With training camp set to start on the first of October, the Bobcats are ready to begin another season with no scarcity of the exciting unknown. They have a novel, fresh feeling of optimism, a new coach, a refreshing depth in talent, and, of course, the addition of renowned offensive wizard, Al Jefferson.
And Clifford is quite excited for the opportunities he expects Jefferson and his skill set to bring to the team.
He immediately becomes our best offensive player, with the ability to attract a second defender and make the play to get another player a good shot.
This is true. Jefferson's proficiency in the post has made him an effective feature on his previous teams' offenses. He was ranked 44th in post-up scoring efficiency in 2012-13, 18th in 2011-12, 73rd in 2010-11 and 51st in 2009-10, via MySynergySports.com. Jefferson is also a versatile scorer (although post-up plays are overwhelmingly the top option in his recent past) and his overall points scored per possession reflect this with solid rankings in that regard, too.
However, a reputation as a black hole has haunted Jefferson for years. This was once true for the big man. In his earlier seasons, he carried a heavy load of his teams' scoring and has never been on a team in which he used less than 20 percent of their possessions. And not only that, but he had a ridiculously low assist percentage to accompany that level of usage. In his first five seasons, Jefferson never came close to assisting his teammates on at least 10 percent of their made field goals. Zero of those teams had a decent distributor, either, so it's not like they didn't have the need for ball movement assistance. The closest thing any of those Celtics and Timberwolves teams had to someone with an assist percentage of 30 percent (Kemba Walker's was 31.2 percent last season, for comparison's sake) was a 36-year-old Gary Payton with 29.2 percent.
The disparity in usage and any semblance of ball distribution clearly led to Jefferson's reputation. And it's not unfair, I would say. To use 28.9 percent of your team's possessions when on the floor and assist on a mere 8.8 percent of his teammates' made field goals is pretty astounding. Those teams weren't great, but they consistently had middling shooters, i.e. targets for Jefferson to find from behind the arc or wherever.
But Jefferson began to find a better balance between his usage and passing, lessening the disparity between the two in the following four seasons. In that time, his usage rate dropped from ever-increasing career highs to a more consistent 25 percent; his assist percentage increased to 10.7 from 7 percent; and his turnover percentage fell from an average of 10.3 percent to 7.3 percent.
This is all to show that Jefferson is not the black hole he is made out to be. Though not quite a long lost Gasol brother, Jefferson is no longer the reluctant passer he once was.
For the Bobcats to take advantage of this, they'll need to have shooting to make opponents pay when they go to double-team Jefferson, whether on a direct kick-out or if they swing the ball to the weak side to find gaps in the defensive rotation. Clifford is well aware of this and is apparently working to counter defensive strategies that opponents will try to nullify Jefferson's strengths: "You have to have counters for when they make it hard for him to get the ball. Whether it's fronting him or whatever, you have to counteract those plays." Still, his main concern is shooting. The Bobcats' spacing will have a tougher time if their threes aren't falling. A lack of spacing makes for especially rough nights for Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller
Clifford also discussed his focus on rebounding and transition defense. Though not blessed with a group of great defensive talents, Clifford's goal is to get the extra effort that can still make scoring opportunities more difficult for opponents. Specifically, he wants the team to beat everyone else down the court defensively, cutting off normally easy baskets.
However, he notes that the most talented rebounder on the roster by position is Kidd-Gilchrist, also the team's best defender. He's discussed the paradox of trying to keep one of his best offensive rebounders around after missed shots without compromising transition defense before, but it would require supreme discipline to get the defense down court before the opponents pushing the ball in transition. Jefferson is slow and Zeller didn't show much as a rim-protector in college, so Clifford's best bet may just be to set clear boundaries when Kidd-Gilchrist can focus on offensive rebounds, whether by opponent or situation.
Jefferson is a solid defensive rebounder but doesn't excel on the other end of the court in snagging boards. It's hard to say how Zeller will be as a rebounder right now, but he has good quickness and a solid basketball IQ, despite having slightly shorter arms and lacking strength in blocking out. Plus, rebounding on defense can be covered more easily by team effort because of blocking out versus the individual skill of offensive rebounding and fighting through box-outs. So that's why Clifford is looking to Kidd-Gilchrist as a major rebounder for the Bobcats.
The other interesting thing of note from the interview is Clifford's reluctance to name a starting power forward. Based on talent alone, I still expect Zeller to start, but Clifford does talk about his intention to let Zeller develop at his own rate, rather then heaping expectations on him.
Be sure to check out the rest of the interview. Clifford doesn't talk too much in depth, but he elaborates on Kidd-Gilchrist's work on his shot with Mark Price, as well as brief thoughts on Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and hoping for a more consistent Bismack Biyombo.
[statistics references all via MySynergySports.com and Basketball-Reference.com]