clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What Is and What Should Have Never Been

New, comments

*Editor's Note: I programmed this piece to appear at 5ET to avoid the usual posts, but I didn't know that everyone was going to feel like posting right now. I apologize.

There's been a lot of talk and debate this offseason amongst Jazz fans. If it hasn't been about who the Jazz should or shouldn't draft, the debate has sometimes focused, or at least stumbled on, the value of Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Paul Millsap and to a lesser degree, CJ Miles in the long term plans of the team. I plan on writing a post dedicated to what the Jazz should do with each of these players, but today Al Jefferson is the center of attention.

Back in March I first suggested that the best move for the Jazz to make would be to trade away Al Jefferson for picks and cap space. It was a little bit radical considering the Jazz were still "fighting" to make the playoffs. I got a lot of backlash then. At the time, no one agreed with me vocally. Things have changed a bit; I think the fanbase is probably fairly split on whether Al Jefferson fits in with the Jazz's long or even short-term plans. It's obvious that Yucca man agrees that trading away Al Jefferson is a necessity. But I will take Yucca's argument one step further. He would argue that we don't need Al Jefferson because we are rebuilding and need to hand the minutes to Derrick Favors. But the Jazz shouldn't have ever traded for Jefferson at all.

While it is obvious that I am going to be unkind about Al Jefferson's game, I want to emphasize that I have nothing against "Big Al." I think he is a genuinely nice guy who really wants to play for a championship team. It isn't his fault that he got traded to the Jazz. In fact, that is who is really under the microscope in this post: the Utah Jazz decision makers. They messed up. Granted, front office members, including Kevin O'Connor, have stated that they believed Mehmet Okur would return to full health at some point last season and Okur's return would have certainly aided the Jazz. But the long and short of Al Jefferson is that his acquisition and affect on the team has not been a positive one. The Jazz made a big mistake when they traded for Al Jefferson and they need to learn from that mistake. The front office didn't learn from their mistake the first time. The Jazz had just gotten themselves out of paying near-max money to an overrated scorer who contributed too little to the team defense when Carlos Boozer signed with the Bulls. But to celebrate, the Jazz went out and signed his 2nd cousin.

In full disclosure, I should state that I was against this trade pretty much from the start. It is fun to go back and read everyone's reaction to the news that we were going to trade for Al Jefferson. FortheLove was even more opposed than I was at the time. But here is what I had to say about it in the comment threads:


"I honestly wonder why they didn’t just resign Boozer if they were willing to spend $14 million.

He (Jefferson) is taller and longer than Boozer. Other than that he is very similar.

"He’s $14 million a year which is overpaid. The Wolves are trading him. that should be enough of a reason. But mostly, he is indefensible as a player. the only person defending him as a legit star of any proportions is Bill Simmons and that’s because he doesn’t want the Jefferson for Garnett deal to seem like the Gasol trade. That is the truth. Did I mention that he isn’t helping the Wolves win games? Oh but he is a 20 and 10 guy if you are into those."

"I'll be so pissed at KOC when this trade happens."

So you can accuse me of being against Al from the start, but I haven't turned on him. Like I said, there is a lot to like about Al Jefferson the person. He won us all over with his great interviews, his funny answers, his stated desire to win basketball games and his broken English. He's super likeable and genuine. But if that were enough reasons to keep a guy on a team and give him playing time, then Jimmer Fredette and Ronnie Price would make up our starting backcourt next season.

To talk about why the Jazz need to wash their hands of the Al Jefferson era, I want to address all of the reasons that I have been given for why Jazz fans want to keep Al around. Thanks to those who have defended him and stated good logical reasons for doing so. It's not a good argument in my mind to say, "because Al is a beast" when defending him. But many of you will and do defend Al with good points. I would like to talk about some of them.

"Al is a top 5 center"

This response is certainly the most common answer I get and in some ways, the statement is true. Jefferson was 4th in scoring among the league's centers this season. Seventh in assists, sixth in blocks, ninth in fg percentage, second in rebounding, and 4th in free throw shooting. There's a lot to like about those numbers, especially if you own Al Jefferson in a fantasy basketball league. But what really makes a good center?

