"He's my favorite player of all time."
Not Michael Jordan, the man who inspires him to don No. 23. Not Magic Johnson, the man whose court vision and pass-first instincts are often compared to his own. Not Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the man he's dished more assists to than any player in his career. Not even Dwyane Wade, the man he considers the "brother that I never had."
Nope. James' favorite is none other than Cleveland reserve James Jones, a 13-year veteran with a pedestrian 5.5 points per game career scoring average but an impeccable resume as a winner. Not only is Jones trying to join James in making a sixth straight trip to the Finals, having been teammates with the Miami Heat and now the Cavs; he's simply never experienced consistent losing as a professional.
Three of Jones' five NBA teams have registered a 60-plus win season with him on the roster (the Cavs very well could become the fourth this year). And the worst season he's ever gone through was when the Portland Trail Blazers went 41-41 in 2007-08.
"I told J.J., as long as I'm playing, he's going to be around," James said last week. "He's not allowed to stop playing basketball. So, I'm going to make sure I got a roster spot for him. I love him. He's the greatest teammate I've ever had."
What got James gushing about Jones was the 35-year-old's 15-point fourth quarter Friday in Cleveland's 111-76 rout of the Orlando Magic. The outburst, tied for the third-highest scoring quarter by any bench player this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, included a blistering three-minute, four-second stretch in which Jones went 5-for-5 from the field -- all of them jump shots -- and four of them coming beyond the 3-point arc.
Cleveland's sideline grew progressively more animated after every make, with players barely being able to contain themselves as they erupted with a wave of euphoria following Jones' final swish of the sequence.
The moment exemplified what sports should be about: a team coming together and enjoying each other's success more than any individual accolade.
But Jones isn't the equivalent of a Division I walk-on getting burn in the waning minutes of a nonconference blowout.
"It's not a mascot thing," said veteran Richard Jefferson.
No, it's certainly not that. If James is the heart of the Cavs -- the organ that pumps life into the franchise -- Jones is the soul.
"I go to him with everything," forward Kevin Love said. "Whether it's the game, personal life, we talk about everything. He's a guy, I'm always just picking his brain ...
"If you were in school, he'd be the guy to sit next to in class. So I sit next to him on the plane, I pick his brain in the locker room. I pick his brain about basketball. I pick his brain about my family. Everything. He's probably one of, if not, my best friend in the league."
Jones and Love's bond might seem to run deeper than his connections to others on the team. Consider that on Cleveland's last road trip, Jones treated Love to dinner to pay off a shooting competition bet by using a $50 gift card to The Cheesecake Factory. Jones insisted the gift card would cover both meals.
"We ended up going to the mall, and let's just say the things that he bought were free, the things that I bought I paid for," Love said. "We'll leave it at that."
Yet the lofty praise for Jones, thrifty jokes aside, seems to come from all corners of the Cavs' locker room.
"I can see the consistency in him every single day," said J.R. Smith, himself known for mercurial behavior. "He comes in, works hard. Whether he's playing 20 minutes or he don't play at all, he's very consistent on who he is. He's content on who he is as a player and a person.
"So, if there is anybody to look up to as a veteran, it's definitely 'Champ.'"
That's Jones' nickname. As funny as it may seem for the second-oldest (and skinniest at a lithe 6-foot-8, 218 pounds) player on the Cavs to be known by a moniker usually reserved for boxing greats, there's no sense of irony when his teammates use it. It applies not only to the two championships he won with James in Miami, but maybe more importantly, also encapsulates how Jones conducts himself.
"I think the biggest thing he does for me is in terms of preparation for what's to come. And he's been through it before," point guard Kyrie Irving, 12 years Jones' junior, said. "He comes in and just does what he needs to do and is a professional every day. The true essence of the word 'professional.'"
Professionalism is what James had in mind in the summer of 2014, when he called Jones to tell him his plans to return to Cleveland.
"It was, 'Hey, Champ, I enjoyed our time in Miami, but I think I'm going home,'" Jones said. "And I told him, as a Miami guy, I was a little heartbroken, but as a brother and a teammate, I'm ecstatic that he's doing what's best for him and his family.
"So that was the initial part, and then the second part was, 'Hey, I want you to come with here and help me change this thing and do something special.'
"From there, it just slowly evolved to where it became a viable option, and the challenge that it presented was something that kind of got me going and I thought about the possibilities knowing that it would be tough, that it would be a roller coaster, but I think I was seeking that thrill again, so I made the decision to come up here."
Jones never averaged more than 19.1 minutes per game in his time with James in Miami, but the role James wanted him to fill with the Cavs was about more than what Jones could provide in game situations. James was taking his operation back to Cleveland, and he needed a consigliere by his side as he broke down and then built back up the culture.
"For me, the guys see me work," Jones said when asked how he affects the team. "You don't always get the opportunity to show the work that you've put in in the game, especially when you're a reserve guy near the end of the rotation with inconsistent minutes. The guys see me consistently work when my reward is inconsistent minutes during the season. But that's the way we're built, and that's my job.
"So I just try to work and hopefully give the guys confidence and a boost that the work they do every day in practice when no one is watching, that it means something, that it pays off and that eventually I hope it's infectious so that all the guys look at what I do and just say, 'Hey, that's not him being special or just God blessing him the ability to do it without putting in hard work.'
"For our young guys, for guys like Tristan [Thompson], for guys like even Kevin and Jared [Cunningham] and Delly [Matthew Dellavedova], for them to see it pay off, I think they get the enjoyment because they know how hard we work as a team."
Jones doesn't just lead by example. Despite being 11th on the Cavs in playing time, Jones' voice is listened to intently. And he's not afraid to use it, be it for a motivational speech at halftime or in a postgame players-only meeting.
"Playing time should never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever dictate the level of your voice. Ever. It should never ever. Triple quote, double quote. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever," said Jefferson, the only Cavalier older than Jones. "Neither should your paycheck and neither should your time in this league. The only thing that should ever dictate the size of your voice is how accountable you are yourself.
"And his voice is loud because he's accountable. He'll never ask a person to do something that he wouldn't do himself. There's not a day where he doesn't bring it. There's not a day where he's not himself. Every single day, he's who he needs to be and who we need him to be, and that's why he's able to have a loud voice. Everyone can't say that."
When asked if all the basketball acumen possessed by Jones would make him a good coach someday, Cavs coach David Blatt confirmed Jones' credentials for the occupation and went even further.
"I could see J.J. being anything that he wants to be. Anything," Blatt said. "That's what I could see for that guy."
The only concern on Jones' immediate agenda is to help James win a championship in his home state. Jones wants James to feel the same pride he did with those two titles in his home city of Miami. He realizes that a championship in Cleveland will cement the appreciation James deserves.
"He knows I'm eternally indebted to him, and most importantly, because he's done that for me, the only thing I want to see him be is the greatest player ever to play this game," Jones said of James. "And not just a great basketball player, but a man, a father, a husband, an individual, an icon. And so, that's why we share that bond, because I told him my goal, my focus here is to win championships and to help him build his legacy so that he's iconic.
"When they think about the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball and one of the greatest athletes to ever impact the sport or impact the world, I want that to be him and no one else."
What does Jones feel about James calling him "perfect" and bestowing him with favorite-player status?
"He already knows it's a reciprocation because he's my favorite player ever," Jones said.
For as profound as some of Jones' comments can be, that quote was pretty obvious.