A lot has changed over the season for the Charlotte Hornets, one that has seen Charlotte basketball go to new heights. One of the more unexpected changes has been moving the team's star center, Al Jefferson, from a member of the team's starting five to the bench.
But, has the move from starter to key member of Swarm Force One actually been more beneficial for Jefferson?
It is hard to argue against the success that the Hornets currently have. Since Jefferson's return to the team on February 19 — also the first game back from the All-Star break, the Hornets are 10-3 and finds themselves among the hottest teams in the Association. Jefferson, who before was an easy lock to be a starter, was moved to the bench and no one was ever looked back. But should they?
A first look at the stats show that Jefferson is better as a starter than a backup, to the surprise of most likely no one. As a starter this season, Jefferson has averaged 13.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 60.5 percent from the free throw line while playing 26.2 minutes in 17 games. As a backup, Jefferson has averaged 9.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and .8 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 61.1 percent from the charity stripe while playing 21.3 minutes in 15 games.
End of story, right?
If I may borrow from college football briefly, in the immortal words of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend! Advanced statistics and recent play tell a different story.
Since his return from injury, Jefferson has actually been averaging more points (11 per game) while shooting better overall (50 percent from the field and 65.6 percent from the charity stripe) off the bench. Advanced metrics show that his recent play is the best of the season. Prior to the All-Star break (where Jefferson played 17 of 19 games as a starter), he had an offensive and defensive rating of 103.4. In the second half of the season, Big Al has been able to feast on backups, as he now holds an offensive rating of 109.2, a defensive rating of 98.1 and a net rating of 11. Over that time frame, Jefferson has the Hornets' third-best rating in defensive rating and fourth-best in net rating.
Jefferson's shooting has also changed. Since becoming a full-time bench option, his shooting has (albeit slightly) increased, as his effective field goal percentage has risen from 48.2 percent to 50 percent. A big reason for this is the increase of Jefferson's range and effectiveness from that range.
In the first half of the season, Jefferson shooting from behind five feet from the basket was not an ideal situation for Charlotte. The center only made 36.5 percent (19 of 52) of his shots from five to nine feet from the hoop and just 36.7 percent (18 of 49) of his shots 10 to 14 feet away from the basket. Jefferson has seen those number rise dramatically, as he has shot 44.4 percent (20 of 45) and 44 percent (11 of 25) respectively from those distances. His shooting percent in the non-restricted paint area has risen from 37.7 percent (23 of 61) pre-All-Star break to 44.9 percent (22 of 49) post-All-Star.
Jefferson has realized that he is not as effective as far from the basket as he is close to it, and has reduced his shot attempts (and seen his field goal percent rise) as a result.
Al Jefferson Pre All-Star Game
Al Jefferson Post All-Star Game
There have been some interesting trends as Jefferson has made the transition from starter to backup, though.
As a starter this season, Jefferson played better on the road than at home. Away from the friendly confines of Time Warner Cable Arena, he averaged 13.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field with an offensive rating of 105.2, while he averaged 11.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 46.3 percent shooting at home, leading to an offensive rating of 102.3.
Since his return to the team and placement on Charlotte's second unit, Jefferson has been a much better player at the Hive than away from it. In Charlotte, Jefferson is averaging 12.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists on 53 percent shooting with an astonishing offensive rating of 123.4 and a net rating of 24.6. On the road, those stats read as follows: 9.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, .8 assists, 46.4 field goal percentage, 91.5 offensive rating and -5.7 net rating.
The hook shot, long one of Jefferson's trademark offensive moves, has betrayed him as a backup. In a reserve role, he is shooting just eight of 22 on hook shots — a mere 36.4 percent. It is a far cry from his days as a starter, where he made 15 of 34 — 44.1 percent. Turnaround hook shots in particular have been cruel to the center, as he has made just two of nine such shots. That is an abysmal 22.2 percent. Before the All-Star break, Jefferson made 12 of 23 turnaround hook shots (52.2 percent). To counteract that, though, is Jefferson's turnaround jump shoot. After starting off the season making just three of 12 shots, the center has done undergone a complete turnaround in his turnaround — Jefferson has made 10 of his last 14 turnaround jumpers.
Fun random note — Jefferson made one of two dunks as a starter, but has connected on all three of his dunk attempts since moving to the bench.
What should one take away from this information? That Al Jefferson's transformation from starter to sixth man has not been as rough of one as many feared. Jefferson is playing very well against opponents' backups, and the Hornets have been playing very well as a team. The best thing the team can do right now is not fix what is not broken and to keep Jefferson, who has a history of injury problems, as fresh as possible for the end of the season and postseason. The last time Charlotte made the postseason, they lost Jefferson in early in their series with the Heat, which inevitably helped lead to another sweep.
Charlotte has much higher aspirations than being swept out of the first round of the playoffs, and they may have found something best for both parties in moving Jefferson to the bench.
All stats from NBA.com.