Al Jefferson expected to accomplish a new set of goals in 2015. After shredding through his 2014 goals with his play, he set a new bar in year two with the now Charlotte Hornets.
Jefferson was named to the All-NBA Third team during his first season in Charlotte. His head coach would go on to back up that honor by calling him one of the 15 best players in the NBA.
Paul Pierce on Big Al: "No one on the planet can guard him. We tried to double him, single, triple. There’s nothing we could’ve done."— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) March 27, 2014
His team made the playoffs a year earlier than the community and media expected. Kemba Walker may have been their leader, but Al Jefferson was their best player.
As his 11th season in the NBA got underway, donning new colors in the same city, Jefferson held the state of mind that he was ready for the next step, as was his team.
Jefferson's season didn't get off to a terrible start, despite what the Hornets' record indicated. Through the first 17 games of the season, Al averaged 20.5 points on 49.8 percent shooting from the field. Charlotte was 3-14 in those games however. While Al's scoring touch seemed to be there, other parts of his game were missing. His rebounding numbers were down. In year one, he seemed to grab just about every defensive rebound. In year two, he was decent on the boards but not the Al we saw in the Bobcats uniform.
Jefferson never will be considered a defensive wizard or be expected to anchor a defense but along with his rebounding, his defense had taken a step back. Maybe two steps back. It had become completely atrocious.
In the Bobcats' playoff series, a sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat, Jefferson suffered a plantar fascia injury. He tried to play on it, limping up-and-down the court, hoping to provide Charlotte with the offensive punch they desperately needed. He wasn't himself and the series ended as it should have. With the offseason beginning, it was assumed there would be plenty of time for Jefferson to recover from his injury.
His rebounding, his defense, and his overall movement when the 2014-15 season started told another story. His agility and swiftness was never fantastic but it seemed further curbed at the start of the season.
He would go on to miss nine games stretching from December into January due to a left groin strain. He also would have his knee scoped several times down the stretch before being shut down in April. After the season, head coach Steve Clifford considered Jefferson's status during the year as "never healthy."
While injuries were a problem, the offense was still awful. They sat in the cellar of the league in almost every statistical category with the likes of New York, Orlando, and Philadelphia. Al's mark of 16.6 points per game was his lowest since the 2006-07 season.
|Offensive Win Shares||3.1||1.3|
|Defensive Win Shares||4.7||3.4|
Clifford often preaches your spacing is your shooting. The Hornets were dead last in the NBA in 3-point percentage. No shooting led to poor spacing. While Josh McRoberts' passing seemed to make the offense flow in 2013-14, Jefferson was a willing and good passer that same year. At times this season I felt that Jefferson became the black hole that Hornets fans were warned about.
However, he actually ended the year as one of the best post players in the NBA.
My colleague Frank Berndt hooked me up with that graphic and this nugget in his outstanding piece on Alfense: "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)."
Despite Al's best efforts this season, his presence on the floor wasn't as impactful as the year before. The shooting was worse, his health was worse, and his play indicated that. The repercussion: doubt.
Jefferson will begin the season at 30 years old and will turn 31 in January. That's still prime years but definitely on the backend of it.
His growth depends on its opposite.
Al Jefferson says he wants to lose about 20-25 pounds this offseason. He has been around 287. Says weight catching up to him.— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) April 16, 2015
Big men and knees don't mix well. Jefferson's knee issues to end the season, combined with his play and the team's results, were probably a wake-up call to lose this weight. The loss of weight will take some pressure the big man puts on his knees, feet, and back.
It could also enhance his play and the Hornets offense. The movement and agility Jefferson lacked to begin the year, also looked absent for most of the year. A weight loss could help that.
The Hornets offense needs diversity and a greater variety of looks. Jefferson camps out on the left block. Moving Jefferson to the right side, or up to the elbows, or even putting him in more pick-and-rolls will only help the offense grow. He can't do all that plus master the left block if he's playing overweight and out of shape, a status he likely held in addition to his injuries this season.
Al said one of his goals for next season was to play all 82 games. In his 11 seasons in the NBA, he's done that twice.
The city saw what Jefferson is in 2013-14. An old-school, back-to-the basket sorcerer. A 20-10 threat every single night. And his flourish depends on his loss.
How often does a post-move get a bench reaction?
Big Al is one of the best leaders the Hornets have. He takes care of his teammates and those in the community. He is a great ambassador for Michael Jordan, Rich Cho, Steve Clifford, etc.
He is one of the kinder players with the media and always provides good insight with a touch of heart in it.
He is not present on the internet and social media but that doesn't mean he does not have a presence.
He has a verified Facebook page that is consistently updated and actually pretty cool. It includes game stories and cool graphics that fans would really like.
He has his own website and it too is fairly impressive. It includes news and content - they're currently doing "Big Al's Top 5 Games of 2014-15."
As referenced earlier, one thing this season created was doubt. Specifically doubt around Al Jefferson.
Exiting 2013-14, it seemed to me that it was foregone conclusion that Jefferson would opt-out of his deal after the 2014-15 season. That time is now upon us and it is evident that Jefferson will opt-in to his deal.
He holds a $13.5 million player option for the upcoming season. The thought process at the beginning was that Al would opt-out, not to leave the Hornets, but to get a team-friendlier or richer deal.
All signs point to Jefferson opting-in and being on the books for one more year at $13.5 million.
It's quite a predicament for the franchise and the fan base. It is one of the most underrated long-term storylines in the league.
You saw what Al could do in year one. Nightly 20-10, playoffs, offensive leader, 3rd team All-NBA. Year two's team was disastrous. 16 and eight for Al, no awards or honors, momentum gone. Is this 31 year old, who doesn't fit the way the NBA is going, holding back a young core or is he the key piece for a copycat?
A popular comparison is building these Hornets in the mold of another southern NBA franchise.
The Memphis Grizzlies, the Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies specifically, have been a perennial playoff team with times where they rode the contender line.
The way the roster is currently constructed, it is logical to place the Hornets as a potential Grit-n-Grind East. A defense first team who's offense relies on just enough shooting and their two bigs.
What makes Memphis great that Charlotte doesn't have? I still don't think they have "just enough" shooting for one but the two missing pieces are players in the mold of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
Gasol's big-to-big passing, all-around game and Conley's unselfish attitude and jackknife skills make that team work. Charlotte doesn't have a player close to the caliber of either of those.
If you are going with "Alfense," it needs to be slightly tweaked from Memphis' style because it is not something Charlotte can replicate without a flood of talent.
An offense with Al can't have "just enough shooting," it needs good-to-great shooting. The other four players on the floor need to be able to shoot from distance, consistently.
It's not time to give up on Al Jefferson just yet. Cody Zeller, and even Noah Vonleh, are good complements to Al. Clifford said recently that Zeller is ready to start shooting corner-3s. While I like that big pairing for Charlotte, the rest of the roster is not ideal.
If year three does not bring the same kind of dividends year one did, walking away from Al Jefferson, and his offense, should be on the table.