During the nearly three years that have passed since the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics, Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the package that the Wolves received in return, has quietly become one of the most dominant low-post scorers in the league.
As a Timberwolf, "Big Al" has averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game during the last two-and-a-half seasons. He has emerged as an elite shot-maker down low and has given the Wolves a dynamic big man around which to build.
But if GM David Kahn has hopes of constructing a championship-caliber team in Minnesota during the next few seasons, he should think long and hard about dealing Jefferson this summer.
Yes, it sounds crazy. Jefferson and Kevin Love are both immense talents and should be able to anchor the Minnesota frontcourt for the next decade, right?
Well, it's not that simple. While Jefferson and Love excel at their strengths—namely scoring and rebounding, respectively—they don't play particularly well together, especially late in games.
Neither is particularly skilled on the defensive end, and neither is a strong enough presence in the paint to protect the rim and deter opposing teams from scoring inside during crunch time—a time when you would ideally like to have Jefferson and Love on the floor together.
So which young big man do the Wolves deal?
Here is why it should be Jefferson and not Love who is shipped during the offseason.
1. The Offense
The Wolves want to be an up-tempo team that likes to run and use the Triangle Offense in the half court. Love's game simply caters to this much more effectively than Jefferson's. His basketball IQ, passing, and relentlessness on the offensive glass is exactly what Head Coach Kurt Rambis wants. Love can spot up from the perimeter and stretch defenses with his shooting. This is huge from the four spot.
And while there is no denying that Jefferson can be dominant at times with his back to the basket, his offense just doesn't fit what the front office and coaches are trying to do.
He is not a very skilled or willing passer once he starts his post moves, and this clearly does not facilitate the Triangle. Al is at his best when the ball is dumped down low to him and the floor is spread with outside shooters—something the Wolves don't have enough of. He doesn't get points within the flow of the offense like Love does, and he doesn't have the jump shot to slide out and let his guards find him in space.
2. The Defense
Jefferson puts up respectable numbers when it comes to blocked shots, but more often than not, he simply looks uninterested on the defensive end.
Case in point: On Wednesday night (Feb. 17), the Washington Wizards started Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee in the post against the Wolves. The two relative no-names combined for 47 points on 21-32 shooting (65.6 percent). Now, a fair share of the blame has to go to Love, Ryan Hollins, and the rest of the Wolves big men, but Jefferson certainly gave up plenty of points to the two Wizards.
Now, one might ask why the Wolves just don't draft a shot-blocking defensive specialist to rotate with Love and Jefferson. But again, the big issue here is late in the fourth quarter of a tight game (or—gasp—a playoff game). You want to have your money players in during crunch time, and Love and Jefferson would undoubedly be out there in those situations—not the one-demensional defensive guy.
This causes big problems on the other side of the floor late in games, when the opposing teams' guards can simply waltz inside the paint for an easy two anytime they wish.
3. The Contract
Love, still on his rookie contract, is obviously cheaper and younger. To a contending team in need of a great post presence, Al's contract isn't horrible—and it is better suited to facilitate a trade for an elite wing player.
Love is developing into a very versatile and consistent player from night to night. He has improved his all-around game, including his outside shooting and even his low post scoring to go along with his already outstanding basketball IQ and rebounding prowess. And the great thing about Love is that when his shot isn't falling—or he faces a tough defensive matchup—he still affects the game positively in one way or another.
The same cannot be said for Jefferson. If he isn't scoring, he isn't terribly useful in any other capacity besides maybe rebounding.
5. The Return
While many GMs from around the league undoubtedly appreciate the versatile and savvy game that Love possesses, a post player who is as skilled offensively as Jefferson will be in high demand for a lot of teams who already have a dynamic perimeter player or choose to run a more traditional offensive system.
To many teams who already have a superstar, it would be a lot more appealing to add someone who puts up the offensive numbers that Jefferson does to complement the star rather than adding a glorified "role player" in Love.
So one would hope that this would mean the Wolves would be able to get more for Jefferson than they would for Love. A team such as Golden State, who has tried and failed year after year with its "run-and-gun" style, might be willing to part with the likes of Anthony Morrow, Andris Biedrins, and Anthony Randolph for the chance to have Jefferson offset the perimeter magic of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.
While it might seem absurd for a struggling franchise to get rid of its top scoring talent, trading Jefferson for the right package in return could put the Wolves on the fast track back to relevance. His skills are unquestionable—but so too are his weaknesses, lack of versatility, and inability to mesh well with Love in the same frontcourt.
In the end, I think it's time that Kahn and the Timberwolves faithful—I know you are out there—to start viewing Love, not Jefferson, as Minnesota's cornerstone for the future.
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