Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson has not played more than 73 games since 2013, his final year in Utah. He's dealt with a handful of injuries over the years, many involving his lower body. Big men, especially those of Jefferson's stature, are prone to lower body injuries.
To Jefferson's credit, he's played through many injuries over the last few seasons, too. That's rarely a good idea, mind you, but it's indicative of Jefferson's commitment to helping the team win.
A few days ago, we learned that Jefferson would miss 2-3 weeks with a left calf strain. While Jefferson's role in the Hornets' offense is smaller than ever — he's posting his lowest usage rate since 2011 — he's still extremely important on that end of the floor. In fact, his assist rate of 12.4 percent is a career high, and if you look a bit deeper, you'll see that the Hornets score 106.3 points per 100 possessions when Jefferson is on the floor versus 101.4 when he's off. He might be slowing down a bit, but he still has a tremendous impact on the Hornets' offense.
At The Hive's writers pondered how the Hornets can mitigate the loss of Jefferson. Here's what they had to say:
Making up for a player that can draw a defense's attention as well as Big Al does won't be easy. Despite the changes across the NBA he's still a force on a night to night basis, and defense's respect him. The only real way you can make up losing a guy like that is by playing faster, and adjusting to the small ball they're gonna be running. Expect a lot of Zeller-Williams frontlines. And even though Charlotte does have the ability to go big with Kaminsky and Hawes I'm not sure they're comfortable running either of those two out their for major minutes right now.
This isn't going to be easy.
Jefferson plays a key role in the offense by drawing double teams and extra attention when the ball is moved inside to him. Here's the thing though; the majority of Jefferson's shot attempts are coming from jump shots, not post-ups, which means the Hornets can emulate that with the likes of Zeller, and to a lesser extent, Hawes. While Zeller isn't connecting on shots outside of 10 feet, he is becoming fairly good at attacking the hoop off the dribble and off screen and rolls. Instead of taking the jumpshot, Zeller should focus on attacking the rim, which could cause defenses to collapse, and would free up some of the shooters on the perimeter. Hawes could try and draw defenders when posting up, but he's no where near the post-up threat Jefferson is. However, he is an ample passer in the post, and perimeter players could benefit from that.
Finally, if Hansbrough can be a menace on the offensive glass, teams may have to commit more players down low, which again, would potentially free up players on the perimeter. None of these methods are as effective as what Jefferson can offer, but they'll have to make due with them for the next couple of weeks.
Al Jefferson has had some incredible moments in a Hornets uniform. Two years ago, he was an All-NBA caliber player and led the team to a playoff spot just a few years removed from the worst season in NBA history. That being said, he is in a contract year, is on the wrong side of thirty, and has a skill set that doesn't fit in the Hornets' new scheme this year. He has lost some weight and looks like he can manage and has tried hard to fit in, but he still isn't going to get the post touches that he is used to getting.
I think plugging in guys like Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky into those minutes may make things even better in the short term while Al is out. It hurts in the sense that they don't have a guy who they can get a mismatch and get a bucket when they need one while Al is out. Kemba Walker and Nic Batum have both been exceptional this year, however, and those are two guys who can do that. Where it will hurt the most — and we saw this against Golden State — is on the boards. Jefferson is a double-double guy every night, and while Zeller is athletic and active, guys like Hawes and Kaminsky don't have the ability to fill in for that production from Al. Those are the types of things that can lose you close games as well, and we will have to see if that problem lingers going forward.
Honestly, the worst thing the Hornets could try to do would try to directly replace Jefferson's inside scoring. There is no one else on this roster (maybe even the entire Association) who has his ability to score in the post, and the majority of the team's backup bigs are more of the stretch variety, better able to hit shots from beyond the arc than pound the ball inside against other bigs.
So why not play to that? Fully embrace your ability to spread the court and play pick and roll offense with everyone around the 3-point line. Better yet, do what the team has already been doing for long stretches in the second half of recent games. The team has been sitting out Jefferson for long stretches or entire quarters and has looked just fine. They have been preparing for this moment, and should be just fine.
Put Zeller in there at center and run a four-out offense with him being the rim runner on pick-and-rolls. It has produced good results in the past and when talking specifically about Zeller, one has to wonder whether he even can make it as a power forward in this league. With every missed jumper (currently 0-for-17 outside of 10 feet for the season) Zeller's slowly gravitating towards the role of a center (preferably a back-up one) who gets by on his superior athleticism. Let him dive to the basket on offense, while on defense he can use his versatility to step out to the perimeter. This is a nice opportunity for him to show his capabilities at the 5 spot against starters. He probably won't cut it as a power forward in the pace-and-space era.
As for Jefferson, even if has improved his field goal percentage in the post after a slow start to the season, the Hornets are using him at a rate lower than the two previous years.
Jefferson's post touches are down to 5.6 per game, after he received about 9 touches the previous two seasons, per NBA.com. To put that into context, he's receiving the ball almost 25 percent time less in the post than in 2014-15 (down to 7.7 per 36 minutes after 10.1 post touches last season). The amount of his front court touches, for that matter, have also dipped.
Those numbers paint the picture of how the team has been playing. It's a new day in Charlotte with our team running a more three-pointer reliant motion offense and Al's slowly starting to look like a player who doesn't have a place here.
Only now you can't make the case that our offense is sorely missing him whenever he's out. We should be fine.
Doug Branson and Nata Edwards
What do you think the Hornets can do to make up for the loss of Big Al?