Al Jefferson out 6 weeks after tearing meniscus in right knee

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Al Jefferson out 6 weeks after tearing meniscus in right knee
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Al Jefferson's rough season just got worse. Two games after his return from both a left calf strain and a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the Charlotte Hornets announced Wednesday that the 31-year-old Jefferson will go back on the shelf for approximately six weeks after suffering a right knee injury.

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The team made the announcement during the first quarter of their home game against the Los Angeles Clippers:

It's brutal news for Jefferson, who entered this season slimmed down and intent on bouncing back after an injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign that saw his per-game scoring and rebounding numbers drop from the All-NBA Third Team level at which he produced for the '13-'14 Bobcats. Instead, he's already missed 11 of Charlotte's first 30 games, and if the six-week timetable holds up, he's set to miss the next 23 or 24 games, keeping him on the sidelines through the All-Star break in mid-February.

Missing sizable chunks of two straight seasons with leg injuries, and being significantly less effective when on the court, doesn't seem like an ideal way for a 31-year-old with a dozen NBA seasons and several serious injuries under his belt to enter unrestricted free agency ... especially when his signature talent, dominating opposing big men on the left block, seems to become less and less valuable as more and more teams reorient their offenses to the perimeter in four- and five-out, spread-the-floor-and-bomb-3-pointers attacks.

The Hornets, in fact, have been one of those teams, loading up on sweet-shooting wings and big men this offseason in an effort to improve a long moribund offense. The results have been pretty good so far — from 26th in 3-pointers made, 24th in attempts, 30th in long-range accuracy and 28th in offensive efficiency last year to fifth, fifth, 15th and ninth this year — and a lot of that improvement has come in a framework that emphasizes the talents of swingman Nicolas Batum, point guard Kemba Walker, reserve wings Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin, and frontcourt players like Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, Spencer Hawes and rookie Frank Kaminsky, all of whom play a different style of ball than Big Al.

Charlotte has outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions — which would be the fourth-best net rating in the league this season, behind only Western powers Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City — in 972 minutes with Jefferson off the floor this season, and has just barely broken even with Big Al on the court, according to NBA.com's stat tool.

Most of the gains have come on the defensive end, where the slow-footed Jefferson has long been a liability in pick-and-roll coverages, and has struggled to keep pace even in Steve Clifford's familiar and conservative defensive system. His absence figures to mean increased minutes and workloads for Zeller and Kaminsky, which could prove beneficial for Charlotte not only from a long-term, develop-the-young-guys perspective, but also, given Zeller's improved defensive work and Kaminsky's strong all-around offensive play, in the short term.

Then again, there's something to be said for knowing that your best big guy can pulverize their best big guy if they don't double, and Big Al can still do that. He's barely a month removed from gouging the Dallas Mavericks for 31 points on 15-for-18 shooting and the Portland Trail Blazers for 29 on 13-for-17 shooting, and while plenty of variables go into a number like this, it's at least worth noting that the Hornets have gone 12-7 with Jefferson in the lineup this year and went 5-6 while he was unavailable.

Plus, the Hornets' starting five has, on balance, performed better with Jefferson than Zeller in a roughly equivalent sample thus far this season; Batum, Walker, Williams and P.J. Hairston have outscored the opposition by 10.9 points-per-100 in 162 minutes with Al at the five, while that foursome has been outscored by 2.8 points-per-100 in 145 minutes with Cody in the middle. While the concerns about how his old-school game fits into an NBA hell-bent on traveling into the future at warp speed aren't baseless, there does still seem to be a place for the Mississippi monster, and after spending three weeks sitting due to injury and suspension, Jefferson believed he was slowly starting to rediscover it.

“I’m trying to get back in the flow, trying to get back into game shape,” he said earlier this week, according to David Scott of the Charlotte Observer. “You get hurt like I did, in the middle of the season, it’s always a challenge to get back to where you need to be. The good thing is that I lost that weight and so it’s not going to take me as long to get back to where I was.”

Now, though, it will take him well over a month just to get back to zero. In the meantime, the Hornets — who entered Wednesday's action at 17-13, a half-game behind the Miami Heat for the final playoff spot in an improved Eastern Conference — will get an even longer look at what a squad without Big Al on the left block looks like, which could go a long way toward helping them determine how much they're willing to pony up to keep him around once he hits the market this summer ... or, for that matter, if they'd just prefer to let the amiable bully with the waning wheels just walk when the time comes.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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