When the Charlotte Bobcats signed Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal last July, many scoffed it off.
For one, this was definitely Al being Al. Instead of signing with a potential “contender”, he decided to chase money, even if that mean signing with the sorry Bobcats — who at the time, weren’t even good enough to be labeled “pretenders”. They were just bad, and irrelevant. And two, this is Michael being Michael. Throwing money at someone, who probably isn’t worth all that money under the Charlotte Bobcats’ circumstances.
After all, the Bobcats were trying to rebuild. They weren’t an Al Jefferson signing away — or so it seemed.
Fast forward nearly eight months later and the Bobcats are sitting in the seventh spot of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture. They are five games under .500 and carry a top-10 defense in the League.
I’m not sure if the Jefferson signing warrants that much credit, but it definitely deserves some. Especially, from those people who laughed off Jordan in July.
Jefferson is averaging 30 points per game per 48 minutes. To put that into perspective, Kevin Durant is averaging 39 points per 100 possessions and LeBron James averages 35. In that category, Jefferson ranks 11th in the entire league, just behind Stephen Curry and just above Paul George.
Jefferson is also 6th in the NBA in PIE (Player Impact Estimate), which is just basically a player’s contributions and impact on a game. He also has a nearly 30 percent Usage rating, which is 6th in the League among players who have at least played 30 games, a 52.6 percent true shooting percentage and a 17 percent rebounding rate.
Even with all that said, to entirely credit Jefferson for the Bobcats’ sudden “rise” (if you even want to call it that) would be careless. I mean, sure, by the numbers, Jefferson has had a significant impact. After all, last season the Bobcats were near the bottom in almost every statistical category. Charlotte was 28th in offensive rating (averaging 98 points per 100 possessions) and dead-last in defensive rating (allowing nearly 109 points per 100 possessions).
This season, the Bobcats are just a marginally better, averaging 99.6 points per 100 possessions but more importantly have moved from 30th to seventh in defensive rating, allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions, in a matter of just one season. That isn’t something you don’t usually see every season.
Part of that is Jefferson, one could argue, but a huge part of that is first-year coach Steve Clifford.
When Clifford was just a few months into the job, he knew exactly what he had got himself into. He echoed that when he talked to CBS Sports’ Matt Moore a month ago.
“You’re not going to change things overnight. But we’ve developed a culture of work, of rebounding, of toughness and playing smart. That’s what I feel good about right now.”
And he’s exactly right. The Bobcats aren’t turning heads so far this season, they shouldn’t be. They’re not going to get “headline” wins, and they’re probably going to allow superstars, such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, go off. Right now, that’s not important. The one crucial thing that Clifford wants to get accomplished this season is to lay the ground work.
Once you lay a good foundation, in anything, you can pretty much build anything else you want on top. That’s exactly what Clifford is doing. Other than tough defense and head-y play, do we really know who, or what, this Bobcats team is? Do we know how this team is going to look one, two (or three) years from now? No.
We don’t even know what this team is going to look like in the playoffs. But, if they can’t crawl their way to the sixth or fifth seed, it won’t even matter. But that is neither here nor there at this point.
The irony of it all is that even though the Bobcats have a top-10 defense and a top-2 defensive rebound percentage (77%), the ability for them to even see the playoffs will likely rely on its offense. Specifically, on Jefferson’s continued success or regression to the mean.
Jefferson is having his best offensive (21.2 points per game) season since 2008, when he averaged 23 points per game, and his best rebounding season (10.3 per game) since that same season. It’s no question, that when you look at a Bobcats box score, the first thing that sticks out is probably going to be Jefferson’s 21 and 10 per game.
He re-found himself on a team that needed Jefferson as much as Jefferson needed them. It’s a perfect marriage in a very imperfect Eastern Conference, and both are very much taking advantage.
The Bobcats finished with a 7-59 record in 2011-12 and a 21-61 record in 2012-13. This season, Charlotte won’t finish with a 60-win season; not even a 50-win season. If they’re lucky, they’ll reach 40. Still, they’ll be taking their next scheduled step, or perhaps a first. A 30-plus win season and the franchise’s second playoff appearance is nothing to scoff at.
No matter how much you scoffed at the Bobcats when they signed Jefferson last July, or when they hired Clifford. Neither name sexy, both getting the job done.
*All stats and graphics courtesy of NBA.com