Skeptics—yours truly included—came out in full force this past summer after Michael Jordan's 'Cats handed three years and $40.5 million to Big Al. His arrival made sense, yet incited confusion. It was necessary and overrated.
Some people laughed. Al Jefferson? Empty-stat filler? What's he going to do for Charlotte?
Others ignored the marriage entirely. The Bobcats? Playoffs? No.
Kemba Walker—well, he cried.
"I almost shed a tear when I saw this," he told The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell in September.
Poor 23-year-old Kemba. Youths can be so foolish sometimes. Jefferson wouldn't change much, if anything. He was a poor man's perpetual double-double.
It turns out Walker knew something, understood something many others didn't.
No one sees an NBA title contender when looking at Charlotte. The Bobcats will struggle to finish the season above .500. But they've already won more games this season (34) than they did in 2011-12 and 2012-13 combined (28), and they're (likely) headed for the playoffs for the first time since 2010, way back when the names Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson still meant something.
At the heart of their return to respectability is Jefferson.
There's also Walker, who continues to zip up and down the court with land-speed record velocity. There's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as well, who has quietly established himself as a top-five perimeter defender and top help defender. And there's Steve Clifford, the rookie head coach who has turned Charlotte into a top-six defensive force while also starting Josh McRoberts, which is nothing short of miraculous.
More than anyone else, though, Jefferson has been Charlotte's linchpin, scoring and rebounding his way to All-Star numbers, buttressing a long-awaited, slightly surprising playoff attack.
Big Al is averaging 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds on 50.5 percent shooting this season, embarrassing opposing defenses like it's 2008. His 31 double-doubles also rank 14th in the NBA, and he joins Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge as the only five players registering 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Against the Portland Trail Blazers Saturday night, Jefferson was particularly immaculate, going for 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks...in 29 minutes. Because, whoa.
Dating back to 1985, no NBA player has gone for 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks in under 30 minutes—except for him. It's no surprise, then, that Charlotte pounded the reeling Blazers 124-94 without so much as breaking a sweat.
It's equally no surprise that the Bobcats are tracking toward their second playoff berth in franchise history.
Let's not be coy: The Eastern Conference is weak, rife with wretched teams that are tanking both on purpose and by accident. But it's still a war zone. Plenty of contingents are capitalizing off the East's enfeebled state, failing to fall out of the playoff race entirely.
Unlike like those that have waffled in and out of the postseason hunt, Charlotte has been a playoff-bound fixture, maintaining a firm hold on one of the conference's bottom-four spots for most of this season. Even if that's all they earn, even if they finish in seventh place and meet their end in the first round against a disinterested and excuse-ready Miami Heat, this season has been a success.
Jefferson's signing has been a success.
For only $13.5 million annually, the Bobcats nabbed one of the game's premier post scorers, volume rebounders and double-double hoarders. As far as bargains go, that's pretty freaking good. When considering the results, it's incredible.
Never mind trying to pinpoint how far away from contention the Bobcats are. Jefferson has brought winning(ish) basketball to Charlotte, one of the league's flagship laughingstocks, catapulting it back to watchability, earning himself "M-V-P" chants from Bobcats fans more than once.
No such lilts were being sang last season or the year before, or the year before that—we could go on. This season has been distinctly different. Jefferson gives the fans reason to cheer; he gives the Bobcats something more to play for than a high lottery pick.
Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins penned a magnificent piece on the impact of Jefferson's arrival, and this particular excerpt stands out:
The Big Al Admiration Society has mushroomed this season, specifically in the past two months, when he has been the only player besides Love to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds. After Jefferson scored 38 against Miami and 34 against Indiana in successive games this month, the Pacers' Frank Vogel railed against fellow coaches who had not made Jefferson an All-Star. Detroit center Andre Drummond, schooled on consecutive nights in February to the tune of 61 points and 20 boards, texted Jefferson: 'I learned a lot from getting my ass kicked. I'd like to work with you all summer.' Big Al beamed. He has plenty of space for Drummond in the 12,000-square-foot house he built for his mother on the lot where the trailer used to be.
In a way, Jefferson's ascension has been meteoric this season. Not statistically, but profoundly.
Jefferson followed the money this summer. Believe that. Free agents weren't breaking down Jordan's door, begging to play for the Bobcats. Having been nothing more than a positional stopgap with the Utah Jazz, Jefferson saw green in Charlotte, and he took it.
Now look at where he has taken the Bobcats, and himself: The playoff conversation. Relevancy.
We didn't talk about Jefferson like this last year or the year before that, or while he was with the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves. He was productive, but fell short of stardom. Teams haven't built futures around him. Not really.
That's where Charlotte is different, where Jefferson is different. He's not a temporary fix even though he can become a free agent after next season (player option) if he so pleases. Next to Walker, he's a foundation. A player whom the Bobcats can build around, a talent who is worthy of every cent the Bobcats are paying him.
"You know how there are people in your life who just bring sunshine?" Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who coached Jefferson in Boston, told Jenkins. "That's what Big Al does for the NBA. He's sunshine. He brings it wherever he goes."
That's where Charlotte is different again. In Boston, Minnesota and Utah, Jefferson was sunshine, a streak of light in predominantly dark or pedestrian times.
In Charlotte, he's something stronger, someone more: a harbinger of change. A successful, immediate-dividend-paying investment.
A shimmering ray of hope.