Al Jefferson surprised no one by opting-in for the final year of the 3-year, $41 million deal he signed back in 2013. Before the 2014-15 season, there would have been unanimous celebration. Now, there's not so much excitement, but rather faint optimism that next season Jefferson plays more like he did two years ago rather than how he did most recently.
That's by in large where many fans stand with the Charlotte Hornets right now. Everything was wonderful in 2013-14, and today all of those wonderful things have lost their shine. There are better options for the Hornets out there, but this season they are virtually unattainable. Aside from a couple of new players, the roster will be largely the same, but only for this season. In 2016-17, cap space bottoms out, and the Hornets will be in a position to go in a number of directions. Until then, all the team can do is hope some of those pieces (Jefferson included) re-capture the form that made two seasons ago one of the best in the team's history.
Regardless of next season's outcome however, the team will have to decide whether Jefferson should be brought back beyond this season. Big Al has stated before that if he had it his way, he'd end his career in Charlotte. That's a wonderful thing to hear from him, hell from anybody, given that just four or five years ago it's doubtful a single player in Charlotte's locker room would have even entertained the idea. But Jefferson is all-too familiar with the NBA -- what he wants may not be what the team wants, and right now it's unclear what direction they are taking. This month's draft may provide some insight, and the clearest indication that the Hornets are looking post-Jefferson would be if they were to take someone like Willie Cauley-Stein.
At this point all we have is what we know, and what we know is that at his best, Jefferson is one of the premier post players in the NBA. At his worst, or even when he's mediocre, he's a liability. Where other players can still be effective at 60 to 70 percent, Jefferson needs be around 85 percent if he's going to contribute positively. On one hand, a healthy and productive Jefferson is exactly what the Hornets would need next season. It would also put the team in a really tough situation, and one that could backfire long-term. Typically, a player has a great contract season, and he's awarded for that with a new contract. Jefferson's case is more complicated, given his age, past health issues, and style of play.
Jefferson is not getting younger, and even if he stays healthy his production will go down. Generally speaking, a player's chances of sustaining an injury increase with old age. Do the Hornets want to commit two or three more seasons to a player who more than likely will get hurt? This is a pessimistic way of looking at it (or maybe realistic), but it cannot be overlooked.
But let's say Jefferson's health problems are behind him. Then it comes down to whether the team wants Jefferson's style of play long-term. It worked great two seasons ago, but not so much last season (for a number of reasons beyond just his playing style). Even if Jefferson plays well next season, does the team want that type of player on the roster beyond 2016-17? The league appears to be shifting to more positional-less lineups -- this year's NBA finals are a great example. Versatile, athletic big men who can play both ways are in favor right now, and Jefferson is not that. His offensive production makes up for his decencies on defense, but if his offense isn't clicking, he can become a liability.
The thing is (and this is a bit of good news) the Hornets have time to think about Jefferson's future. He's arguably one of the best players of the franchise in the 21st century, and he should be treated as such by the team. A lot will change between now and next summer, but it's important that the team is thinking about Jefferson's future role now.