I would hope that anyone reading this would be a smart enough basketball fan to realize that personal awards and statistical landmarks don't always equate to winning in professional basketball. I'm assuming I can work from here with this knowledge as a given. In my book, and in every fan's book I would hope, an NBA player's value should be placed on their ability to help their team win basketball games. The problem is that this idea is less quantitative than being able to say, "that guy averaged 20 and 10, so he is awesome." But whenever you look at a person's stats or value to a team that should be the bottom line. If you're not part of the solution (winning basketball games) you are part of the problem (no matter how many double doubles you get).

Al is statistically a top flight center. As a player, he is not good, if you are interested in winning basketball games. It would be easy to point out the fact that in his 6 years, teams with Al Jefferson finished with an average 34-48 regular season record. It would be easy to say that the Jazz, a perennial playoff team, since Deron WIlliams' entrance into the NBA, stumbled to a .500 record with Al Jefferson manning the center spot. But those arguments wouldn't present the whole truth, nor would they be fair, since we all know that Paul Millsap's increased role on the team and Raja Bell's refusal to believe he is aging, contributed to the Jazz's lackluster play this season as well.

The truth is that Al Jefferson manned a porous defense this season. In the 2940 minutes that Al Jefferson played this season the Jazz scored 110 points per 100 possessions and gave up 113.3 for a net loss of 3.3 points. In the 1035 minutes that Al Jefferson was on the bench, the Jazz scored 106.6 points per 100 possessions and gave up 106 for a net gain of 0.6 pts. So in truth Al Jefferson's presence on the court made the Jazz 3.4 points better offensively, but 7.2 points worse defensively. In the game of life, you win some you lose some, but in Al Jefferson's case, you win some, you lose twice as much. Al Jefferson's differential of a net loss of 7.2 points per 100 possessions defensively is the worst of any center in the league. If you are a top 5 center and especially if you are being paid near max money, like Al Jefferson is, you have to have a more positive impact on your team. You just must. And you can excuse Al Jefferson's defense by claiming that his offense makes up for it, but you have to remember that Al Jeffersons' presence on the court made the Jazz only 3 points better. His defense made them 7 points worse. To steal from Amar, Deron Williams was playing a zero-sum game, but Al has been playing a -3 sum one.

For reference Raja Bell's presence made the Jazz 4.5 points worse. And Paul Millsap, who is also maligned for his inability to defend, made the Jazz 2 points better defensively when he was on the floor as opposed to off of it.

Now if you think it is unfair to place so much blame on Al Jefferson, let's look at his effect on his previous team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves essentially gave Al Jefferson, their previous franchise player, to the Jazz for picks and Kosta Koufos' potential. The Wolves then spent that saved money on Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic and brought in rookie Wesley Johnson. Those were the major differences from the team in 2009-10 and this season. Al Jefferson was replaced by Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley. So you would guess that the offense or defense or both would suffer this season? No. The Wolves were actually 3 points better offensively per 100 possessions and 0.5 points better defensively last season than the year previous. They also won 2 more games. So the Minnesota Timberwolves, the laughing stock of NBA management, cut their salaries by about $6 million and got better statistically and productively. I'm only going to say this one time ever, but job decently done, David Kahn.

Furthermore, the 3 seasons that Al Jefferson was the main big man on Minnesota campus the team defense gave up at least 111 points per 100 possessions. The year before Al Jefferson was traded to the T-wolves that Minnesota team that managed to win 32 games, gave up 107 points on defense. And before Jefferson set foot in Utah, the Jazz, a team not known for their defense, gave up 107 points per 100 possessions in the previous 3 seasons. In Jefferson's first year with the Jazz? 110 points. Again, I repeat, when you make the most money on a team and are considered one of the best players, you have to make a more positive impact. Of course the poor team defense isn't all Al Jefferson's fault, but bad defense has been following poor Al around his whole career.

"Al is a beast offensively"

"Without Al, who on the Jazz scores?"

"You can't blame Al Jefferson for not passing to his teammates when they can't make an open shot."

