Should the San Antonio Spurs Pursue Al Jefferson?
By Ian Smith
With the possible retirement of Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs look to initiate a wide search for a replacement. Whether it comes internally, through the draft, through free agency, or through a trade remains to be seen.
There are plenty of quality centers on the free agent market, and while he may not warrant top consideration, Al Jefferson could be a nice alternative option if some other choices don’t work out.
Jefferson has had a relatively quiet career, not so much due to his production, but due more to the circumstances of how he has gone about putting up his impressive numbers.
In his 12 NBA seasons, Jefferson has only made the playoffs 4 times, and he has never advanced out of the first round. His nearly 17 points per game and 9 rebounds per game career averages line up with those considered superstars (or at least stars), yet he’s left out of most discussions regarding premier players in the league.
It’s a common problem for star players who lead squads that never achieve much collective success.
With the perennial success and constant championship contention of the Spurs, Jefferson would get acknowledged on a different stage than he’s used to occupying.
Jefferson’s talent was well documented even early in his career, and he was thought of highly enough to become the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade back in 2007.
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While high-profile deals like that are almost doomed to brand the other pieces as simply accessories to the alteration of league history, Jefferson has done his part to ensure that his NBA legacy goes beyond just being traded for a legendary player.
Interestingly enough, he has never spent more than 3 seasons on one team, acting as somewhat of a nomad of prolific talent, failing to stay long enough in any given place to immerse himself in the lore of a franchise. It’s likely that the peculiar streak of brief stays will continue, as Charlotte isn’t expected to make a powerful effort to retain his services.
He has played for the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, and Charlotte Hornets (one of those years in Charlotte was as a Bobcat), and put up solid numbers at each stop.
He was only a primary starter for 1 season in Boston, but his stints in each previous location were noteworthy. He managed to put up star numbers without ever becoming indispensable to a team’s vision for the future.
In Minnesota, Utah, and Charlotte, he had at least 1 season averaging over 19 points per game and at least 1 season averaging over 9 rebounds per game. His success has been prolonged, but without much league-wide recognition.
He has never been an All Star, yet made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014. Players on losing teams often need super-inflated statistics to garner All Star selections over their peers playing in more significant games, but Jefferson has never been able to radiate his aptitude around the basketball world to the extent of donning an All Star jersey.
Jefferson looks like a player whose game would be suited well to a bygone era of bruising interior play. Big men around the league today are often tagged with the “soft” label if they prefer to do their damage from the perimeter, but there is nothing finesse about Jefferson. He’s listed at 6’10’’ and 289 LBS, and brings strength to both the power forward and center position.
He prefers to work in the paint to score his points, but he’s more than adept at stepping outside the paint and knocking down midrange jumpers. Paired with LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs would have two big men who’d keep their defenders honest by stretching them outside the painted area to honor their midrange game.
Jefferson has long been one of the fiercest rebounders in the league. Among active players, Jefferson ranks 14th in total rebound percentage, and 8th in specifically defensive rebound percentage. He’s not quite as prolific on the offensive glass at this stage of his career, though.
The good news with analyzing Jefferson’s output is that it doesn’t seem to hint of any significant decline in his total rebound percentage. He has been pretty consistent throughout his career. While in his mid-to-late 20s he hovered in the 16-17% range for total rebound percentage, his last two seasons in Charlotte have seen him settle around 15%.
While there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that percentage jumping back up to where it was in his prime, a precipitous drop-off doesn’t appear to be looming around the corner. It seems to be due to natural aging more than anything else. Jefferson will be 32 next season.
Another interesting statistical pattern is that the decline in his total rebounding percentage is almost entirely tied to his decrease in offensive rebounds and not defensive rebounds.
In his last 3 seasons, his defensive rebound percentage was at 1.5 points higher than his career total. His offensive rebound percentage those 3 seasons, however, was nearly 3 percentage points lower than his career average.
The Spurs should know what they’re signing up for with Jefferson: he remains an impressive defensive rebounder, but he’ll probably continue to erode as an offensive rebounding source.
On defense, Jefferson has improved since first entering the league, but he’s still a liability. He’s not good at defending pick-and-rolls, lacking the nimble feet required.
His offensive repertoire of post moves is meant to offset any blatant defensive weaknesses he has, at least with some teams willing to overlook his flaws.
The Spurs aren’t a team that neglects defensive ability, though, and whether Jefferson can be salvaged on defense at this point in his career is dubious at best.
Another huge concern with Jefferson is his injury history. He missed significant time last season with a right knee injury. The season before that, it was an adductor injury. The season before that, it was a right ankle injury.
He also suffered a torn ACL during the 2008-2009 season, as well as other various ailments during his career involving mainly his knees and ankles. He always seems to be a high injury risk for whatever reason, making an investment in him an uneasy bet.
Jefferson is a fantastic inside scorer and rebounder, but his bad defense combined with his history of serious injuries impedes him from being prioritized by the Spurs over players like Kevin Durant, Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Mike Conley, or Joakim Noah.
The Spurs will likely have the cap space to sign one marquee player, and although Jefferson has his positive traits, there are too many concerns to feel confident in giving him a large contract over safer options.
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Jefferson is one of the most talented post players on offense in the NBA, but his glaring deficiencies should keep the Spurs at a safe distance. They should return to him as an option if other avenues are exhausted without success, but only for the right price.