Oh, Albus, Albus… Was the 2013-14 season really the peak of your powers?
In my opinion, this summer has to be a turning point for the 30-year-old’s career. Jefferson faces a 13.8 million player option for the next season and is coming off a questionable season both health and production wise. If he opted out, he would test the free agency market in the same summer as Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik, Brook Lopez, Brandan Wright and Tyson Chandler, all more reliable options for an NBA team in 2015, given their and Al’s specific strengths.
It’s hard to tell how Nikola Vucevic’s and Enes Kanter’s restricted free agency will work out. Moreover, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert seem much more likely to test the free agency waters than Al, especially with Bropez putting together an impressive and healthy stint of games towards the end of the season.
With Jefferson claiming that he doesn’t want to opt out and that he wants to be a part of the franchise turn-around process, I would then advise him to really prepare this summer. Not just because I feel like he has some sort of obligation to “put up or shut up”, but moreso due to the fact that next year he’s likely to play for his last big contract.
And that’s where I think that he has to re-think things on his career path. Whether he becomes a free agent next year or opts out this summer, the summer it happens, in my opinion, he has to acknowledge his limitations. Either he finds himself a place to be an over-qualified third big man like Bob McAdoo or Mychal Thompson (Carlos Boozer, I guess, would be the more contemporary example since Taj Gibson would be the one to play fourth quarters) or he lands in a spot that satisfies his monetary and basketball role needs, while possibly never winning a playoff game in his career (discounting his part for the ’05 Celtics as a young’un off the bench).
As a Horncats fan I’m truly thankful to the man for providing the Bobcats name with at least some sort of relevancy during the 2013-14 season. For all I know, he’s been giving it all he has training regiment wise as Jefferson has worked with the highly acclaimed P3 Sports Science Project people for years. However, his two seasons in Charlotte provide evidence that his body (the way it’s currently built) isn’t able to sustain a full season of health (with him breaking down towards the end of the season both times) or allow him to successfully defend when he’s heavily used on offense.
Stats splits don’t help Al with the accusation that he uses the season to play himself into shape. Since the 2006-07 season, when he first became a double digit scorer, only once he hasn’t raised his scoring average or field goal percentage following the New Year (17.3ppg pre-NY and 17.0ppg post-NY in 2009-10, .500 FG% pre-NY and .494 FG% post-NY in 2008-09). I made the executive decision to discount the injury riddled 2014-15 season and the 2011-12 season, when he first hit the court on December, the 27th.
Charlotte fans saw this experience firsthand when Jefferson limped through November, 2013 on a bum ankle, slowly worked his way into playing shape and went berserk on the league during the second half of the season while posting 25.4 points (on 53.7% shooting from the field) and grabbing 11.1 rebounds per contest during a select 41 games. Only then was his unstoppable post offense, which couldn’t be bothered by double teams, effective enough to have us playing .500 basketball since, you know, he is a train wreck on the other end as I immortalized in this shameful lowlight reel:
Unfortunately, the truth is that when he isn’t playing at such a level, the out-dated Alfense makes Jefferson a net negative. As his offensive production dwindled in comparison to the 2013-14 season, Al-centered line-ups only managed to score 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a unsatisfying number when the man has a usage rate of 26.7% and is supposedly an offensive force. It’s a figure that’s tough to replicate on defense with Jefferson as your center.
One might say that we have a done a poor job at creating a team around him. By all means, we absolutely have. Most of our wings are lackluster shooters from outside and, for reasons unknown to me, Marvin Williams, who was brought in to provide spacing, is stationed on the other side of the paint for most of Jefferson’s post-ups. The starting line-ups which featured Stephenson and kicked off the season made Daryl Morey vomit from disgust.
Yet, in the meantime, we’re also a team that offers quite the support for Jefferson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson prevent dribble penetration at a high rate, Kemba Walker, despite his limitations, is a pesky competitor and Cody Zeller is quite skillful at hedging pick-n-rolls or stepping out to defend at the perimeter. This selection of players accompanied by Steve Clifford’s tutelage and conservative schemes has helped us finish among the top-10 defenses both years of Jefferson’s stay in Charlotte. This season we even managed to give up the least field goal attempts within five feet of the basket, a blissful fact for the incapable rim protector that Jefferson is.
His only real defensive strength is post defense where he ranks in the 83rd percentile in points given up per possession, per NBA.com. Jefferson is stout enough to hold off anybody, evidently can predict moves based on his own post prowess and is skillful at swiping at the ball at the exact right time.
Al’s hand-happy defense is also one of his biggest shortcomings. He’ll find the right groove thanks to it for a couple of games and then will look absolutely lazy for a longer period of time since his whole repertoire will consist of trying to stop any possession with a swipe. Per example, here’s Jefferson bailing out a below average post player (and an admittedly bad free throw shooter) Andre Drummond late in the shot clock with a useless foul.
He’s notoriously bad at guarding pick-n-pops and this season tried much less at contesting his assignment’s open mid-range looks, often just forgoing the task. At this point in his career you either have to fully invest a third player in the coverage of a pick-n-pop or just accept the fact that you’re giving up an open jumper.
His team-mates consider him so unreliable at protecting the rim that certain Western conference teams hit us with a barrage of corner threes when wings had to overly help on pick-n-roll coverage from the weak-side.
All in all, it’s so painful to hide his defensive deficiencies that back in December it prompted me to chart all of our close games up to that point and conclude that we have given up 116.2 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations when Jefferson is attempting to guard a pick-n-roll.
This season Jefferson looked even more like a man restricted to only one set of movement as if he is physically incapable of making the second effort after he has attempted the primary defensive action.
The second play is a signature one of Al. It’s his stroll in the park after he has exceeded the amount to which he cares or is capable of caring of on defense.
He might get himself in terrific shape for his contract year and surprise us with sort of a comeback season, but given his age, mileage and defensive issues I still would recommend him to a find a Bob McAdoo-like situation. That’s not to say that I would judge him if he did otherwise. There’s a lot at play here and I certainly understand the ego and desire to play a bigger role that comes with this.
However, with all due respect to Jefferson, I’d like for Charlotte to part ways with him when he hits free agency. Al worked perfectly as our stopgap player in our impatience to improve and it yielded the necessary results, a playoff berth and the big name signing a market like ours can’t get any summer (unfortunately, Stephenson hasn’t worked out up to this point). His weaknesses and age range, which isn’t likely to fit with the peaks of our core guys, make him a iffy fit for the future.
I hope that the column doesn’t read too much like an annihilation of Al Jefferson, the basketball player. Hopefully, a “B-” for a injury-plagued season says that since this wasn’t the time and place to spend a 1000 words on the beauty of his post moves or anything.