Take away Al Jefferson's moniker. He doesn't deserve it anymore. In fact, I'm calling him "Little Al" until he kicks it in.
Actually, this goes for all three of the Utah Jazz's starting little "big" men, Al, Paul Millsap, and Andrei Kirilenko, since all are underachieving somewhere that the team desperately needs them to show up in.
There is a little good news coming from Al's numbers -career high blocks percentage and career low turnover percentage- but everything else in down. Way down.
The news on the ManSap front is a bit more heartening, but still, that career low rebound rate, especially from the former NCAA rebound king, is troubling indeed. And he has yet to reach those 20/10 numbers predicted from the numerous, vocal Boozer haters, any which way you spin it.
Then there's AK-47.
His is a less troubling case, simply because he's a glue guy rather than a go-to guy. Still, his shot selection and efficiency from the floor is not good, hovering around career bad, in fact.
Let's do a little dissecting to see if we can pin down what's going wrong in the front court.
For the first time in Al's career he has a fire and desire to win for a team, not just play one-on-three like he's on an island. His defensive effort has seen the most improvement, something critical to winning ball games, as he's often the last line of defense.
I'm sure we can all recall quite a few big blocks at key times in games the Jazz have won down the stretch, indeed, I bet if you were to browse back through the game threads here you'd find numerous comments pertaining to Jefferson rejections at critical times.
This is reflected in his career high block percentage of 3.9%.
Also a promising sign is his career low turnover rate, 7.3%. This is way down for the career 10.0% he's posted, and a refreshing far cry from Boozer, who's a career 12.9% and dropped the rock at key junctures all too many times last year, leaving Utah after his second-worst TOV% of 14.3 last season.
Al is also making free throws at a better clip than at any time in his career. He's a career 70% shooter from the line hitting on 85% this season, a drastic jump.
This is where Big Al starts getting a little smaller. He's posting a career-worst .467 from the floor. We may be tempted to say at this point that it's because he hasn't yet settled into the system, but the same shots that fell at a better-than-50%-rate his entire career just aren't going down this season.
It's not quite as awful when his TS% (a measure that takes into account 2-point, 3-point, and free throw shooting) is factored in, .512 compared to a career .533, but most of this not being truly horrifying can be accounted for by his aforementioned drastic jump in FT%.
There's plenty of room for improvement from him from the floor. We know he has the skill set to score, and score a lot, but for whatever reason either Sloan hasn't found the right way to incorporate him or he's just plain having a slump-filled season shooting.
With that great rate from the line I'm trying to find a way to put him there a lot more often right now, meaning more inside looks, and going strong to the hole instead of settling for a push shot.
One other area that's not good, but not ugly, meaning it falls by default into this category, is his assist percentage.
For a guy everyone feared would be a black hole, he's managed to find cutters and kick-outs for big buckets quite a few memorable times this year. This an area he's made a conscious effort to improve in.
The reason it's not higher, I believe, is that his teammates still tend to stand around and watch him all too often when he gets the ball. That puts him in a bad, solo position, not Al's fault.
When his 'mates keep moving and cutting like they're supposed to, he's often found a nice chemistry with Paul Millsap for an easy bucket. More of this, please.
The Just Plain Ugly
You're gonna see a bit of a theme in this category, and rightly so. The Jazz are a team that plays like basketball is a one-hit-quit league far too often, and it's reflected in their rebounding numbers in a stark way. In games they lose they are getting absolutely thrashed on the glass, and both Al and Millsap have given up 20/20s (points and rebounds) to opposing bigs.
"Big" Al was at one point going to be one of only three players in the NBA to put up back-to-back 20/10 seasons. Then his knee exploded, right when he was on track for the upcoming All-Star game. He managed to miraculously come back from that ACL explosion to the tune of 19.0 and 10.3 per-36 minutes last year, a mere FT-a-game from posting that benchmark 20/10.
Note: the two previous years of 20/10 Al he played 36 minutes per-game, so per-36 stats are an accurate snapshot of his comeback from the injury
This is who we thought we were getting to replace Boozer and his unreal rebound rate. Instead, enter "Little" Al.
