Al Jefferson has already completed the Herculean task of hauling the Charlotte Bobcats out of NBA purgatory and into the promised land of playoff contention. So it's hardly fair to ask any more of the 29-year-old post-up savant.
That's probably a good thing, because the next step in Charlotte's development will take much more than any one player—no matter how beloved by fans and feared by opponents—can handle on his own.
Before we take a guess as to how much farther Jefferson can carry his 'Cats, we have to take time to appreciate how far they've already come.
There were more than a few scoffs heard around the league when Jefferson signed his three-year, $40.5 million deal this past summer. Viewed as a one-dimensional scorer who couldn't be relied on to help a team actually win games, the prevailing sentiment was that the Bobcats had grossly overpaid.
They'd had to.
Years of mismanagement and on-court futility made Charlotte one of the least desirable free-agent destinations in the league. It might as well have been Siberia.
Jefferson signed on, perhaps because he got no bigger offers elsewhere. Maybe he wanted to be closer to his Mississippi roots than he had been at previous stops in Boston, Minnesota and Utah. Or maybe he saw something in Charlotte worth joining.
What happened next was totally unexpected.
Almost immediately, the Bobcats were respectable, and they achieved that unfamiliar status without Jefferson contributing much of anything during the first month of the season. He missed nine of the team's first 13 games with a bad right ankle.
But as that bum wheel healed, Jefferson's game got healthy apace. And as the season draws to a close, he's playing his best ball of the year.
On the season, Jefferson is averaging 21.6 points and 10.5 rebounds on 50.5 percent shooting. With numbers like those, it's no wonder the 'Cats offensive rating jumps from 97.5 to 102.9 when he's on the floor, per NBA.com.
Since the All-Star break, he's been positively fantastic, averaging 25.4 points and 10.4 rebounds on 53.5 percent shooting. During the post-break stretch, Charlotte has gone 12-7.
Incredibly, Jefferson isn't even having his best statistical season. He posted higher player efficiency ratings in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2011-12, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Former teammate Paul Pierce knows Jefferson's history of offensive brilliance well, and he commented on Big Al's game after the Bobcats defeated the Brooklyn Nets on March 26, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer: "No one on the planet can guard him. We tried to double him. Single, triple—there’s nothing we could have done with him tonight. He was in that type of zone, and that’s the way he’s been playing."
The results didn't disagree with Pierce's assessment. Jefferson dropped 35 points and 15 boards on the Nets that night.
As much as anything, Jefferson and his reputation around the league brought a sense of legitimacy to Charlotte. He's made the Bobcats dangerous, even fun to watch at times. So, even if he's not having his best year by some statistical standards, he's absolutely having his most impactful.
Though he's a big fan of the baby hook, it's Jefferson's turnaround skills that have mattered most this season.
How Much Farther?
Jefferson remains a player with clear limitations, though the Bobcats have done extremely well in masking them. In that sense, he owes as much to Charlotte's staff—led by first-year head coach Steve Clifford—as they owe him.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, the Kitties have devised a simple but brilliant scheme that hides the big man's flaws:
Clifford has installed a basic system designed to minimize Jefferson’s limitations and provide clear roles for everyone. The results have been stunning. Charlotte has been the league’s stingiest transition defense by almost any measure, following Clifford’s demands to get back on defense immediately upon the release of a shot instead of crashing the boards.
Jefferson hangs back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, an easier system that addresses his lack of foot speed. “The scheme works more to my advantage,” he says. “And the biggest reason is really that Coach just demands it more out of me.”
Charlotte's use of Jefferson has been key. The team hangs its hat on defense, posting the No. 9 defensive rating in the league, despite the big man's negative impact.
So, if there's room for last-minute improvements that could help the 'Cats go farther, that's where Jefferson needs to make them. He's gone from being a complete disaster on D to a mildly negative influence, so it's not crazy to rule out some more improvement.
Ultimately, though, it seems like Charlotte is probably as good as it can be right now. There's not a ton of talent on the roster, and while Jefferson gives the Bobcats an anchor on the block, they still need more options around him to compete with elite playoff defenses.
Speaking of which, it's at least safe to assume Jefferson will lead Charlotte into the postseason for the second time in franchise history. It's currently occupying the No. 7 spot in the East, comfortably situated five games above the ninth-seeded New York Knicks.
That position seems safe.
Unfortunately, that security comes at a cost. Charlotte's nearly locked-in first-round matchup will come against the Miami Heat, a team it hasn't beaten in four tries this year. Perhaps there's a better chance for an upset if the Bobcats slip into the No. 8 spot to face the Pacers. At least they've notched a victory against Indy this season.
Then again, it's probably not a good idea for the Bobcats to deliberately move downward in the standings—it might feel a little too familiar.
It'd be nice to say Jefferson will carry the feel-good Bobcats deep into the postseason, but a first-round out is really the only realistic scenario here. Maybe they can steal a game or two from the Heat. Maybe they'll make a good showing that earns even more respect around the league.
Literally speaking, Jefferson can't lead the Cats much farther this season. But in a figurative sense, the legitimacy he's restored to the franchise has Charlotte light years ahead of where it was just a year ago.
As a rebuilding, soon-to-be-rebranded team seeking respectability, the 'Cats should be ecstatic Jefferson has carried them this far. The next steps will have to wait until next year.
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