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Give the Indiana Pacers credit. At this point they kind of look … interesting?
The club agreed to terms with Al Jefferson on Friday, inking the 31-year old to a three-year $30 million deal that provides the team with the orthodox sort of scoring big man that the franchise had reportedly been attempting to eschew in its move to turn itself into a small ball outfit. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report the deal.
Jefferson, who averaged 12 points, 6.4 rebounds and nearly a block per game in 23 minutes a contest in 2015-16 with Charlotte, will be paid eight figures a year to man the middle for a Pacers team desperate for some semblance of a low post attack.
Wait. Wasn’t this supposed to be the silly season? Weren’t salaries about to spiral out of control?
Apparently Jefferson and the Pacers, two bastions of NBA reasonability, found their respective ends of a missing amulet. It’s true that Jefferson’s style of left low post back-to-the-basket play might fly in the face of Pacer president Larry Bird’s modern-as-tomorrow thinking, but the deal could be the best move for all parties involved.
Jefferson (now joining his fifth team) is seven years removed from an ACL tear, and he did miss nearly half of 2015-16 due to both a meniscus tear and suspension for testing positive for pot. Still, even at just 6-9, his low post skills would seem to age well.
Though Big Al entered the league directly from high school in 2004, he’ll move into his mid 30s posting up against scores of younger big men who have grown up chasing their height contemporaries off of the three-point line, rather than steeling themselves from an eventual drop step and/or up-and-under move. Jefferson basically entered this league as a graybeard, and that should suit him diligence down below finally suits his birth date.
The league is changing, but Jefferson hardly seems an anachronism. There will always be a premium on outscoring opponents by a nine-point margin to begin either half, and while the stretch fours and scoring point guards ready their three-point strokes for later in the quarter.
Jefferson would seem to fit into this. The Pacers featured Ian Mahinmi at starting pivot last season, and though Mahinmi is a free agent it’s possible that he’ll return to Indiana. Rookie center/forward Myles Turner wowed at times during 2015-16, but he was pulled in and out of the starting lineup as he found his professional sea legs. New coach Nate McMillan, who ran a nearly league-leading offense a decade ago in Seattle while working with the league’s slowest pace, has been charged with creating a more dynamic offensive unit that will now be led by the at-times laconic point man Jeff Teague – an Indianapolis native who will become a free agent in 12 months.
Al Jefferson will be around for, at most, 36 more months; but his contract will count for just a small fraction of what the NBA’s salary cap is spiraling into. Even if he remains a bit player – starting but working half of the game – all the trends point to this acting as a fantastic hire for the Pacers. His rebound rate has dipped slightly over the last few year, but he’s still an exceptional scorer whose passing has improved, and he rarely turns the ball over.
His defense? He’s still working on it, and Charlotte coach Steve Clifford pulled him in and out of lineups last season in order to accommodate for Jefferson’s undeniable mitigating factors on that end of the floor. Still, Clifford (as good a coach as there is in this league) played Jefferson 24 minutes a game and started him five times during Charlotte’s seven-game playoff run last spring,
McMillan might choose to bring Jefferson off the bench, something Al says he’s into, working as a proto-Jamal Crawford-type scorer. A specialist bent on jump-hooking his way all over a team’s token reserve big man. Either role, even at age 34, would appear to suit Jefferson at eight figures a year – especially as the league trends away from his style of playing. Scoring on the left low post will never become a novelty, and the Pacers clearly want to add it as a feature. Even while they spring three-pointers from either corner.
Signing a 28-year old Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million deal (as Charlotte did in 2013) seemed a little fearsome; he was an undersized scoring center that needed copious amounts of help defensively, working in a league that didn’t value his skill set as much as it did a decade before. After three seasons with the Bobcats/Hornets, though, Jefferson has proven he can keep this up – his work as a highly-regarded bit player, even a well-heeled bit player, is rather respected.
Now it’s up to Nate McMillan – charged with harnessing the talents of a 20-year old stretch center in Myles Turner, and a 30-something low post demon in Al Jefferson – to put it all together.
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