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Al Jefferson needs to shape up, but so do the Pacers

Al Jefferson’s conditioning won’t matter, if the current condition of the bench stays the same.

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Kevin Pritchard gave a short and direct answer on 1070 The Fan’s The Dan Dakich Show when asked why it was that Al Jefferson never saw a single minute of action in the playoffs despite being removed from the injury report prior to Game 2:

“I didn’t think he was in great physical shape.”

He wasn’t, and it was evident from the start of the season. He’d short-arm makeable shots. He’d struggle to muster the energy to box out. He’d get his shot blocked from behind, and he’d lag behind the break. Here’s the Pacers playing 4-on-5 against the Brooklyn Nets while they wait for Jefferson to cross half court.

Still, it seems like Indiana’s brass should have been able to see this coming before they signed him, even if they did so at comparably reasonable value.

Pritchard can assert that the 32-year-old plodder can “score on anybody.” He can claim that there is “literally no person” among second-line bigs that can stop the anachronistic center. He can even insinuate that Jefferson’s level of fitness prevented the team from winning more than 42 games, but recent history doesn’t particularly bear any of that out.

Recall that Jefferson's move to the bench did not necessarily result in greater efficiency against lesser talent during his final season in Charlotte. While his usage rate consistently hovered around 24 percent both before and after his return to action in mid-February after having undergone arthroscopic surgery to address a tear in the lateral meniscus of his right knee, his true shooting percentage improved only slightly from 49.3 percent to 51.7. Additionally, despite gobbling up seconds of the shot clock isolating on the block, he only placed in the 63rd percentile league-wide on post-up plays, scoring 0.88 points per possession (PPP). Not to mention that the accuracy of the old school center's go-to hook shot was trending downward year-over-year.

2013-14: 56.4%

2014-15: 49.2%

2015-16: 44.6%

All of that being the case, the Pacers didn’t exactly put him in the best position to be successful once he was inked to a multi-year deal, either.

Big Al’s paint-centric game wasn’t going to satisfy Larry Bird’s desire to play with pace, and the lack of shooters Larry Bird surrounded him with wasn’t going to satisfy Big Al’s need for space.

Despite routinely appearing tired and old, opponents still tended to send double coverage to him on the low block. In response, his teammates needed to be able to take better advantage of that shift in gravity. Instead, rotation decisions ensured that the paint would often be packed by the big body of either Lavoy Allen or Kevin Seraphin along with the defenders of one or several drive-first guards.

It begs repeating here that there really was no excuse for continuing to trot out the double-plodder, all-bench lineups once Paul George, C.J. Miles, and Thaddeus Young were all healthy enough to play. Per NBA Wowy, the Miles-Jefferson tandem wan’t a net positive per 100 possessions (minus-1.0), but it was a lot closer to breaking even than Allen-Jefferson (minus-10.8) and Seraphin-Jefferson (minus-4.2). Not to mention that pairing — as well as any other small-ball bench combinations with the lefty sharpshooter at four — had a much better chance of checking opposing spread lineups.

All of which is to say that the Pacers can have “serious conversations” with Jefferson, and they can “work him really hard to get him back to where he needs to be,” but it will only matter if they shape up the bench unit that plays around him.

“At the end of the day, you’re a professional. You get paid to be in the best (shape),” Pritchard admitted to Dakich regarding his disappointment in Jefferson’s physical condition. “Shame on him, but also shame on us.”