"There's nowhere that I'd rather be," Al Jefferson said of Charlotte at the close of the 2015-16 season to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, before later indicating that he would even be willing to take a pay cut to ensure himself the opportunity to finish his career with the Hornets.
This, of course, was before the 31-year-old center's home of three years was tasked with determining which among five key contributors would be most valuable to the franchise moving forward. Ultimately, Marvin Williams, who was the only player in the league this season to record at least 70 blocks and 150 made three-pointers on 40 percent shooting, and Nicholas Batum's highly coveted two-way versatility won the day, leaving Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, and Al Jefferson to earn paydays elsewhere.
"I'm not at the point in my career where I'm chasing the big check," Jefferson told Bonnell two months prior.
And he didn't, instead agreeing to a three-year, $30 million deal with the Indiana Pacers.
"I didn't talk to nobody (else). It was just Pacers," Jefferson said at his introductory press conference in Indiana. "At this point in my career I've put myself in a position where I can go where I want to go as far as what's best for me, and for winning. For me, no other team out there (was a better fit)."
Now that free agency has settled down, Joshua Priemski, the managing editor at SB Nation's At The Hive, agreed to do a Q&A with Indy Cornrows on Jefferson leaving Charlotte, transitioning to a bench role, and the possibility of him serving as a mentor for Myles Turner.
Prior to the open of free agency, Jefferson seemed adamant that he wanted to stay in Charlotte, even going so far as to say he wanted to end his career with the Hornets, but when he was introduced by the Pacers earlier this month he said he had a feeling all season that he would be changing teams. Given that Nicolas Batum was the team's No. 1 offseason priority, financial constraints were necessarily going to make one or more of Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams, or Al Jefferson the odd man out. Why do you think the 31-year-old anachronistic center ended up being among the group on the outside looking in?
JP: Jefferson did want to stay in Charlotte, and most Hornets fans wanted him back if the price was right, too. We knew the Hornets weren't going to be able to retain all of their free agents, so we expected them to prioritize re-signing players who were most important to the Hornets' success last season. That ended up being Batum and Marvin — both of whom had career years — leaving Lin, Lee, and Al free to go where they pleased.
Al's still a very good player, but he wasn't central to the team's success like he was a few seasons ago. When Batum came on board, the Hornets shifted from a post-focused game to one that relied heavily on pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement on the perimeter. Recurring injuries slowed Al down, and the natural aging process is beginning to catch up with him, too. He started 18 of the 41 games he played in last year — most of those starts at the beginning of the season — which was a good move on head coach Steve Clifford's part. It helped ensure continuity and comfort for a starting unit that was pretty darn good in Al's absence.
In short, I think the Hornets would've liked to retain Al, but the money simply wasn't there and they were comfortable betting on their two young bigs (Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky) anyway. The addition of Roy Hibbert on a cheap deal helps mitigate the loss of Al a bit, too.
Jefferson seems equally as willing to backup Myles Turner as he did Cody Zeller post All-Star break. Like in Charlotte, the idea here is that Jefferson will be freer to unleash the full repertoire of his smart post-game and soft touch as a focal point of the second unit. However, his move to the bench last season did not necessarily seem to result in greater efficiency against presumably inferior talent. In fact, while his usage rate consistently hovered around 24 percent both before and after his return to action in mid-February, his true shooting percentage improved only slightly from 49.3 percent to 51.7 percent and he only placed in the 63rd percentile league-wide on post-up plays. Is it wrong to presume that he should have been able to feast more in the paint against reserve centers, or do these numbers not tell the full story of his impact?
JP: Yes and no. If you know Al, you know he doesn't milk injuries and will try to play through them if his body is willing. I don't have any proof of this (and the Hornets would never admit to it), but I suspect he returned to (the) floor while still recovering. Further, because these are knee and foot injuries, it was difficult for him to stay in shape and keep his conditioning high. And then there's the fact that he's simply getting older.
There were several occasions last season where he'd fake his man out beautifully and have an open look at the basket but miss the shot. It was baffling. That's why I believe his knee, foot and conditioning held him back. He had zero lift, and his balance was off. If he's completely healthy and in shape next season, I imagine he'll have no issue feasting in the paint once again.
Arguably, the 12-year veteran's first season in Charlotte, in which he finished eighth in MVP voting, was the best of his career. Since then, the accuracy of the old school center's go-to hook shot has started to decline along with some of his other traditional stats. Still, after putting off the knee procedure he underwent this season for two years, Jefferson says he finally feels like his old self. Is there reason to believe he could get back to being who he was three seasons ago (adjusted for minutes), or is his injury history too compelling to believe otherwise?
JP: I don't think you're getting the Al Jefferson of three years ago. He's likely past his prime, or, if you're an optimist, on the tail end of it. I could be (and sincerely hope I'm) wrong.
Al's game has never relied on athleticism, but that doesn't mean he can survive without any whatsoever. And I've seen a slow, steady decline on that front. That said, if he's still off the fried chicken and is truly feeling great, you'll definitely get a better Al than the Hornets got last year. I hope it works out for him. He's a tremendous player and a lovely person.
The Pacers seem intrigued by the possibility of playing Jefferson beside Myles Turner against bigger lineups, which, given that the latter possesses the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting touch while the former is at home in the paint, seems like a more natural fit in spurts than having Lavoy Allen take up space on the opposing low block. Over his three seasons in Charlotte, which type of frontcourt lineups were most conducive for Jefferson to thrive?
JP: Pretty much exactly what you said. Jefferson shared most of his playing time with Marvin Williams in the frontcourt, and last season saw some time with Kaminsky as well. Both are decent shooters from behind the arc. Clifford rarely put Jefferson in with Zeller or Biyombo, neither of whom have a great jumper.
So yeah, playing Jefferson alongside Turner (is) a good move. Generally speaking, surrounding him with shooters is the best way to maximize his talent on offense. He can play some pick-and-roll ball, but he's at his best when the ball is simply dumped into the post.
Speaking of Turner, there seems to be some enthusiasm regarding the possibility that Jefferson could serve as a veteran mentor for the 20-year-old and perhaps even help diversify the second-year player's face up game with some new low-post tricks. At his introductory presser, Jefferson said tutoring younger players is part of his DNA, were there any specific incidents of this during his time in Charlotte?
Before coming to Charlotte, Jefferson was in Utah. There, he played with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter — both young, raw bigs with decent touch but little in the way of an established post game. Now, both of those guys are regarded as decent post players.
In Charlotte, Jefferson had Biyombo to work with. That went about as well as you'd expect it to. He also worked with Zeller, who's showing a bit of a post game now that we hadn't really seen in years prior. He's still not where he needs to be, but his footwork has dramatically improved and it's clear that he's picked up some individual moves and tricks from Al.
More than anything, though, Jefferson's presence alone will have a settling effect on the Pacers' roster. He's grounded, blunt, funny, and willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings and failures. He's a big reason Charlotte's culture is now regarded as one of the best in the NBA. We're really going to miss him, and we can't thank him enough for what he did on the floor and off of it.