Charlotte Bobcats fans had been expecting some free agent fireworks over this 4th of July weekend, just not down their pants. But that’s what we got on Thursday, courtesy of GM Rich Cho, who’d been promising/threatening a bold free agent move for several days. He delivered/detonated one yesterday by signing former Utah Jazz C Al Jefferson to a 3-year, $41M deal. The third year is apparently a player option, but the only reason Jefferson would opt out would be if he’s the type of person who enjoys sticking his face into blowtorches.
Based on ESPN’s Hollinger ratings, Jefferson added an estimated 13.3 wins above a replacement-level player last year. The good news is that this was second-best in the league among centers, behind only Brook Lopez. The better news is that the Bobcats’ incumbent center, Bismack Biyombo, was actually sub-replacement level last year (-1.3 EWA—yes, our starting center was actually outplayed by a theoretical stand-in who exists only to be replaced). The bad news is that this means if Jefferson takes Biyombo’s slot and plays just as well this year, that’s a 14+ win turnaround, which would mean the Bobcats pick somewhere around 11th in the 2014 draft. Normally more wins is a good thing, but next year’s draft is apparently so awesome that it was discussed more frequently than this year’s draft while this year’s draft was actually taking place. Cho has basically declared on war on draftniks everywhere by picking Biyombo 7th two years ago, choosing Cody Zeller this year, and now doing everything possible to avoid a lottery pick next year.
For Cho’s troubles, the Bobcats have landed their biggest free agent ever (narrowly edging out 2009’s blockbuster Flip Murray signing) and a truly dynamic offensive force. Jefferson operates primarily out of the post (45.7% of his offense is conducted there, per Synergy Sports), where he’s an elite scorer (ranked 44th in the whole league in terms of points-per-play). He’s also adept with backdoor cuts and put-backs. His 52.2 TS% didn’t set the world on fire, but both Biyombo (47.2%) and Byron Mullens (46.5%) might as well have been trying to extinguish it. Meanwhile, Jefferson’s 16.3% rebounding rate is only okay (ranked 20th among centers), but it still beats Biyombo and Mullens, who was often out of position from having just missed an ill-advised 3-pointer. Where Jefferson really shines, though, is his efficiency: despite having the 6th highest usage rate among centers, Jefferson led them all in turnover rate. Basically, if you can get the ball into Jefferson’s mitts, you can rest assured that at the very least it’s not going to get fumbled over to the other team or—as was the case several times with Biyombo last year—up a fan’s nose. In fact, Biyombo’s hands are so bad that I wouldn’t trust him to cell hold my phone within ten feet of a toilet, so we should see a huge jump in offensive production out of the center spot.
The downside is on Jefferson’s defense, and it’s a BIG downside. In fact, I feel like I’ve just told you all about Greg Oden and am now getting to the part about his knees. Jefferson’s defense is frighteningly bad. Opposing centers posted a 17.3 PER on Jefferson last year, according to 82games.com. And according to NBAStats.com, the defense gave up 107.6 points-per-100 possessions with Jefferson on the court, which resulted in his overall net-negative rating, because they only scored 104.1 points on offense. 82games.com has similarly dreary numbers: 111.3 points with Jefferson ON the court, 102.0 points with him OFF the court. This is mostly because Big Al’s shot-blocking rate is about half of Biyombo’s (one of the few categories Bismack leads him in, besides sending tweets to God), and he chooses to defend spot-up shooters mostly by giving them dirty looks. Then again, Biyombo’s opponent PER ranged from 17.4-17.7, depending on whether he was at the 4 or the 5, so it’s not like Jefferson is taking over for Bill Russell. But still, I’m terrified at the idea of sacrificing $13M+ a year and beachfront 2014 draft property for a guy who’s got a negative point differential.
Oh well. It’s just a 3-year deal and he’s only 28. Plus Jefferson’s got a fantastic skull. I’ve loved it ever since his Minnesota days, when he and Brandon Roy and their spectacular jutting craniums stood out like football helmets on Chihuahuas. And besides, how angry can I get by a team that’s consciously trying to win more games? It’s easy for pundits to say that the Cats should completely tank it next year, but they’re also not the ones who actually have to sit through all 82 of these games like we do. And the way the Bobcats have played the last few years, it’s been like sitting through 82 groin-kicks. So sure, that 2014 draft might be something else, but it’d be nice to also have my groin kick-free for the first time since 2010.
(Reminder: Please don’t forget to check out my e-book at the following link)