I think that even the most die-hard Al Jefferson supporters would not argue that he is a good defender. I would hope not. But many Jazz fans argue that Al Jefferson is our best hope on offense. Al Jefferson's offense, unlike many others on the team, is more quantity than quality. Al jefferson led the Utah Jazz this season with a respectable 18.6 points per game. He also lead the team with 16.1 field goal attempts per game. If you know me, I value offensive production with a simple formula: points per shot attempt. It isn't a perfect formula for measuring offensive ability, but it is far superior to points per game. Al Jefferson scored 1.16 points per shot attempt. That actually places him as the Jazz's 7th most efficient scorer, although Derrick Favors and Jeremy Evans should probably be disqualified due to their limited shot attempts. But Andrei Kirilenko (1.37), Paul Millsap, (1.33) Devin Harris, (1.32) and Gordon Hayward, (1.31) all exceeded Al jefferson in offensive efficiency. Cj Miles was on par with big Al at 1.12.

I have full confidence in telling you that if any of the above mentioned players took 16 shots a game, they would score more than 18.6 points a game. Even Fes could probably muster 12 points on 16 shots. That is how the Jazz offense would improve without Al Jefferson. More offensively efficient players might get more shots.

In addition I would like to take you back to a great year. The year was 2003 and the Jazz had a team that started Carlos Arroyo, Deshawn Stevenson, Matt Harpring or Tom Gugliotta, Andrei Kirilenko, and Greg Ostertag. That team scored only 89 points a game, but they held opponents to 90. That team won 42 games and almost made the playoffs. They overachieved and for many of us it was one of the greatest years to be a Jazz fan. Maybe you prefer the Jazz to be two points worse than their opponents as long as they score over 90. I don't. The Jazz would improve enough defensively without Al Jefferson to make up for the loss of offense.

"But Al is the only guy who can create his own shot. That is why he is inefficient."

Al Jefferson is probably the best one on one player on the team right now, but luckily for the Jazz, basketball is a team game. We all praised Deron Williams for his ability to create his own shot and create shots for others, but we also lamented in the breakdown of the Jazz offense when Deron would try to do too much one on one play. We all know what the Jazz offense looks like when it is being run effectively. Everyone is making passes, everyone is setting hard screens and everyone is making sharp cuts, hopefully leading to layups and open midrange jumpers. Here is a question to consider. If the Jazz halfcourt offense were being run perfectly, how many field goal makes would be assisted? It's not a trick question. The answer is 100%. What we saw run on the offensive end this season was far far away from a crisp Jazz offense. Scouts talked about it in the stands, even when we were winning. Al Jefferson would be at his best finishing dunks and layups immediately off of passes, but instead we are treated to shoulder shimmies and a put-shot that has about a 40% chance of going in.

"Al got progressively better as the season continued. Just wait til next year and he will be a beast. He just needs one more year."

Al Jefferson played significantly better after the Deron Williams trade. He started to "get it" and understand the offense. Next year, it will get even better. I don't believe anything I just said. To his credit, Al Jefferson made some improvements, especially in rebounding, and had an especially effective February...for him. But what looked like an improvement in production, was really just an increase in touches and shot attempts. Jefferson went from 17 points and 9 rebounds in the first three months to averaging 24 and 10 in February and 24 and 11 in March. That is a huge improvement. The problem is that Al was taking only 14 shots a game in the first three months, but he took 18 a game and 20 a game in February and March respectively. More shots, just equaled more points. Channeling my inner Hubie Brown:

"we know that Al Jefferson, on the year, got you 1.15 points per shot attempt, which is about average. But in February, Jefferson was able to make that number balloon to 23.8 points on 18.3 shots or 1.3 points per shot attempt. Now that is a much improved number over the 1.15 average over the course of the year. However, Jefferson's 24 points a game in March came on a whopping 20 shots a game, or 1.17 points per shot attempt, right back at his average. He's a real fighter and one of the premiere big men in this league."

Thanks, Hubie. As Mr. Brown described, Al Jefferson had a nice February, but his scoring in March was really just due to taking 20 shots a game. Twenty shots a game! I guess we know what happened to the lion's share of Deron's shots he left behind when he went to Jersey. So was February a sign of things to come or a statistical outlier, a hot streak? I know a lot of you are hoping or believe it is a sign of things to come. But a lot of players in the league have one or two great months a season that they never build on. For instance, I never heard Jazz fans talk about CJ Miles' improvement over the course of the season. But CJ averaged 17 points a game in the month of March when he only averaged 12 points a game on the season. But due to his inconsistency, many Jazz fans want to see him gone and the Jazz aren't decided on picking up his $3.7 million option. The bottom line is that I will eat my Jazz draft cap, if Al Jefferson averages 1.3 points per shot attempt for the whole season next year. That is the type of efficiency the Jazz will need out of Al Jefferson to improve and for Al to live up to his bloated contract. And I'd like to remind you that even in his best month of the season, Al Jefferson's offensive efficiency wasn't as good as the year long averages of 5 of his teammates that get good playing time.

