Al Jefferson was not named an All-Star this year and there was barely a peep. The usual arguments about snubs broke out left, right, and center, but very few people were flying Jefferon’s name up the flagpole in protest.
The reasons for this are not hard to identify. First of all, Jefferson plays for the Charlotte Bobcats, a team that has only enjoyed one winning season in its 10-year existence and has never won a playoff game. Despite improved play this year, the team has yet to earn the respect of the media, fans, or NBA as a whole.
As far as Jefferon’s play is concerned, it doesn’t supply the kind of entertainment that fans look for in an All-Star. It’s a lot of backing down defenders for half the shot clock, then flipping in a hook shot or turnaround short range jumper. He measures 6’10”, yet has only dunked the ball nine times all season (for comparison's sake, Greg Oden has played in only 69 minutes this year to Jefferson’s 1,424 and has done it five times). “Pizzaz” is not exactly his middle name.
Despite all the obstacles standing in the way of Jefferson being considered a household name in the NBA, he is quietly putting together one of the most solid seasons of his career and one that is arguably among the best of any big man this season. Perhaps we should all start paying a little more attention.
When the Bobcats signed the 28-year-old-at-the-time Jefferson to a three-year, estimated $41-million contract this past offseason, he easily became the biggest free agent acquisition in the history of the franchise. The deal was criticized for a variety of reasons.
Jefferson is a poor defender. Sure. He’s picking money over winning. Clearly. The Bobcats aren’t going to contend with Jefferson. Obviously. Big Al is overrated and won’t help this team win.
Now, hold on a minute.
Given, Jefferson’s defensive deficiencies are no secret. He gives up the eighth-most field goals made at the rim in the NBA (4.6), and the 56.1 percent that his opponents shoot from that area is the third-highest percentage among bigs that face at least 6.0 shots at the rim per game (trailing only Minnesota bigs Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic).
That said, Charlotte might be the best place for a guy like Big Al. His offensive ability has never been called into question, as he’s averaged 19.4 points per 36 minutes and shot .499 from the field for his career. He’s not going to hurt any team on that side of the ball, if he’s in the right system.
Charlotte has been a terrible team at both ends of the floor for the last two seasons, but is suddenly an above-average defensive squad this year (sixth in the league in defensive efficiency). The credit for that largely has to be given to coach Steve Clifford, who’s doing an excellent job in his first year of coaching in the NBA, but the fact that Jefferson is not detracting as much from that end as many expected is worth noting.
Where they fall short is on the offensive end. They rank 27th in offensive efficiency, but one can hardly blame Jefferson or Clifford for that. Big Al needs to be surrounded by shooters as a recovery option from double teams and the ‘Cats simply fall short in that department. If they want to continue to build around Jefferson and turn their offensive issues around, they’ll need to go shopping for some more shooters at this year’s trade deadline or during the upcoming offseason.
The team is definitely a work in progress, but it’s hard to argue that they’re not getting their money’s worth out of Jefferson.
Despite never being an All-Star in his career, Jefferson has a reputation for being a 20-10 threat in points and rebounds. He’s delivering on that promise with excellent numbers to date so far this season.
This season is actually the first time in five years that he has cracked the 20-point-per-game mark or posted double-digit rebounds. He’s one of only five players posting a 20-10 on the year, joining impressive company in Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeMarcus Cousins (for what it’s worth, he’s the only guy in the Eastern Conference doing it).
What’s even more impressive than that, his per-36 averages of 21.2 points and 11.2 rebounds per game place third and second respectively in his whole career. In spite of worries that the ‘Cats were paying for a center in decline, they actually got a guy putting up one of the most complete statistical lines of his career so far.
And remember the defensive concerns? His defensive rating of 98.9 this season is 11th best in the whole Association and easily the best of his career. Also, in only a little over half a season, he’s already posted the third-most defensive win shares he has ever accumulated for a single year (2.7) and is currently 14th in the NBA in that category.
Yes, those individual defensive numbers are heavily team influenced, but one can’t overlook the fact that Jefferson is second in minutes on one of the league’s best defensive squads without killing them too much in that department. He is known for being weak at protecting the rim and defending the pick-and-roll, but he’s contributing as best he can with active hands. In fact, he is one of only ten players in the league averaging at least one steal and one block per game.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
Those numbers have gotten a massive boost from Jefferson’s last month, in which he has been one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA. Big Al suffered through an ankle sprain that had him in and out of the lineup to start the year and then struggled a bit with consistency as he rounded back into game shape afterwards. Since January 11th, however, it seems that a switch has been flipped on.
In the 14 games since that time, Big Al has scored 20 or more points in all but one contest and double-doubled in eight of them. Over that period, he has ranked fifth in the league in scoring (26.8 points per game) and ninth in rebounding (11.8 per game), while shooting .543 from the field and contributing 2.6 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. His player impact estimate of 20.5 percent for that period is second only to Kevin Durant, who many have as the frontrunner in the MVP race so far.
His numbers overall this year have been unequivocally good, but the last month has been downright great. His team is responding with improved play as well.
A Team Trending Up
Over the aforementioned 14-game stretch, the Bobcats have gone 7-7. They’ve had the league’s 14th-best net rating over that time at 1.2, a welcome change from the 23rd-best -4.0 they were putting up prior. That’s not enough to declare Charlotte a threat, but in the weak Eastern Conference, it has allowed them to hold onto the eighth playoff spot.
Their overall record of 22-29 might not be enough to write home about, but progress is undeniable when you consider how much of an improvement the .431 winning percentage is over last year’s .256 and the year before’s historically worst .106. In fact, they’re on track to have the second-best winning percentage in the franchise’s 10-year history. Their team nERD of 45.7 has them at 18th on our NBA Team Rankings, but at seventh in the East with a projected 70.1 percent chance of making the playoffs.
New Name, New Outlook
When the Bobcats switch their name to the Hornets this coming offseason, they’ll want to put the franchise’s history of ineptitude behind them. Signing Al Jefferson was the first step in making that a reality and he has lived up to his contract thus far. If Charlotte can cater their roster a little more to Big Al’s style of play while maintaining their defensive strengths, they could continue to stand out as one of the few teams on an upswing in the East.
They will be criticized for playing their way out of what promises to be the best draft in years, but it can be hard for an organization to sell “rebuilding” to its fans for nearly a decade. The team’s young core of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, and Cody Zeller has potential, and Big Al is doing everything he can to be the big name in Charlotte. They'll have some more cap space this offseason and their current core might be enough to attract another free agent.
As for this year, if they can stay in the playoff picture, their defensive mindset and slow grinding offensive pace could give a top-seeded team some trouble in the first round. If they address their shooting issues, their chances at a higher seed and more favorable first-round matchup increase and anything can happen once they get out of the way of the two-headed gauntlet of Indiana and Miami. They’re far from being a powerhouse team, but they’re giving fans something to care about.
At the very least, Al Jefferson is playing at a level that few can compare to in the history of the franchise and he deserves our attention. He’s never been a name thrown around in conversations about the best in the game, but don’t be surprised if his stellar play of late continues and we see Jefferson Hornets jerseys emerge as a hot item next year.