3-time NBA All-Star
Join Date: Jun 2008
Location: Peking, P.R.C., Asia
Re: The sure to be epic 2013 Jazz off-season!
Skeptics around the league will tell you the Jefferson signing might represent the perfect "best of both worlds" endgame for Charlotte — that Jefferson's post-up efficiency could remove the stench of historic awfulness, a must for any franchise wishing to attract even quality midlevel veteran free agents, without pushing them out of the top five in the 2014 draft.
Higgins and Steve Clifford, the Bobcats' well-respected new head coach, scoff at that notion. They view Jefferson as a building block who will make things easier for their young perimeter players by drawing constant double-teams, and who will work as the pick-and-roll partner Kemba Walker desperately needs.
Pick and roll isn't really his game. Jazz went to Al ball despite their long histroy with the pick and roll game.
"Al instantly helps the development of everyone else," Clifford says. "Or at least he should, if we are organized the right way and execute the way we need to."
Charlotte, in other words, patiently pursued a "one step back, two steps forward" strategy, but lost patience with it right before the draft class that represented pay dirt. That may be wrong in the eyes of the calculating strategist thinking about those 55 wins, but not every franchise approaches team-building that way — at least not on every step of the team-building journey. Owners can lose patience if things still look bleak after two years of rebuilding; Michael Jordan, the team's majority owner, is famously competitive and impatient, and executives around the league still aren't sure who makes the final calls among Jordan, Higgins, and Rich Cho, the team's GM. Multiple lotteries might fail to produce a franchise-level star, damn near a must-have for any true title contender, an unfillable hole that leaves a franchise in a non-glamour market like Charlotte with a question: continue to go all-out in pursuit of one, or see if we can build to something "pretty good" over the long haul? The media views the Joe Johnson–era Hawks, built from the ashes of a 13-win catastrophe in 2004-05, as a boring failure, but a lot of executives around the league think of them much differently.3
Charlotte, of course, isn't giving up on the idea that this insanely young core could one day grow into a 55-win contender, provided that it gets the right veteran help. It certainly pursued Jefferson aggressively. He didn't meet with any other teams, save for the Jazz, who politely told Jefferson at the start of free agency they had no intention of re-signing him, he says. "They called me on July 1 and told me they wasn't gonna go in my direction," Jefferson recalls, adding that he wasn't surprised. "I told my teammates all season, 'Utah would be a fool to bring me back, with Enes [Kanter] and Derrick [Favors]. Them boys are gonna be the truth!"4 Utah offered to sign-and-trade Jefferson to a better team lacking cap space, but Jefferson short-circuited the free-agency process early after Higgins, Clifford, and other officials wooed him over dinner. Higgins says the team had been talking about Jefferson for several months, and they offered him big money early in free agency, even though there do not appear to have been any other serious suitors.
"It made me feel so good that there's a team out there that has so much belief in my game," Jefferson says of his dinner with Higgins and Clifford. "I was like, 'Done deal.' And then when they started talking money, it was like, 'Oh my god!' It was icing on the cake."5
Walker emerged as a more efficient scorer last season, and the Bobcats hope Jefferson will provide him with the kind of pick-and-roll partner the team just hasn't had. Walker and Clifford have already watched film together for hours, and, Clifford says, Walker began one session with a plaintive question for his new coach: "Why can't I ever hit the roll man?" Walker's game probably leaned too far in the "score-first" direction last season, but that was understandable given the sub-replacement big-man contingent on hand — and the spacing issues that cramped Walker's passing lanes.
One reason for those spacing issues: Kidd-Gilchrist, the Davis lottery consolation prize, cannot shoot at all. The Bobcats have hired Mark Price to work with Kidd-Gilchrist on his jumper, but they know it is going to be a long process. Clifford wants Kidd-Gilchrist focusing on his strengths — defense, cutting, and crashing the offensive glass. Having a wing chase rebounds like that can be dangerous for a team's transition defense, but the Bobcats will have rules in place allowing for Kidd-Gilchrist to attack the glass, the coach says. Clifford was an assistant with the Rockets under Jeff Van Gundy, and Houston during those years made allowances for Steve Francis's above-average offensive rebounding, Clifford says. The rules were simple: If Francis sensed an opportunity for an offensive board, at least one of the team's big men was to sprint back in transition, along with the other perimeter players.
