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How Kyrie Irving Compares to the All-Time Great Players

Cleveland Cavalier Richard Jefferson analyzes Kyrie Irving’s potential, explains how the point guard compares to Jason Kidd, and revisits the Cleveland–Golden State Trilogy

Richard Jefferson USA Today/Ringer illustration

Cleveland Cavalier slash podcaster Richard Jefferson stopped by The Bill Simmons Podcast on Thursday. He talked about his time with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, what it was like to be on the losing 2004 Olympics team, surprising player heights, and some of his teammates, past and present. Kyrie Irving is in Boston now, but Jefferson spoke about how his former teammate compares to other great players and how he figured into the Cavs’ three trips to the Finals. Read a portion of that conversation below, and listen to the entire conversation here.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bill Simmons: So Kyrie gets traded, and this turns into a seven-week argument about, “Is Kyrie a superstar or not?” “Well, he’s on LeBron’s team.” “He was only that good because of LeBron.” “He only made the Finals because of LeBron.” “LeBron did everything.” All that stuff. I’m pro-Kyrie. Even before he got traded to my favorite team, I was like, “What are people talking about? This guy’s been in every big game possible.” Do you feel like we have seen everything we could have seen from Kyrie at this point? Because I say no.

Richard Jefferson: Oh, I don’t know. That’s the thing: I didn’t know much of Kyrie before I got there. I knew he was special. I would see some stuff, but I was in the Western Conference for [six] years, especially when he came up. So you might play him one time a year or twice a year in his first three of four years. So I might have played against the kid three or four times, but Cleveland was terrible.

You just kind of cataloged it as, “OK, let’s get this win and keep it moving.” So I didn't really know much about the kid when I showed up. But when you see the guy play on a daily basis—again, he is one of those people that is, skillwise and talentwise, special. He can do things that I’ve never seen before from a guy that size, do it every single day consistently. Have we seen the best? I don’t know. I don’t know, but skillwise and talentwise, he is someone that can do things very similar to a Jason Kidd or somebody else.

Simmons: It seems he’s reached that last level, where the other players are like “That guy,” which is maybe seven, eight, nine guys a year that all the players in the league are like, “Yeah, that’s one of the guys. He does things that we can’t do.”

Jefferson: Yeah, there’s no doubt. You would see LeBron look at him and be like, “GOD!” I say this being in the league for 17 years. I’ve watched so many guys at their prime. I’ve played against John Stockton. I've played against Hakeem Olajuwon. I’ve played against so many guys. And he does stuff with the stop-and-start and his ability to hit shots off the dribble with the left hand, the right hand, the floater this high off the glass—

Simmons: And they never get blocked!

Jefferson: No, and even if it does get blocked, it’s one out of a thousand. It probably slipped out of his hand. But it’s just you see things in his body control. There’s just so many things he can do.

Simmons: Well, the case against him as a franchise player is he was in the cushiest spot where LeBron—it’s like he didn't have the weight of carrying a team every night offensively. He could kind of come and go. I don't agree with this logic. I’m just telling you what the logic is.

Jefferson: I can just say this as a guy that was his teammate the last few years, and his ability to score, scoring 40 points in the Finals—I think a couple of times—hitting a game-winning shot. The biggest shot of my career, he hit.

Simmons: It was probably the biggest shot anyone's made on the road in a Finals game.

Jefferson: In history!

Simmons: They called the play for him in the huddle, right?

Jefferson: Yeah!

Simmons: Were you on the court for it?

Jefferson: I was on the court for it.

Simmons: So you knew it was going to Kyrie?

Jefferson: I was in the right corner, and I got waved out, and I was like, “Good. I wanna be nowhere near this.” Because I don't want my guy to run to him, and they throw it to me and—

Simmons: Are you nervous at that point, or is it nervous energy?

Jefferson: It’s nervous energy mainly because I—

Simmons: Because you’ve played in a lot of games and Finals games, all kinds of shit.

Jefferson: My backstory is I lost the national championship [at Arizona]. We had a great, great team. We underachieved. Then I went to two straight Finals right away [with the New Jersey Nets]. I was on the debacle that was the 2004 Olympics. I won 61 games in San Antonio and we lost in the first round. So I've had so many kinds of heartbreaks, and I wanted it so bad. So in that moment—

Simmons: Is that why you dunked 3 feet over everybody else?

Jefferson: Yeah, I wanted it so bad. Nervous is not the right word. I think it’s more of that energy. Like when a little kid has a puppy and they squeeze it so much like, “Ahhh, I love it.” That was kind of me in that moment.

Simmons: It’s an unbelievable game to rewatch because [Festus] Ezeli has to come in with five minutes left, because [Harrison] Barnes just checked out, and LeBron puts six straight points on him basically. And that crowd gets nervous. Can you feel when the crowd gets nervous?

