Charlotte Bobcats scoring big man Al Jefferson will probably miss Monday night’s Game 4 against the Miami Heat, presumably the team’s final game of the season as the two-time defending champs hold a 3-0 series lead over the snake-bitten Bobcats. The first-year Charlotte center has been battling plantar fasciitis, and rookie Bobcats coach Steve Clifford confirmed to the Charlotte Observer on Monday that it is “doubtful he’d be able to play” in what could be the last game anyone plays in a Charlotte Bobcat uniform.
Which, sadly, is sort of how Al Jefferson’s career has gone to this point.
The man was drafted out of high school in 2004 to Boston, one of the final preps-to-pros players, one placed on a Celtics team that had come down from the highs of its 2002 trip to the Eastern Conference finals run, working with a young team that surrounded a frustrated Paul Pierce.
After several rebuilding seasons with Jefferson improving considerably, the C’s used him as the preeminent trade chip in the deal that sent Kevin Garnett to Boston in return. That 2007-08 Celtic team went on to win a championship in Boston, while Jefferson (acting as the figurative lone wolf amongst a heap of poor draft picks and hybrid guards) had to take the brunt of Minnesota’s 22-60 season.
The Wolves similarly struggled the next season, but Jefferson was well on his way to a deserved All-Star berth in 2008-09 – managing 23 points and 11 rebounds while hitting just under half of his shots, when he tore his right ACL 50 games into the season. With a minutes decrease, worries about his knee, confidence issues and the ascension of Kevin Love, Jefferson’s stats understandably went down the next season, killing any chance he had at making the NBA’s midseason showcase.
Dealt to the Utah Jazz for what was basically a trade exception in the summer of 2010, Jefferson had to not only pair with fellow big forward Paul Millsap as they worked for shots and rebounds, but eventually youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Those Jazz were a middling group, and though they made the playoffs in 2012, Jefferson was hardly on anyone’s radar as a sort of superstar.
And when he signed with the Charlotte Bobcats to a three-year, $41 million deal in the summer of 2013, it was widely panned as a poor fit for all. Jefferson would likely be worth the cash in the first two years of his deal before hitting his 30s, but why would the Bobcats want to sign a player in his prime, when the top ceiling for a team with Big Al at his best would just climb over .500, and little else?
That’s exactly what happened under Clifford in 2013-14, and even though a move like this may not be in Charlotte’s best long-term interests, the team was a fun lot to behold, and Jefferson turned in a career year, overcoming an early-season ankle sprain to contribute 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for a playoff team, working in 73 contests.
And he still didn’t make the All-Star game. Geesh.
The Charlotte Bobcats actually played on ABC on a Sunday afternoon in its Game 1 matchup with the Heat, and while most expected the Bobcats to only manage just one win at best against the champs, hardcore NBA fans were looking forward to Jefferson’s nationally televised coming out party – working in his prime, against a frontline he could dominate.
Instead, ABC’s cameras spent most of the afternoon watching Jefferson limp back and forth between the court and the locker room, clearly suffering. Somehow, Al has averaged 18.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in this series, making 49 percent of his shots along the way, but with this dreaded plantar fascia injury, sometimes no amount of pain injections can make the hurt go away.
Asked about his level of pain, Jefferson said, “This has been like stepping on nails. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
Jefferson has clearly been the Bobcats’ Most Valuable Player this season, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. He was central to the Bobcats more than doubling their win total this season and reaching the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
“Regardless of what happens (tonight), this has been a wonderful season,” Jefferson said. “We need to continue to build and continue to get better.”
For anyone who has suffered through the ailment, yes – it is an absolute killer. It affects every bit of your motion from the literal ground up, and while it’s true that with plantar fascia ailments playing on the injury won’t make things worse for the sufferers when it comes to long term recovery, sometimes the pain is too much to overcome, and the only real recovery mode is rest.
It truly isn’t fair, even if all isn’t lost. Charlotte has what it takes to make another playoff appearance in 2014-15, its younger core will be a year better, Clifford has proven to be a terrific coach, and Jefferson won’t exactly be cashing AARP checks at he turns 30 midway through the season.
He still deserves better, though. And a national audience, often unaware, deserved a chance to see how darn good Al Jefferson is at this game.
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