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Charlotte Bobcats: Can Al Jefferson and Co. Lift Team to Respectability?

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Charlotte Bobcats: Can Al Jefferson and Co. Lift Team to Respectability?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Al Jefferson will no longer be defending Bobcats scorers

The Charlotte Bobcats made their biggest free-agent splash in franchise history this past July 4, signing nine-year veteran Al Jefferson to a three-year deal worth over $40 million.

By inking Jefferson, the Bobcats acquired a dominant big man with a career scoring average of 16.4 points per game.

The center would have been a welcome addition to any team, and surprised many with his decision to join a lower-tier franchise. A 6'10'' powerhouse, he should pair nicely with Charlotte's talented core of frontcourt players, including top pick Cody Zeller.

Though selecting Zeller with the No. 4 overall pick rather than Nerlens Noel received some instant criticism, the consistency Zeller should bring to both ends of the floor is a serious asset for Charlotte. SB Nation’s Jameson Draper described the rookie as “working his mid-range game to perfection” after a July 15 Summer League victory over the New York Knicks.

Zeller will join seven-year veteran Josh McRoberts, shot-blocking specialist Bismack Biyombo and Jefferson as the men primarily responsible for controlling the painted areas.

With Zeller likely to start at the 4 and Jefferson guaranteed to have one of the 4 or 5 spots on lockdown, Charlotte’s frontcourt is much improved from the McRoberts and now-Clipper Byron Mullens duo that struggled in 2012-13.

Along with Jefferson and Zeller, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist give the team four quality starters.

Gerald Henderson’s free-agent status remains the lineup’s only remaining question mark. The former Duke star who has spent each of his four NBA seasons in Charlotte has yet to be officially re-signed.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jeff Taylor (center) is proving he is more than a three-point specialist

If early summer league action has shown the Charlotte organization anything, outside of Zeller’s scoring touch of course, it is that the Bobcats may not need Henderson after all. An additional SB Nation article by Draper pointed out that second-year player Jeff Taylor, a 6’7” guard-forward type, is developing his game and diversifying his offensive skills.

With 24- and 19-point nights thus far in summer league games, Taylor is adding a post-up game and a shot off the dribble that will complement his 34 percent three-point percentage from a year ago.

Whether Henderson returns to the Bobcats, leaves, but the team receives some value at the 2 position in a sign-and-trade agreement or Charlotte uses the sign-and-trade to add value at another position, Taylor looks like an important piece of the 2013-14 puzzle.

The Vanderbilt grad’s development, however, is not nearly as important as the impact Jefferson makes on the team.

Team President Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho will have to hope that impact is huge.

History says it should be. Since joining the Jazz in the 2010-11 season, Jefferson led Utah in win shares according to Basketball-reference.com twice. The statistic combines the number of offensive wins a player adds to the team with his defensive wins. He trailed Paul Millsap in 2011-12 by a small margin, but posted win shares of 7.8, 7.5 and 7.7 in his three seasons with the team. This 2012-13 total placed Jefferson just below the likes of Memphis Grizzlies stud Zach Randolph and ahead of the Houston Rocket’s Dwight Howard by the end of last season.

ESPN’s Stats & Information opened up this debate between Jefferson and Howard, mainly because both were free agents in the 2013 offseason and Jefferson plays the same position as Howard. The side-by-side comparison shows Charlotte got a decent bargain for Jefferson, with the added benefit of avoiding the attention and baggage Dwight Howard carries with him.

Avoiding this baggage is crucial. Even more than what they needed on the court, the Bobcats needed a leader a season ago.

Jefferson can be that leader. A quote that appears on the bio page of Jefferson’s website, aljefferson25.com, reads "I'm the type of guy, if I'm committed somewhere, I put everything into it. My heart. My soul.” Though this may sound similar to any athlete trying to sound appealing in front of the media, Jefferson has a proven track record of being a high-effort guy. He led the Jazz to a 36-30 record and a playoff berth during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and just missed out on the postseason a year ago with the Jazz and their 43-39 mark.

He will be missed in Utah, as Kyle Hunt of saltcityhoops.com made evident in this letter addressed to "Big Al," a common nickname for the center.

His tenure in Minnesota differed and was marked by abysmal records. The forward still managed to play all 82 games in 2007-08 and 76 in 2009-10, an impressive total considering he did it less than a year after suffering an ACL injury.

His experience in Minnesota should be invaluable to a team that finished 7-59 and 21-61 the past two seasons. Despite having three players on the roster with NCAA championship titles (Ben Gordon, Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist), the team outside of Gordon, Jefferson and Brendan Haywood has zero playoff appearances.

While seven or eight extra wins would not have done much for a team that went 21-61 in 2012-13, Jefferson is a step in the right direction. Charlotte had the highest negative point differential in the NBA last year, and needs help all over the court.

It is a predominantly young roster, and many of its members have plenty of time to get that first playoff win. The team and head coach Steve Clifford will need to stay relevant throughout the season if they want to have any chance at achieving NBA respectability.

To do this, Charlotte will need to be strong on the defensive end. For all that Jefferson offers offensively, he has never been as effective defending the pick and roll, among other things. Andy B. Larsen observed this while writing about the Jazz for saltcityhoops.com.

Teams in his new conference will likely look to attack this weak part of Jefferson's game, so it is crucial he, Cody Zeller, Biyombo and McRoberts work to improve their interior defense. The Eastern Conference looks to be competitive this year, with each of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards also looking to overcome their losing ways.

These teams appear ready to do so, adding necessary pieces and big names just as Charlotte did with Jefferson.

There could be a massive power-shift in the East in 2013-14, and the Bobcats certainly hope to be a part of that as they look to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The Southeast conference has the potential to be weak if the Atlanta Hawks cannot recover from the loss of Josh Smith to Detroit. It is not unrealistic to think Charlotte could jump ahead of the Hawks and Wizards to finish somewhere behind the Miami Heat in the division race.

Where they end up will depend on Jefferson’s play and the man who Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer says encouraged Jefferson the most to sign with the team, Kemba Walker. Walker is an explosive guard who will benefit heartily from having an effective scorer down low to occupy strong defenders. The Connecticut product posted a career-high 17.7 points per game a year ago, only .1 points below Jefferson’s 2012-13 total.

If both players can contribute somewhere close to those averages, the Charlotte Bobcats will not be an easy out for any team in the NBA.

Expect them to record similar win totals to Jefferson’s Utah Jazz teams, as he is clearly the focal point of a franchise that has struggled for quite some time and will be asked to carry his new team.

Here's to saying Big Al can pull off the unlikely in 2013-14.

 

Season Prediction: 42-40, No. 8 in the East

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