Why Al Jefferson's Reduced Role Is Good for the Charlotte Hornets
As the Charlotte Bobcats were preparing to reclaim the "Hornets" name and re-establish themselves in a market that once led the NBA in attendance, there was something they sorely needed: a legit NBA star.
When Al Jefferson signed a three-year $40.5 million deal, it wasn’t quite that, but it was a step in the right direction. A player with solid options in bigger markets wanted to come to Charlotte, and that felt good to Hornet fans.
When Big Al came out and posted averages of 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game while shooting over 50 percent, he far exceeded most fans' expectations. His gaudy numbers in addition to the Hornets' 43 wins and playoff berth helped him garner All-NBA third team honors. Prior to Al’s selection, the Hornets hadn’t had an All-NBA player since Eddie Jones in 2000, and the top player of the Bobcats era, Gerald Wallace, made just one All-Star team.
But while Jefferson and the Hornets would consider year one a huge success, he logged heavy minutes, which looked to take its toll on him physically.
In 61 of the 73 games he played that year, he played at least 30 minutes, and he played at least 35 minutes in 25 contests. In addition to the minutes played, Al’s Usage Rate came in at 29.3, an all-time high for his career.
Last Season's Regression
Coming into 2014-2015, the franchise brought in free agents Marvin Williams and Lance Stephenson and had big hopes that Jefferson could take the next step. And while his numbers in general weren’t terrible (16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game at 48% shooting), it was a big step back with him still serving as the focal point of the offense.
He struggled mightily with foot and ankle injuries and never looked totally healthy at any point during the season.
Naturally, Hornets fans looked at the regression and wasted little time proclaiming him as a player in fast decline. There’s no question the shooting around him was putrid, as much has been made of the Hornets finishing last in the league in three-point shooting. This didn’t leave him much room to work and had him forcing a lot more shots.
Fast forward to this season, where Jefferson’s steep decline is the popular narrative that his forming.
There are also claims that he’s no longer able to keep up with the Hornets’ faster tempo, which has them averaging 100.7 points per game in their first 11 contests. Jefferson is playing just 26 minutes per game when many thought his 25-pound offseason weight loss would help return him to producing at an All-NBA level.
But the reduced minutes are not the only indicator of his role having evolved. Per NBA.com and its player tracking data, Al’s frontcourt and post touches are down from the last two seasons. Last season, he played 30 minutes per game and averaged 29.0 front court touches and 8.6 post touches. In his 26.5 minutes per game this season, he’s at 24.3 touches and 5.6 post touches.
A Good Thing for Hornets Fans
And while this may be disappointing to Jefferson’s fantasy owners, it’s a great thing for Hornets fans.
The reduced minutes and usage should keep him healthier and fresher as the season progresses, but it also allows the second unit, which includes Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky, to operate more freely.
Lin and Lamb especially, are players that like to attack the rim and can benefit from the paint being unclogged. Their play through the first 11 games is reflective that the rotations are giving more players an opportunity to thrive. Even better, coach Steve Clifford can re-establish Al as the focal point when the matchup dictates that he should or when Jefferson gets hot.
His three best offensive games this season were all double-digit Hornet victories. When he has a plus matchup, Clifford isn’t afraid to keep feeding the big guy.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Jefferson is far from finished. And from all the soundbites so far, it seems like he is on board with a reduced role if it delivers more wins for the organization.
But it will remain interesting to see if Jefferson enjoys this scenario long term -- this is a contract year -- and Jefferson probably can get one more multi-year deal at this stage in his career. Also, it will be a telling time for Hornets brass to determine how much they want him back or if they should continue moving the franchise in a different direction.