When the Charlotte Bobcats signed Al Jefferson to a $41 million deal over three years, many people laughed at the move. I was one of them. What was Al Jefferson thinking? Why wouldn’t he go to a contender? Why go to one of the worst teams in the league?
After taking some time to think about it, I’m beginning to warm up to the move. In the last few years, we’ve seen the Bobcats go from awful (2004-06), to bad (2006-09), to decent (first and only playoff berth, 2009-10 season), back to bad (2010-11 season), to improbably and historically pathetic (7-59 in 2011-12 season) and back to bad again (2012-13 season). Now, it looks like they finally have a little bit of a foundation built and it’s built around the right type of players.
In the 2011 NBA Draft, the ‘Cats selected Kemba Walker at ninth overall and traded for Bismack Biyombo, who was the seventh overall selection. The next season, the group of misfits had the worst winning percentage in league history, sporting a 7-59 record, forcing the last few black hairs on Paul Silas’ head to turn grey. Since then, they’ve drafted two high-character guys with top-five picks (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller) to add to their foundation. Then, the last piece of this half-completed puzzle was Al Jefferson, who they had to overpay to get.
Al Jefferson has been one of the more underrated players in all of basketball for a few years now, which is what happens when you play out in Mormon country. Jefferson is one of the better back-to-the-basket scorers in basketball and he’s been an elite rebounder for years now. Last season, as the Memphis Grizzlies made a run at the Western Conference crown, Zach Randolph emerged as a dominant scorer in the post; Al Jefferson is just as good, if not a little better than Randolph (for those who haven’t seen Big Al play too much). Jefferson can score from the block with a a myriad of little baby hooks and fade-away jumpers, hit face-up jumpers and rebound at an elite rate. Who wouldn’t want the guy?
When I first read about Jefferson’s contract, three years and $41 million seemed like too much. However, it’s unlikely that the ‘Cats will be contending within three years, so at the very least they get an overpaid, near-dominant big man to plug in at either the 4 or 5 for three seasons. Even if Big Al isn’t part of their future plans, Jefferson, Biyombo and Zeller could potentially team up to be a very good three-man rotation inside for the ‘Cats, which would help them simplify their search for guys to fill up the rest of the rotation.
As it stands right now, the Bobcats roster looks like this (these projections are all probable, not definite):
C: Bismack Biyombo
PF: Al Jefferson
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
SG: Gerald Henderson
PG: Kemba Walker
Most of the roster is young, which is definitely a plus for the ‘Cats, but the team certainly lacks a lead scorer. Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller are all hardworking players who care more about winning more than statistical output, but it’s unclear whether any of them are going to be top-flight players at their respective positions.
I see Walker as a Jameer Nelson type. He is a tad small at 6’1” and lacks the speed of other successful small guards like Ty Lawson. He also isn’t an unbelievable shooter, but he has the ability to put the team on his back offensively at times due to his craftiness as a scorer. Like Nelson, Walker is a natural leader, which is definitely a positive for a young team like Charlotte.
Kidd-Gilchrist looks like a cross between Al-Farouq Aminu and Kawhi Leonard. Like Aminu, he plays the game the right way, exerting full effort at all times. He is a good defender at this point and he will probably turn into a great defender as his career goes on. Offensively, he’s the definition of raw. MKG shot just 22 percent from beyond the 3-point line last season and he also struggled with mid-range shooting. In time, he could evolve into a solid scorer (15 to 18 points per game) and a premier defender, but there’s a chance he never evolves as a shooter and struggles to carve out a decent career.
Zeller is an interesting case, as his athleticism and smarts at the college level were apparent, but at the pro level, he might struggle to keep up the game’s best athletes. At worst, Zeller ends up being a fourth big man who brings energy to a second unit. At best, Zeller turns into a Joakim Noah type, who can rebound, protect the rim using his knowledge of positioning and do enough on offense to not be considered a liability.
There are a lot of questions with the Bobcats and another year will prove a lot to everyone watching them. Is Biyombo too inept offensively to be a starting center? Is Zeller a starter and did he deserve to be picked fourth overall? Can MKG develop a jump shot? Can Kemba Walker improve on last year’s numbers of nearly 18 points and six assists per game? All of these things remain to be seen.
With the signing of Al Jefferson, the ‘Cats gave themselves one sure thing among a group of question marks and Jefferson’s ability to score out of the post will help take a load off all their young players. Although the team paid above market value for the big man, they can’t be blamed for making a deal for who could be the most dominant back-to-the-basket scorer in the Eastern Conference next season.