of glasses of wine, he’s lovey-dovey, he’s apologetic because that’s him. You see all of his emotions all of the time. He’s not Kawhi Leonard who is a cyborg who shows no emotion. Your strengths can be your weaknesses. Kobe Bryant was one of the most intense guys in the world, but he was hard for his teammates to understand. LeBron is super, super emotional so it looks like he’s yelling [at] or berating teammates. But he’s also the first guy to either apologize or you just understand who he is as a creature.
Let me hear your most epic story from playing volleyball with Luke Walton on the beaches of LA?
Oh man, Luke is a far better volleyball player than I am. I still have the athleticism, but he has the skillset over me. I tell you what it was. Luke was still on the coaching staff of the Warriors and he won a championship [in 2015] and I didn’t know I was going to be on the Cavs the next year and win a championship. So that summer, like two days after it’s over, I see him. We go play volleyball and our team is down like 10-5 and my saying for the entire summer was, “Guys, don’t worry. We can comeback. I’ve been down far worse than this.” That will be the running joke for as long as we live. He has three championships and I don’t really care if he gets sensitive and I finally got one and it’s awesome that we can be brothers that have both won championships. But my running joke with him is that anytime I’m down in volleyball, any game that we’re playing—doesn’t matter if it’s cards, FiFA—all I say is, “Guys, I’ve been down worse.”
Tell us about this partnership you have going with Rockin’ Protein.
I’m really excited, man. I grew up in Arizona and that’s where they’re based. I’ve always seen their signs all over the place. So when they gave me a call and said, “Hey, would you like to do a partnership?” it was a no-brainer. We all grew up drinking milk and loving it. My kids, that’s what they drink and they have so many flavors. A lot of it was products for my kids because that’s what I’m buying anyways. It’s just something when I’m training and working out, when I was in the NBA, and even now trying to stay super, super active, Rockin’ Protein when they called and asked me and it was one of those ones where you’re excited. The only way I can compare it is when you grow up buying Nikes of your favorite athletes and then next thing you know Nike calls you and asks if you want your own shoe. This is really dope and I’m excited about the partnership