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When news first circulated on the Fourth of July that the Charlotte Bobcats had agreed to terms with free-agent center Al Jefferson on a three-year contract worth more than $40 million, this is the joke I made:
Big Al wanted 4 @ $15M, got 3 @ $13.7M with an opt-out; Bobcats can still be bad enough on D to be bad enough for high picks. Win-win!
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) July 4, 2013
I made this joke because, for all his left-block dominance and silky post moves, the 28-year-old big man has always been a problematic defender, steps-slow, unsure and without a sophisticated awareness of how to help (or even just not hurt quite so much) defensively. That's especially true when it comes to bottling up opposing guards in the screen game. Jefferson joined the Jazz in a trade before the 2010-11 season and averaged about 34 1/2 minutes a game over the past three seasons; the Jazz ranked 29th, 29th and 26th in points allowed per possession on plays finished by the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll during that stretch, according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-charting data.
That inability to consistently stifle the league's bread-and-butter offensive set led to Utah finishing among the NBA's 10 worst teams in terms of points allowed per possession overall during his time in Salt Lake City (24th, 20th and 21st). On top of that, the Jazz were a significantly better defensive team with him off the floor than on it, allowing an eye-popping 9.2 more points per 100 possessions with Big Al in the middle than when he sat last season, according to NBA.com's stat tool. Combine it all with how awful the Bobcats have been defensively without a center who can't guard the pick-and-roll — dead last in defensive efficiency two years running — and you can see why my goof about paying Al eight figures to improve offensively could still keep Charlotte high in the lottery was so hilarious.
Apparently, though, that joke is a real opinion held by some honest-to-goodness NBA folks. In a predictably high-quality column considering the Bobcats' offseason moves and future prospects, Grantland's Zach Lowe writes that "skeptics around the league will tell you the Jefferson signing might represent the perfect 'best of both worlds' endgame for Charlotte" based on his offensive talents elevating the 'Cats from laughing-stock status while his defensive deficiencies keep them squarely in the lottery. And while new Charlotte coach Steve Clifford and the Bobcats' brass bristle at the notion, to his credit, Jefferson was more than willing to acknowledge his shortcomings in a candid chat with Lowe:
"It ain't no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense," Jefferson says. "My pick-and-roll defense is my weakness. And that's mind over matter. I just gotta suck it up, get my ass out there, and do it." [...]
Jefferson admits he has even more trouble than usual when teams throw some misdirection at him ahead of a pick-and-roll — a pick along the baseline on his way up, or when the point guard goes one way around a pick, stops, and then goes back the other direction. To hear Jefferson explain his thought process against such plays is delightful: "On defense, I'm just thinking, OK, Al, you gotta be ready. Be focused. Here they come with the re-screen! Oh, shoot!"
Jefferson's openness in discussing his drawbacks is refreshing. (Well, if you're not a Jazz fan who's torn hair out watching him get caught on an island or a Bobcats fan fearful of the same fate, at least.) I'm not so sure "mind over matter" really covers it — while more focused effort's never a bad thing, we've got nearly 640 games of NBA evidence that Jefferson's not a talented defender, so it's hard to envision him improving by leaps and bounds just by trying harder — but strict adherence to the rules of a more disciplined defensive system established by Clifford (who served as an assistant with Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, and with Stan Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic, before spending last season with the Los Angeles Lakers) could help at least mitigate the damage Jefferson can cause.
Still, having a starting, big-minutes center who's a confirmed liability in pick-and-roll coverage — and elsewhere on D, too, ranking 199th or lower among NBA players in terms of points allowed per possession in three of the last four seasons, according to Synergy — makes it awful hard to build a winning team, and awful hard to justify the whopping $13.5 million annual price tag Al now carries. That's why the immediate reaction to the Bobcats' free-agent offer among many NBA observers was shock ... including, apparently, Big Al himself:
[Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod] Higgins says the team had been talking about Jefferson for several months, and they offered him big money early in free agency, even though there do not appear to have been any other serious suitors.
"It made me feel so good that there's a team out there that has so much belief in my game," Jefferson says of his dinner with Higgins and Clifford. "I was like, 'Done deal.' And then when they started talking money, it was like, 'Oh my god!' It was icing on the cake."
That's a whooooooole lot of icing. At least the guy eating it really appreciates it, seems like he's got a good sense of humor about the whole thing, and seems like a really cool guy in general. That's got to be worth at least a few million extra, right?