All season long I suggested that Utah Jazz Center Al Jefferson was irreplaceable. He was the straw the stirred our 'drink'. Countless times down the stretch we'd go to him, and if he was feeling it, you knew that he'd give us a great chance to finish the game with a win. At the beginning of the season he was still taking contested shots when doubled; however, he worked really hard and not only improved his court vision, but he also started to make some really elite level plays during crunch time. Examples include his pass to the cutting Paul Millsap against the Denver Nuggets; his back-down, and kick out to Devin Harris to beat the Miami Heat; and his full portfolio of moves against the Phoenix Suns in the 4th quarter of the biggest game of the season. We won all of those games. We won them as a team, and a major part of our team success this year was Al Jefferson.
Qualitative opinions aside, let's look at the quantitative numbers. Let's look at the stats.
Big Al on Offense:
We were at our best this year when Big Al was at his best. March was supposed to sink us, but because of his inspired play we won as many games in March as we did in January (when we had that cream-puff schedule). I like advanced stats so I look at his PER, GO Rating, and USG% here quite a bit. During crunch time during our playoff push he was remarkable. His PER was one of the best in the league in March, and April. His Go Rating had rarely ever been higher. And his USG% showed the league that we could go to him again and again, and pull out wins.
Big Al did peak before the playoffs, but we don't make the playoffs without him playing that high a level early. If you compare his performance this season against his career averages -- yes, his fg% and eFG% both went down. And his PPS went down as well, while he shot the ball more frequently. If the worst thing you can find is that he shot the ball more frequently, and shot a little worse -- then that's not much of a concern.
I can't pretend the playoffs didn't happen, they did. And when there are less possessions in a game efficiency shines. Al wasn't as efficient as I'd like, he shot under 50 fg% this year, rarely got to the line, and his PPS value was already below average (1.22 is average), and it went even lower this year. In the playoffs he was shooting at a high fg%, but was still inefficient in terms of PPS. We all know the Spurs series would have been a little easier if Al was capable of getting their bigs into foul trouble. He did not. In four games he got to the free throw line four times.
Jefferson wasn't perfect on offense this season, but he was our best player.
Big Al on Defense:
Al missed out on the 20/10 this year by a small margin. He was 0.4 rpg off, and 0.8 ppg off. Again, it looks like he peaked right before the playoffs started: he averaged 1.9 bpg and his advanced defensive metrics were way above normal for him. He wasn't a lock down defender on defense, but he did give an effort at times. He needs to improve this -- if I can site individual plays on offense where he shined, in the effort to not play favorites I can also name a number of defensive bad plays. The most recent one being not even hustling back on defense in Game 4 -- on that play where Devin Harris ran back and got a transition chase down block on Tony Parker. Jefferson was closer to Parker and didn't try to get back. That stands out, especially in the last game of the season.
Overall, I think it's fair to say that Jefferson can be superb on offense, and his defense is a work in progress. He has shown the ability to improve, and he did improve greatly on offense with his patience, decision making, and ball sharing. I believe he's also capable of improving on defense as well. The issue here, however, isn't just Al Jefferson in a vacuum. It's actually Al Jefferson's need to improve on defense vs. Derrick Favors' need to improve on offense. Defense wins games, and Favors is great on defense already, and is only 20 years old. Big Al is 7 years older. If Favors can get better on offense before Jefferson can get better on defense, it may be in the Jazz' best interest to promoting Favors down the line.
We'll have one year to figure this all out, as Al's contract expires next season. He'll be making $15 million next year, which is nearly 4x as much as Favors. Just pointing that out there. Al had a successful season as 'the main guy' on a playoff team. We got abused in the playoffs, but Al has a lot of heart. I wish him all the best and his qualities as a player go beyond statistics.
I expect him to be even better next year.