Charlotte Hornets: What Is The Long-Term Plan For Al Jefferson?

Feb 19, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson (25) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Charlotte won 98-95. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 19, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson (25) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Charlotte won 98-95. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

After an injury-plagued season, what does the future hold for Al Jefferson and the Charlotte Hornets?

When Al Jefferson went down with an injury in late November, the Charlotte Hornets had an obvious solution. They would start Cody Zeller or Spencer Hawes for the time being and just try to get by. It was only a left calf strain, how long could he really be out?

Well, little did the Hornets know, that was just the beginning of Jefferson’s start and stop season. After the calf injury he would face another hurdle. On Dec. 9, Jefferson was suspended five games by the NBA for violating the league’s drug policy.

They didn’t specify which drug, but the length of the suspension suggested it was for marijuana. No matter your beliefs on the substance, it was a stupid thing to get suspended for. If your workplace forbids smoking weed, then you probably shouldn’t smoke it, but in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal.

Jefferson finally returned from his suspension on Dec. 26, but his return would be short lived. After two games a meniscus injury would once again put him on the shelf, this time for six weeks.

In either of the last two seasons losing Jefferson for so many games would have been a death sentence for the Hornets. During the 2013-14 season Jefferson made a huge impact on the team after coming in as the biggest free agent signing in franchise history (then called the Bobcats).

He averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game on 50.9 percent shooting from the field. He was their leading scorer, the new star of the franchise and his efforts helped them nab the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

The season finished with a sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, but the future looked bright. Charlotte  finally had a centerpiece to build around in Jefferson. A big guy with post moves galore and an innate ability to score is the type of thing that makes old school basketball fans salivate. But, the game was in the midst of a revolution and Charlotte was about to find out they were a year behind.

The 2014-15 season was less successful for Jefferson and the Hornets. The Lance Stephenson signing was a disaster, Kemba Walker dealt with a knee injury midseason, and Jefferson also missed 17 games with various maladies. His scoring dipped significantly to 16.6 points per game and he his rebounding also regressed to 8.4 per game.

The team finished 33-49 during a season in which they were expected to climb up the standings and turn into a quasi-contender. It wasn’t Jefferson’s fault, but Steve Clifford still knew something had to change.

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  • His injury issues this season has given the Hornets an opportunity to reinvent their offense. No longer is their offensive attack built around dumping the ball into Big Al and watching him go to work.

    Bringing in Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin has added a creativity and flow that they lacked in the last two seasons. Batum and Lin are the playmakers, Kemba Walker is the leading scorer, Marvin Williams has become a perfect stretch-4, and Jefferson is now relegated to a bench role even when he’s healthy. It’s no longer an Al-centric offense.

    They’ve shown a greater reliance on three-point shooting and ball movement rather than post play. Currently they have made the fourth most three-pointers in the NBA and are on pace to set a franchise record for three-pointers in a season. Charlotte is 30-27 and would be in the playoffs as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Only two games separate them from the fourth seed. What they’re doing seems to be working.

    It’s not his fault that the game has turned away from his style of play. His skill-set is still appreciated and having an inside scoring threat spaces the floor for others, but he’s not a “go-to guy” anymore.

    Jefferson coming back from injury has still been a positive for Charlotte, even if his impact is not what it once was. In 23 games this season he’s averaging 12.3 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting. He’s played four games since his most recent return and is averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on on 51.2 percent shooting in that span.

    He’s played 22.3 minutes per game during this stretch and is coming off of the bench instead of slotting back into his old starting role. Cody Zeller’s athleticism, defense, and screening has proven a better fit for Charlotte’s modern offense.

    This type of production off the bench is exactly what the team needs from Big Al. Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Jeremy Lamb give the Hornets a deep and potent bench, which could be huge during a playoff push where every game matters.

    If Jefferson wants a long-term contract for big money then it’s pretty easy to speculate on what the future holds. If he wants big years and big dollars he won’t be a Charlotte Hornet in 2016-17. This is a team with a young core built around Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb and Nicolas Batum (if they re-sign him).

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    They’re all 27 or younger and Charlotte’s front office expects them to be the foundation on which they build their team this summer. Bringing back a 31-year-old center after an injury-plagued season on a multi-year deal does not make sense for the organization.

    They’ll need all their cap space to bring back Batum and Marvin Williams, or to go after a splashy signing that they believe will eventually turn them into a contender.

    For now Jefferson’s best course of action is to fit into his current role as a bench scorer and look to reestablish his value as he heads into free agency. There’s always the possibility he could choose to sign a one-year deal with Charlotte and re-enter the market after a healthy season, but that seems unlikely.

    With the expected increase in the salary cap large amounts of money will be flying around, it only takes one team thinking Jefferson’s post scoring is the missing piece to their puzzle to get him paid.

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    It wasn’t a flawless three years in Charlotte, but Hornets fans should remember Big Al fondly if his stay in the Queen City is over at the conclusion of the season.