Jefferson: Well, I said this not too long ago. That is the only environment—playing against the Cavs—that the Warriors fans will ever get nervous, and vice versa! Cleveland fans are all day long, “Oh, we got LeBron.” You watch a game—we go 12 and 1, and we really should have gone undefeated through our conference—and you watch the game, and the Cav fans are eating popcorn like, “Oh, great dunk off the glass!” And the same thing with Golden State, they're cruising. But the minute LeBron walks into that building and they see this man do these things, they’re like, “Oh, OK. This is a little uncomfortable.” And vice versa. The minute KD comes in there and he starts doing things, that's the first time that both sides are uncomfortable. And, it's only when you play against each other. Yeah, you feel the energy. That whole, “WARRIORS” starts going [quieter voice] “Warriors, come on guys.” That's really the way it starts to go.

Simmons: You see a bunch of rich people, sitting courtside, starting to look nervous.

Jefferson: Yeah, like, “Yo, I paid fifty grand for these tickets!” But they are a great team, and to see what Kyrie and ’Bron and team was able to do two years ago—I felt like we left a lot on the table, not to take anything away [from the Warriors].

Simmons: Three straight Finals. Do you feel like you should have gotten two?

Jefferson: It's tough because, again, [the Cavs had] injuries the first year. And Andre Iguodala plays great.

Simmons: The first year was probably your best chance because they hadn't been there before.

Jefferson: And I was not on that team.

Simmons: I heard you say, “Cleveland's best chance.”

Jefferson: Only include me. I’m 1-1 versus the Warriors.

Simmons: Nice!

Jefferson: But you’re right. I think so. I remember actually texting Luke, when they were down 2-1, and before I knew that I was gonna get thrusted into the whole drama. I was like, “Oh, you're gonna be fine. Relax! Like Dellavedova is playing out of his mind. He's not gonna be able to do that for five straight games!” Little did I know that Delly almost died of exhaustion playing so hard.

Some fans don’t truly grasp it. We lose 4-1. We didn’t play great.

Simmons: [The Cavs] had a built-in excuse [in 2015] with the Kyrie injury and all that stuff.

Jefferson: I’m talking about this last one. We didn’t play great, but KD hits that huge shot—

Simmons: I went to three of those games. That series was way closer than people remember now.

Jefferson: It was way closer. Like Kyle [Korver], who was one of the great shooters in the history of the game of basketball, like in the history of the game, he has a good look, it doesn’t drop. That’s part of it.

Simmons: Or even two minutes before, J.R. has a wide-open 3 and he takes a hop step to the left and missed it.

Jefferson: And missed it.

Simmons: But if that goes in, the game is over.

Jefferson: And KD hits a tough shot over LeBron on a dribble-up.

Simmons: And then you mess up the two-for-one.

Jefferson: But that’s what I’m saying. People don't understand. “Oh, 4-1 they killed you!” It’s literally one shot here, one shot there, then you go 2-2. If it’s 2-2, you go there, it’s Game 5. I still stand there. There is zero chance—very similar to the year before, we do not lose on our home court in a Game 6 situation, right?

Simmons: Right.

Jefferson: Now you go Game 7. Anything can happen. That’s how close it is. It’s literally a difference between three shots playing in a Game 7 and losing 4-1.

Simmons: But you just made the argument: Why trade Kyrie then? Because I agree with you, I thought that Finals—

Jefferson: I’m not a part of that, I just work there.

Simmons: Because the case would be the Warriors were completely healthy, Durant played the best series he's ever played—not that he's not the best player or the second-best player in the league. But he was awesome, Curry was awesome. They caught a big break in Game 3 when you guys didn’t close it, and if you played 20 times maybe they win 12 or 13 and you win seven or eight, who knows?

Jefferson: Yeah.

Simmons: But run it back. Now they’ve had the hunger, they’ve won already. You guys have the hunger back if you didn’t win.

Jefferson: You don’t know. And part of your job and people in media’s job is to play the hypothetical. All I know is that we lost, I’m pissed off, I’m not happy about it.

Simmons: When did you know you were gonna lose?

Jefferson: When did I know? Uhmmm—

Simmons: Was there a point in Game 5 when you were like, “Fuck”?

Jefferson: Yeah. Late, it was late though. It was probably about three or four minutes and they finally broke away. I think we were down nine at halftime, but then we cut it to five going into the fourth. I check out, and at that point in time it was kind of like, “OK, now whoever makes the most shots, whoever makes the most plays is gonna win.” And that's the position that you want to be in. You don’t want to be in, “Oh we’re down 15 and we gotta do something miraculous.”

No. As long as we don’t turn the ball over, don’t make this mistake, we’re gonna be fine. But I think it was literally with a minute to go, two minutes to go, you start to kind of see it. And Andre Iguodala I’ve known for years since he was in college, you know Steph and Klay and all these guys I played with them. It’s tough because you’re a competitor and you’re pissed off. Hey, congratulations, and then you get ready for next year.