An MRI Monday confirmed that Al Jefferson did indeed suffer a left calf strain against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday afternoon. This is nothing new for Jefferson or the Hornets — only twice in his 12-year career has Jefferson played a full 82-game season, and never once in Charlotte.
So what makes this Al Jefferson injury different from ones past? Are the Hornets equipped well enough to deal with the latest injury to a star player? Is it time to panic, or fear not and stay the course?
Three reasons to PANIC
The schedule is about to get a LOT tougher.The Hornets are coming off one of their most successful Novembers in team history, as they currently sit at 10-7 and are at the tail end of a franchise-record seven-game homestand. Unfortunately, Jefferson's injury could not come at a worse time, as the road is about to get much harder for Charlotte.
The team has six games before the earliest Jefferson could return (we presume) on December 16th against the Orlando Magic. Before then, Charlotte hosts the Pistons, Heat, Celtics and unbeaten Warriors and travels to face the Bulls and Grizzlies. That's a combined record of 57-36.
I wrote that Friday's showdown against the Cavaliers was a good barometer for the team to get an idea of where they stand against one of the best in the NBA. Now, the Hornets will find out exactly where they stand in the Association without one of their best players.
Who is going to be the inside force to keep defenses honest?Other than Jefferson, the Hornets' post scoring threats are...limited, to put it nicely. Other than their star center, Charlotte only has two players who score more than half of their points in the paint ($5 if you can guess who they are*), and only Spencer Hawes has shown an ability to mimic some of Jefferson's post moves. Charlotte has some depth in the front court, but most of them are players with the ability to stretch the floor, not get down and dirty in the paint. Can anyone on the roster become an inside force that prevents defenses from keying in on the Hornets' 3-point attack?
Steve Clifford is going to have to work his defensive magic.Jefferson is not the greatest defensive center in the world, but he has been able to hold his own at times against some of the better bigs in the league — which is exactly what the Hornets have coming up on their schedule. Andre Drummond, Chris Bosh, Pau and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph all await in the wings over the next six games. And if Jefferson takes longer than two weeks to return to the court, Charlotte will have to face off against the likes of Nikola Vucevic and Marcin Gortat over the next few games.
In matchups against tough bigs like that, it is always better to have too many bigs than too few, and the Hornets are currently leaning towards the latter.
*The answer to the earlier question of who are the only other Hornets to score more than 50% of their points in the paint: Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky.
Three reasons to be optimistic
The Hornets have been playing well without Jefferson.Don't look now, but the Hornets have not missed a beat when Jefferson has not been on the court. Granted, it is early in the year, but the Hornets currently have a 7.4 plus/minus rating with Big Al off the court. Since the center moved to the Queen City, Charlotte has had negative plus/minus ratings when Jefferson was on the bench, so this alone is a very promising sign.
So think of this as an added bonus. Jefferson had long been considered a key cog in the team's offense. If he could not get going, never could Charlotte. That has been far from the case this season. Not only is Charlotte scoring more than they ever had in the Al Jefferson-era (or in recent Charlotte basketball history), but they are relying on their center less and less, to the point where they will not even play him in some fourth quarters. If you look at the 5-man lineup statistics, you will find that Al Jefferson is in only two of the team's top 15 most used lineups in the fourth quarter. Over the last seven games, Jefferson has seen only 27 minutes in the fourth quarter of games, losing minutes to the likes of Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky.
Players not named Al Jefferson have already been stepping up.As mentioned before, as Al Jefferson went, so went Charlotte's offense. That has been the case for the past two seasons.
This year is very different. Now, the Hornets have scoring threats up and down their bench. If one player is having an off night, three or four other players are able to make up for it. Charlotte has six players who average double figure points, including two (Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum) averaging at least four points more per game than Jefferson.
Walker's current stat line is enough to make any Hornets fan drool and the team's front office look like very smart people for that contract extension a year ago. Batum is not just accepting his role as "option 1 or 1A" in the offense, but thriving in it as a scorer, distributor and rebounder. Jeremy Squared (Lamb and Lin), should they keep up their play, will each deserve Sixth Man of the Year nominations as they've helped turn Charlotte's bench into one of the team's biggest strengths.
The Charlotte Hornets are no longer Al Jefferson's team. They are evolving into a team in the truest sense of the word.
This gives Charlotte the perfect opportunity to firmly entrench their new (offensive) identity.Since Clifford took over two years ago, the Hornets have been known around the league as a very solid defensive team and a simple offensive team. This season, the narrative has taken a complete 180, as the Hornets have become a team known for their high-scoring, 3-point chucking offense. No longer do they depend on Al-fense to get points, and, in that sense, they have caught up with the rest of the NBA. The league has evolved, and today, if you cannot shoot 3s, you are doomed.
Al Jefferson is a free agent at the end of this season. The next two-to-three weeks could be a sign of what life after Al could be like for Charlotte. The questions remains will it be a bright or a dark one?