Last season, the then Bobcats ran their offense through and around Al Jefferson. After the All-Star break, when the team was playing well, he was responsible for the majority of the team's offense (usage rate of 30.7 percent), all while the team played very efficiently offensively (105 offensive rating).
Individually he finished those 29 contests averaging 24.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on 53 percent shooting. Despite being swept by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the playoffs, the coaching staff and front office decided to continue to build out this Al-centric offense for the following season.
It's not breaking news that their plan failed miserably. The Hornets ended the 2014-15 season near the bottom of almost every offensive category and the offense was just 1.2 points per 100 possessions better with Al Jefferson on the court versus off (compared to 4.1 last year). Rather than trying to figure out why this season was a train wreck, the more purposeful objective should be to determine if the team can succeed next year with Al Jefferson again at the center of the offense.
The answer is yes. However, that yes comes with a number of caveats.
Firstly, any offense where Al Jefferson is the center piece must be more than just Alfense, which is a term used by Hornets fans that for our purposes is defined as follows.
Alfense: "Al-fence" - The overuse of a four-out, one-in offense where Al Jefferson camps out on the left block for entire possessions.
Although Al Jefferson remains one of the league's best post-up players, the team's offense would consistently stall when trying to force feed him the ball. Today's NBA defenses are too good at disrupting an opposing team's pet plays. The team has to add more to the offense than "dump it in to Al".
Secondly, Jefferson needs to look to pass earlier. The longer the ball is held, the easier it is for the defense to get set. If Jefferson is willing to make quick passes, either back out or to cutters, teammates will be more willing to try to get open and defenses won't be able to pack the paint as easily as they do when Jefferson holds the ball for up to ten seconds at a time.
Finally, the team has to start running some secondary plays from the low-post. A simple one that the team has never run is to have two players wall off the weak-side for a corner 3-point attempt.
This would be a great play to run for Gerald Henderson, who has been an above average shooter from the corners for two years in a row (42 percent from the corners this year on 69 attempts).
Even if Jefferson and coach Steve Clifford work to add wrinkles to playing out of the low post, this can't be the Hornets' only offense. Al Jefferson isn't Dwight Howard (who is an expert pick-and-roll player and a defensive anchor) and the Hornets are the furthest thing from the Stan Van Gundy era Orlando Magic. Clifford made a mistake trying to replicate that system and paid the price for it. Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, Cody Zeller, and Noah Vonleh are all wasted by a four-out, one-in system. Not only is it an inefficient offense due to Jefferson's limitations, the roster isn't built to support it.
So how can the offense revolve around Jefferson, while also maximizing the rest of the roster? Or to ask the question differently, how can a roster of non-shooters and a low-post scorer be successful?
No one will ever mistake the Hornets' offense as complex. All of the plays have been run in the NBA before and they all lack deception. Considering Al Jefferson's gravity, this is a shame. Teams will commit three players to stopping Jefferson from receiving the ball in the post. This opens up the weak-side of the floor. It would be so easy for Kemba Walker to make it seem as if he's concentrated on the entry pass, and then throw a lob to Henderson on the weakside, or zip a pass to the opposite corner, or hit Kidd-Gilchrist on a curl to the rim.
Another way to use Al Jefferson's gravity is to implement more big-to-big passing. Teams fronting Jefferson should be easily beaten with smart man and ball movement. The team was far too slow in bringing Cody Zeller to the foul line, which opens up the passing angle around the fronting big man.
Move the big men around
Al Jefferson shouldn't spend all of his time in the low-post. His mid-range shooting is good enough for him to play the high-post or as the "power forward" in the offense. With Jefferson at the four, the Hornets could spice things up and have Cody Zeller or Gerald Henderson in the low-post, where both players could use their passing abilities to breakdown the defense.
Also, Jefferson spends far too much time on the left side of the floor, which just happens to be the best place for right-handed wing players to do their attacking. With Jefferson around the right elbow or the right baseline, this opens up the paint and allows a more favorable angle of attack for Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Pick up the pick-and-roll game
In addition to moving the big men around more, the team desperately needs to get better in the pick-and-roll. Al Jefferson frequently slips screens, which is a tragedy considering he should be able to use his size to lay devastating picks. Not only does he need to make more contact, coach Clifford needs to design more plays where he receives the ball around the foul line. Mo Williams and Al Jefferson were developing quite the pet play last year.
As Jefferson gains comfort in this action, he'll start to make the extra pass to the right corner, which will be wide open for Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, or Henderson.
Alfense version 2.0 aka Grit N' Grind East
In summary, an Al-centric offense can work, but Alfense will fail, even with all the shooting in the world.
By using their big men more dynamically (think Memphis Grizzlies and how they use Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol), the Hornets will open up the offense for everyone. In addition to fewer post-ups for Jefferson, the team must also focus on making Kidd-Gilchrist and Henderson more involved in the offense. Weave plays, hand-offs, pin-downs, and other actions should be much more frequent. An Al-centric offense is completely possible, but he's not good enough offensively to be much more involved than any of the Hornets other starters.
At the end of the day, the fate of the Hornets' offense next year doesn't depend on acquiring more "shooting"; it remains in the hands of coach Steve Clifford. Deciding to build out the offense around an injured Al Jefferson proved to be a mistake. With the amount of injuries that came throughout the year, it's forgivable that he wasn't able to change the system midseason. However, a second failure will be unacceptable and likely cost Clifford his job. It makes sense to diversify, rather than putting your career on the legs of Al Jefferson.