Choosing the appropriate time to walk away from the game is always a professional athlete’s toughest decision. Some will head for the exit at the first signs of decline, while others vow to get every last drop of talent from their aging bodies and fade from star to role player in the process. The choice is never easy, and Father Time remains undefeated.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward James Jones is currently in this phase of the professional athlete’s life cycle. The veteran has won three NBA championships and is a well respected around the NBA. While his on-court contributions are somewhat limited, he serves as an important locker room leader in Cleveland.
Jones has openly pondered retirement in the past. Most of the talk was previously due to his recurring foot issues, but with those problems in the rear-view mirror, he is now focused on a goal of playing 15 seasons and then walking away from the game for good.
“I feel great right now,” James told Basketball Insiders. “This is [year] 14 for me. I’ve always said if I get to 15, that’ll be the point where [I retire]. For me, as a kid who just dreamed of making it to the NBA and hoping to play for a couple years, to be able to say I played 15 seasons in the NBA, that’s a personal milestone. That would give me great personal satisfaction.
“I’ve always said that when I feel my teammates aren’t challenged by my presence, then that would be an external sign to leave. The way I’m rolling and feeling now, I don’t think that will be an issue. I won’t have to walk away from the game. I think 15 years will be plenty for me.”
When pressed further, the 36-year-old Jones insisted he won’t try to push his body to the age of 40 (a challenge that some of his peers have set for themselves). Jones believes that riding off into the sunset after the 2017-18 campaign would be good timing.
However, before talk of retirement dominates his personal narrative, Jones has a goal to earn more minutes in the Cavaliers’ nightly rotation. Last season, the veteran appeared in 48 contests and averaged a shade under 10 minutes per outing. Entering the 2016-17 campaign, Jones made his team and individual goals clear.
“Ultimately to win as a team [is the overall goal],” Jones said. “But individually, I want to challenge my teammates. I want to play [more]. We have so much talent, wanting to play and playing are two totally different things and I completely understand that. I want to be here to push these guys. I want to be here to challenge these guys. I want to be here to contribute, because I know one through 15 [on the roster] is what it takes to win.
“It’s a very, very fulfilling experience to be a part of that 15. My shot isn’t going anywhere and I’m confident in my preparation and my approach so that when this team needs me to help, I’ll be ready. And to be able to have teammates that understand that and appreciate that makes the struggle, makes the uphill climb, worth it.”
Last season, Cleveland pulled off arguably the greatest comeback in NBA history when they overcame a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to dethrone the Golden State Warriors for the title in an epic Game 7. But the Warriors added former league MVP Kevin Durant via free agency this summer and many are predicting that the Cavaliers will relinquish the crown next June.
Jones insists the Cavs operate fine as the underdogs and maintains there isn’t a championship “hangover” impacting the team.
“There were a few times in our championship run where we weren’t favorites,” Jones said. “So there is no championship hangover because, for us, we still aren’t favorites. We won last year against [Golden State] – we did it in spectacular fashion and people couldn’t believe that happened. And here we are today, trying to repeat this year and people still don’t believe that will happen. So we have all the external motivation we need. But in order for external motivation to mean anything, you have to have guys who are internally motivated.
“This group, especially with the additions of Mike Dunleavy and Birdman (Chris Andersen), we have guys who are hungry and just want to win. That whole thought process permeates our entire team and that’s why we’re a special group. We’ve got to win every day, every possession, win day by day, and get back to the Finals. We have to be consistent over the year to try to get back and not follow the mindset of thinking that we’ve arrived, that we’ve peaked because all the teams that didn’t win last year got better and found ways to either internally or externally increase their team’s capacity. So we have to do the same if we want to stand a chance.”
For now, Jones says he’s just enjoying walking into opposing arenas as the hunted. The veteran says there is a special feeling to handling hostility, and he and his teammates have learned to embrace it.
“I relish it,” Jones said of the target on the Cavaliers now that they’re the defending champions. “Because not only is it a factor for us, but also for our opponents. The nature of this business is ultimate competition and we want that. Those are the games that are memorable, those are the battles that you remember when you retire and walk away from this game. The only thing you can really get out of this game is competition. We you go into it knowing that the fans will be hostile and trying to win fans. Because at the end of the day, only two teams stand and the fans that are watching basketball, they usually have to pick a side. We’re fighting to make sure it’s us.”
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