KENT SMITH/GETTY IMAGES
Clifford is also working with Kidd-Gilchrist on his post game and some isolation moves from the elbow area, he says. Kidd-Gilchrist is probably the wild card here — the young guy with the best chance to become that franchise-changing All-Star. Walker still has room to grow, but he's 23, and he hasn't flashed the passing skills of a franchise-lifting point guard. Zeller projects as a nice complementary starter, and the team is already growing impatient with Bismack Biyombo. Gerald Henderson finished the season strong, flashing an improved 3-point stroke and taking on more ballhandling duties, but he's almost 26 and might peak as a league-average wing starter.
If Kidd-Gilchrist tops out as a fringe All-Star with a defense-first game (Gerald Wallace 2.0?), it's hard to see 55 wins from here — especially since the front office seems content to let this core grow as their rookie contracts creep toward expiration. The coldest long-view move would be to use Walker as the Sixers just used Jrue Holiday — as a young piece of surprise trade bait for future assets, including a 2014 first-round pick.6 But a trade in that vein doesn't appear to be in the team's immediate plans, though Higgins, of course, cannot rule it out. "If there are opportunities to make this team better via trade, we will do that," he says. (He also denied that the Bobcats ever seriously discussed trading the no. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, which became Kidd-Gilchrist, to the Thunder for James Harden.)
Those 55 wins recede further into the distance if Charlotte wins just enough games this season to fall outside the top five in the 2014 draft. Depending on health, luck, and player development, sticking within that range might be tight. Orlando and Philly are gunning for the top of the draft; Utah and Phoenix are in similar developmental stages; Sacramento is always a good bet to malfunction; and Boston wants a shot at a high pick. Toss in one or two injury- or trade-ravaged disappointments, and the Bobcats could suddenly be looking at a pick in the lower half of the top 10. And they won't seem to care.
"You just can't predict what's going to happen in the lottery," Higgins says. "We've been in the top three spots going in the last two years, and we've moved back both times. What does that tell you?"7
In the meantime, Clifford, a defense-first guy, faces the challenge of repairing a sieve that now features Jefferson at center. Jefferson's teams have always failed on defense, and the big man knows his issues against the pick-and-roll have often driven those struggles. He's a bit plodding in space, and has struggled badly to corral opposing point guards. "It ain't no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense," Jefferson says. "My pick-and-roll defense is my weakness. And that's mind over matter. I just gotta suck it up, get my ass out there, and do it."8
Jefferson is confident he can be better, and working within a more consistent scheme might help him. The Jazz were constantly asking their bigs to do different things against the pick-and-roll, switching almost possession-by-possession from schemes in which Jefferson hung back around the foul line to strategies that demanded he lunge to contain the ball handler 30 feet from the rim.
Clifford won't say what sorts of scheme he'll use, and some game-by-game tweaks are always necessary. But he's a proud Van Gundy acolyte, especially in terms of shot selection. "We want to take away layups, defend without fouling, and take away 3-point shots from better shooters," Clifford says. The flip side: hoping opponents fire away from midrange.
Jefferson might manage better in a system that allows him to hang closer to the paint on nearly every pick-and-roll, similar to how the Pacers and Bulls use Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, respectively. Such a scheme might also help the Bobcats clean up the defensive glass, a big Clifford goal; only Sacramento rebounded a lower percentage of opponent misses last season, and flying around in blind chaos to contain all those second chances contributed to Charlotte's very high foul rate — a major Clifford no-no.
One thing neither Jefferson nor Clifford is worried about: Jefferson hogging the ball on the left block on offense, stunting the development of his teammates.
He should be very worried!