Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
I grew up watching the NBA in the 1980s and 1990s. My formative basketball devouring years happened back when the league was dominated by a different type of player. Sure, flashy ball handling wings always drove the popularity of the league -- but the NBA I grew up watching looked a lot different than the one we see today. The season where it dawned on me that "Hey, Amar -- the NBA is great and this is what you do now, you watch the NBA and all other sports are dumb" was the 1983-1984 NBA Season. I was living in Los Angeles, and I had a lot of exposure to the game. And that season was a magical season capitulated by Larry Bird leading his Boston Celtics over Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. That season was won by do-it-all players, but the game they played was dominated by bigs. Jeff Ruland played the most minutes that season, and the most minutes per game. Moses Malone got to the free throw line more than every other player in the NBA except one (the Jazz' Adrian Dantley). Moses also led the league in rebounds per game. Jack Sikma led the league in total defensive rebounds. Bill Laimbeer led the league in total season rebounds. Artis Gilmore, James Donaldson, and Darryl Dawkins were three of the top four players in field goal percentage. Big Mark Eaton lead the league in total blocks and blocks per game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was selected to yet another All-NBA 1st team and was Player of the Month, in the Month of March. Ralph Sampson was Rookie of the Year. Tree Rollins was selected to the All-NBA Defensive 1st Team. And Kareem, Jack, Ralph, Moses, Bill, Jeff, and Robert Parish were all honored as All-Stars. That's seven centers. Let me repeat that -- there were seven centers who were All-Stars in 1983-1984.
The game has changed.
This year there are a surprisingly high number of centers selected as All-Stars, five in total: Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan, and Dwight Howard. Beyond Duncan, none of those guys have much of a back to the basket game that doesn't deviate much from a jump hook or power layup. Back in '84, all of those centers who made the All-Star team knew at least three different post moves.
The game definitely has changed.
But today in 2012-2013 there's at least one guy out there who plays the game I grew up watching -- and that's the Utah Jazz's center Al Jefferson. Out of today's crop of bigmen -- be them All-Stars or other highly regarded players like Al Horford, Andrew Bogut, Zach Randolph, or whomever -- Big Al stands alone as the undisputed current master of post scoring. He's not as big as Andrew Bynum, as strong as Dwight Howard, can't jump like Blake Griffin, or finish alley oops like Tyson Chandler. But he sure can make each of those guys look silly on defense with his seemingly endless string of up fakes, drop steps, pivots, and an absolute patience on offense that seems out of place in today's game.
Jefferson scores on everyone. Not because he's the biggest, fastest, strongest, or most athletic. He does score on everyone probably because right now with the ball in his hands he's using that big brain of his to (usually) make the most effective sequence of offensive moves to counter what the defense may try to do. Sure, Duncan at his peak was better -- and historically guys like Hakeem had the mobility to put Al to shame. But in today's game where the true, throwback bigman is as rare as gaffe-free politician, Big Al is the Master of his craft. And that craft is creating his own shot on offense -- either facing up, or posting up. No bigman does it better right now.
The Brooklyn Nets bigman Brook Lopez scores more, but he's a finisher in his offense, not a guy who does it by himself. After all, dude plays with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. The Miami Heat get a lot out of Chris Bosh -- but he's playing with two Hall of Famers in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Bosh has to do it by himself like Al does. He just flat out doesn't. Sacramento Kings bigman DeMarcus Cousins, like Bosh, is only a few decimal points behind Al in the center scoring rankings. He's bigger than Al, stronger than Al, and has the potential to be great; however, he's not a better, more reliable scorer than Jefferson. Dwight Howard, a star on the Los Angeles Lakers, gets to the line 9.0 times a game -- yet Al scores more than 1.0 ppg more than him while playing less minutes. For all his talents Dwight still doesn't have a go-to move. Al has three: the Wheezie, his up-fake drive, and his up and under. The two bigmen on the list are the Detroit Pistons Greg Monroe and Atlanta Hawks Al Horford. Al schools both of those guys on offense.
In terms of raw scoring -- Al is 2nd best out of all the centers in the league; and while his fg% is lower than some of his peers, he is at the distinct disadvantage of having to go one on one for his field goal attempts. The Jazz don't run him off of cuts or use him as a pure finisher like other teams do with their bigs. Al is the anchor of our offense, and with the game on the line we go to him. We have 30 wins before the All-Star break -- so you can say that it's working. Jefferson is pretty much the king of the clutch. The Jazz are a +30 with him on the floor and in a clutch situation (the 4th quarter or overtime, with 5 minutes in the game left, when the Jazz are not leading or behind by more than 5 points), which is in stark contrast with his season net of -4.7 per 100 possessions. During this period Al also shoots 49.2 fg% (up from 48.5 fg% for the season), would score 31.9 points per 48 minutes (up from 25.5 points per 48 for his full season stats). When his team needs him most, Al Jefferson not only becomes more efficient on offense, but he also takes over on offense.
It's not just his boxscores that look better, on the road earlier this season we saw Jefferson score on Tim Duncan 3 times in a row in one on one situations with the game in the balance late in the 4th quarter. We've also seen him drop 32 against the Chicago Bulls and their great defense anchored by Noah, and 30 against the Los Angeles Clippers and their bigman DeAndre Jordan. He's gone for 30+ this season more times than any other bigman, and he's only played 40+ minutes twice. He's never taken more than 22 shots in a game, and in the four games where he did take 22 shots he has shot a combined 55.7 fg% (49/88), and averaged 26.5 ppg. So not only does he get better in clutch situations -- but when he is used the most, he dominates. I've never seen a big dominate like he does, by creating his own shots time after time, and making his shots -- all the while not going to the free throw line. He's gone to the line 10 or more times once this season. Dwight Howard, again, has done this 17 different times this season. And, again, Al scores more ppg while playing less mpg. This is remarkable.
Sure, Jefferson is more than just a scorer -- he rebounds, blocks shots, he doesn't turn the ball over, he's the undisputed leader of one of the tightest locker rooms in the league, and powering the Jazz back to the playoffs. But when looking at the entire league he's in a league of his own when it comes to being a bigman who scores a lot, and has to create for himself. Let's not forget that right now in the Jazz' surge back into the playoff picture Al's been carrying the team while starting point guard, and former All-Star, Mo Williams is out with cast on his right arm. It's not like he's getting fed pretty passes from Chris Paul, or getting open because he's playing with an All-NBA player. Al's not that lucky, and he has to thanklessly do it by himself. In the olden days I'd call him the best post scorer, or the guy with the most post up moves. But Al's game this season transcends the paint. He can face you up, drive on you, or splash a jumper in your eye from 18 feet out. Al Jefferson is without equal right now for his play style, size, role, and success rate. He's the best bigman scorer there is right now. Dude even hits clutch threes!! He truly is the Master of his Craft.