"Little" Al is pulling down a career low (since he's been a starter) 8.6 rebounds per-game. You might be able to attribute this to his sharing time with glass-monster Millsap, but as you'll see in the next set of G,B, & JPU this isn't so.
It's also a much more accurate measure to use REB% to get a feel for what a guy is doing out there on the floor, and Al's rebound percentages are down across the board, his TRB% (total rebound percent) dramatically so, at a dismal 14.4%. This from a guy that's pulled down as much as 19.5% and is a career 17.4%.
Carlos Boozer's career TRB% is 18.3%, so losing about 4% in his replacement's season this year is a big blow to the Jazz on the glass. Jefferson must put more effort into collecting rebounds, a little more so on the D-glass, and a lot more on the O-glass, especially on nights where the Jazz are shooting poorly.
If Jefferson can improve his cellar-level offensive rebounding of 7.1%, fully 3.6% worse than his average, the Jazz can overcome poor shooting nights more easily. Combine poor shooting with heinous rebounding and you're sunk in a blowout pretty quickly.
There is much rejoicing to be made concerning Millsap's game this year!
While he hasn't reached the predicted-by-many 20/10 yet (his posting 20/10 seasons will always be the exception rather than the rule, if he ever does at all), the man who waited patiently in Boozer's shadow for his shot has made the most of it this year.
Foremost, he'd always had trouble staying on the floor in starter minutes, constantly being in danger of fouling out, limiting how aggressive he could be defensively in crunch-time situations. This year he's at a career low 3.6 per-36 minutes. I'd like to see him be a bit more aggressive defensively when he has fouls to give.
Next up, or more accurately, down, his TOV% is and eye-popping-low 8.2%, down from a career-constant 12.5%. That his usage rate and minutes are easily at a career highs makes this stat all the more impressive. Generally speaking, when a player gets more minutes and time with the leather they tend to turn it over more, not less, and certainly not this much this less. Props, Paul!
Some of the previous line is definitely due to the fact that Millsap added range to his shooting game. A lot of range.
Boozer had a great touch from mid-range, and we all worried that the Jazz would have little in the way of a threat to keep defenses honest in the front court with the loss of Carlos to the Bulls and Mehmet Okur MIA. But Paul has alleviated those fears with a career-best .552% from the floor, made all the more remarkable in that he's doing a lot of that work from 17 feet out.
This new range is especially pronounced in his eFG% (a measure of FG% that takes into account that 3 points are worth more than 2), where he's landing a career best .557%. While no one expects him to start spotting up from the arc, it's comforting to know it's there in a pinch.
Last year I pondered what Millsap might add to his game, and we saw the beginnings of that range, solidified this year, when I again asked and he answered with the 3-pointers. But that isn't all he added, oh no. He's also pleasantly surprised with an amazing passing game, posting a new career number of 2.4 per-game bringing his AST% into double figures for the first time at 11.7%.
Expect his passing game to continue to grow, as is always the case from Sloan's bigs.
It seems we've all been a bit blinded by shadow of Boozer once again here. Next to Carlos' matador defense Millsap's appeared to be stout.
Instead it looks more and more like Paul has something of a less-than-desirable man defense, despite his pit bull-like tenacity. He's giving up an opponent PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 17.9.
15.0 is the league average. I think we all hoped for a little more, or rather less, here.
By comparison, Al Jefferson is giving a PER at the center-spot of 17.3, about what we expected when we consider he's playing out of position at C, as opposed to Millsap. And when Al gets minutes at the PF position he's holding his counterpart to a 14.3 PER.
He's also allowed his counterpart to put up outrageous numbers against him a handful of times this season, especially on the glass.
The Just Plain Ugly
Who saw Millsap's sorry rebounding numbers coming? I dare say no one did.
And he's not just posting career lows, he's also giving up career highs on the glass to his counterpart.
