After having arguably the best season of his career in 2013-2014, the 2014-2015 campaign was a constant struggle for Al Jefferson. Although the Games Played column isn’t drastically different from one year to the next, the hypothetical "Healthy Games Played" column certainly was. Really, Jefferson’s struggles last year really encapsulated the Hornets season as a whole – constant injury bugs, inconsistency in the roster and the inability to develop any chemistry, and a total lack of spacing and production on the offensive end.
Jefferson’s stats are actually better than what most people probably remember: 16.6 points per game, 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and a shooting percentage of .481. Really, it was kind of a return to his former self statistically – his averages weren’t far off from where they were in his Utah and Minnesota days. However, they were definitely down from two years ago with the Hornets, and that was a big problem, as he continued to be the focal point of the Charlotte offense.
While his raw stats were obviously down, the most concerning of them – and perhaps none of them are concerning if you can attribute 100% of last year to nagging injuries – was the shooting efficiency. Jefferson was above .500 two years ago and consistently punished defenses that dared not double team him once the Hornets got him the ball in his sweet spot in the post. We can see this by looking at his field-goal percentage the last two seasons by shot distance – in 2014, Jefferson shot .514 from the 3-10 foot range (where post ups usually occur). However, in 2015, that regressed way to down to .445.
Again, the question is whether that was naturally regression bound to happen regardless of injuries or whether things will bounce back this upcoming year. There’s no doubt that Jefferson had very little room to operate in the post last year. The shooting around him was truly dreadful – for example, Lance Stephenson shot 17.1% (not a typo) from the 3-point line and 37.6% overall. By early December, no defensive players were staying home on shooters. Instead, they could direct swarming hands towards Jefferson and his formerly-efficient post ups.
Thinking about Al-fense
After seeing spread offenses work so well – think the NBA champion Warriors, the dynastic Spurs, or the 60-win Hawks – it’s a fair question to wonder whether an offense built around Jefferson is serviceable in 2015. However, I think that’s a far too simplistic way to think about it.
In the NBA, the most important thing when it comes to who is on the floor together for a team is how those dynamics mesh on both ends of the floor. An offense built around a dynamic post player and four shooters – yes, I know that’s obviously been a question for Charlotte and remains so – can absolutely work. The Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic teams really exemplified this strategy and showed how devastating it can be.
The issue is that in order to get four shooters around a dynamic post player, your dynamic post player also has to be an elite rim protector on the defensive end. The reason again is give-and-take – adding shooting usually means taking away size and defensive prowess. An exception of course is a guy like Draymond Green, but he’s quite the rarity in the NBA. A lineup of Kemba Walker-P.J. Hairson-Nicolas Batum-Frank Kaminsky-Jefferson theoretically has enough shooting to work, but what happens on the defensive end?
Now, this wasn’t a problem when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was in the lineup. His defense has been so good for the last several years – and we’ll give a lot of credit to head coach Steve Clifford and his coaching staff for intelligent schemes – that he has been able to act as a de facto rim protector even from the perimeter, much like LeBron James and Dwayne Wade did for the Miami Heat defense for years. However, with MKG likely out for the season, it remains to be seen how to find a five-man unit that works on both ends of the floor.
So what’s going to happen?
I wish I could be more of an optimistic soothsayer, but that last point above I think might be too much of an issue to overcome for the Hornets. The question isn’t even whether Jefferson can return to form from two years ago – either statistically or through the "eye test" – but whether that actually will translate to team wins. MKG’s injury was the one that the Hornets couldn’t afford because of his unique skillset on this roster. However, seeing a resurgent Jefferson could go a long way to fixing the Hornets problems, especially if Clifford can work his defensive magic again.