The other bottom line is that even though Al Jefferson had a much improved February, it had only a small impact on the team's play. The Jazz were 3-9 in February and 4-10 in March. On the year the Jazz averaged 104.9 points per 100 possessions and in February that number only improved to 105.8 and in March that number was back to the average 105. Increased points and shot attempts for Al Jefferson doesn't equal improved team offense. It makes perfect sense when you look at the efficiency numbers. Increased shots for just about any of the other rotation players not named CJ and Raja would improve the team offense much more.

"Al Jefferson wants to be in Utah. He was so excited to be here. You can't just dump him."

I think there is a part of all of us that feels really terribly for Al Jefferson. This isn't the situation he thought he was coming to. He really does want to play for a winner and now he isn't going to get the chance to for the next two years in Utah. The Jazz shouldn't feel bad at all about trading him for the good of the future. If the Jazz held onto every player that wanted to be here, they wouldn't ever be able to make trades. In fact, I can't think of one player on the team right now who doesn't genuinely want to be here, so I guess the Jazz can't make any trades.

"Trading Al Jefferson would be the right thing to do."

That's my quote. The Jazz gave up nothing of value other than draft picks to acquire Al Jefferson and that is exactly what the Jazz should be looking for in a trade of Al Jefferson: capspace and picks. I am not sure that Al Jefferson is who the Cleveland Cavaliers were hoping for, but the Cavs are a perfect trading partner for the Jazz from Utah's end. The Cavs have the 4th pick in the draft and a $14 million trade exception acquired in the Lebron James sign and trade. The problem is that I don't know if the Cavs want Al Jefferson. According to sources and logic, they do want Enes Kanter with the 4th pick. But let's play the scenario game. Let's say the Jazz tell the Cavs that they are going to draft Enes Kanter with the 3rd pick. The Cavs miss out on their guy and now the 4th pick isn't as valuable to Cleveland and so they trade the 4th pick and their trade exception to the Jazz for Al Jefferson. The Jazz can then draft Brandon Knight or Jan Vesely or Kemba Walker with the 4th pick. Hey, it's my dream scenario. I didn't say it was likely. But what if the Jazz prefer Brandon Knight, but don't make that known to Cleveland? They could trade Al Jefferson and the 3rd pick to the Cavs for their trade exception, the 4th pick and another asset, maybe the 32nd and 54th picks in 2011 or a second round pick in 2012. The Jazz can then take their preferred player all along in Knight, dump Jefferson's contract and acquire more picks. Then the Jazz have actual cap space once the new CBA is settled and they are players for Greg Oden or Nene Hilario or whoever they choose. I haven't thought that far, to be honest. But I do know how valuable cap space would be for the Jazz.

There are other trade scenarios that are less sexy, but would suffice. How about Al Jefferson to the Pacers for the 15th pick? It would take some maneuvering around the expiring CBA, but is possible. How about Al Jefferson to the Bobcats for Boris Diaw, Eduardo Najera and the 9th pick? Or even just Al Jefferson for Boris Diaw and Najera straight up. Like I said, possibilities and future financial flexibility.

I am also sure that the Jazz could trade Jefferson to the Warriors for Monta Ellis, but that trade would probably make me even sadder to be a Jazz fan.

The good news for Al Jefferson supporters

Al Jefferson isn't going anywhere. The Jazz aren't going to trade him for two reasons. One is that they would be admitting they made a mistake in trading for him. It would look bad, even if it was right. Secondly, the Jazz don't want to look like they are rebuilding. Trading Al Jefferson would take a huge swallowing of the front office's pride and even though Jazz fans have proven in the past that they will support bad teams, they probably fear the loss of ticket sales.

Or as a local radio personality told me when we were discussing Al Jefferson's deficiencies: "Who would trade for a center who is a horrible defender and will make $14 million next season."

I'm afraid he might be right, even though the Jazz were silly enough to do so, just 10 months ago.