It's so bad I don't even wanna do it. But I must. Someone has to call him out on it, and I don't see any other volunteers, so here's the lowlights he's given up on the glass:
Hakim Warrick 11 (off the bench even. He was doing so well against Millsap Gentry left him in)
Out-rebounded by Rashard Lewis 7 to 5. Freakin' Rashard Lewis, who hasn't been in the paint in 5 years!
Josh Smith 13
Nazr Mohammed 20 (OK, this one's Al, but it's a 2nd 20/20, and that pisses me off!)
Serge Ibaka 11 (Also gave up a career high to 22 points from Chewblocka in this one. Body up, Sap)
Kris Humphries 15 (This one really pisses me off cause he never played like that for Utah)
LaMarcus Aldridge 11 (Plus 24 points. Made Aldridge look like an All-Star that night)
DeMarcus Cousins 9 (Not that a big a deal, except that DMC also dropped a new career high 18 pts on Sap too)
Lamar Odom 10
Blake Griffin 14
Matched Rashard Lewis 5 for 5 (This blows my mind)
Dirk Nowitzki 15 (And 31 points. STILL don't get why Sloan won't go Andrei here. Sap is no match for him)
David Lee 12
Okay, that was painful. But the truth hurts. Those that are honest with themselves will now admit that Millsap looked a lot better when he played primarily against the other teams' 2nd units. Yes, he's great for being undersized, but that fact still remains.
Nevertheless, he needs to get up on the glass more, like we know he's capable of doing.
Andrei's numbers tend to fluctuate wildly from game to game. However, he's still the glue to the team's success because of the intangibles he brings. And somehow, despite those wild fluctuations, his base stats have leveled out to be seasonally predictable over the last 4-5 years.
His years of working with Jeff Hornacek on his shot have paid dividends in a career high 3-pt% this season. That said, I think we all still cringe when he winds up for one. He has found a knack for knocking down timely ones this year, though.
His rebounds-per-game are up this year too, which is utterly counter-intuitive to his usage and TRB% rates, helping negate some of the above transgressions on the glass.
And that contract comes off the books at the end of the year, and AK's said repeated times he'll come back for much, much less next year, making him a steal of a deal for what we get from him.
His playing the 3 for the Jazz also allows for a lengthier overall lineup, and he's done well there all in all, considering his previous strong point was always at the 4 for Utah.
While Andrei's actual points-per-game have stayed steady at about 11 a game, when we look at his per-36 minute numbers we start to start to see the wild fluctuations on a seasonal basis. It's hard to know what you'll get from him from night to night from the floor.
His minutes are at 33+ per-game, the highest since the 2005-2006 season. While it's good that he's healthy and able to play those kinds of minutes, it's bad that we just don't know what we'll get with any certainty in those minutes.
His steals and blocks-per game are also slightly down this year, and the Jazz need the containment and deflections he provides on the wing.
The Just Plain Ugly
Andrei is having a career bad year from the floor for everything not a 3-pointer or a free throw (where he is at least constant over his career). While never a "shooter" his .437 FG% overall shows a propensity for popping jumpers this season.
It would be fair to AK to say he's playing somewhat out of position, since his All-Star season and best years have come when he's played more PF than SF, but the 3 is where the Jazz need him most.
And starting at the 3 this season he's experiencing [of career]:
T-1st worst TRB%
3rd worst AST%
T-1st worst STL%
Worst BLK% (Career high 8.5% led league, average 5.5%, current 2.9%)
2nd worst PER
It's fair to say that the Jazz need more out Andrei if they're to go deep into the postseason this spring.
That said, there are some eerie similarities to AK's numbers for this Jazz team's high water mark, the 2006-2007 season run to the Western Conference Finals. Statistically speaking, that was easily Andrei's worst year of his illustrious career, overall, and yet he fit into his role for Utah perfectly that season.
Maybe it's a sign of things to come?
Whatever happens, each has an area that must be improved upon for the Jazz to reach their goals; Al's ability to consistently go 20/10, Millsap's rebounding and defense, AK's length at his position being utilized better along with his shot selection.
Get these taken care of, improved upon, and the Jazz will find themselves squarely in the conversation as contenders.