When the Charlotte Hornets lured Al Jefferson away from the Utah Jazz with a three-year, $40.5 million contract two summers ago, it was a necessary first step in the rebuilding process. Jefferson would be their rock, the focus of an offense that lacked identity, talent and, most importantly, respect.
Now, after two years of 19 points and 10 boards, 50 percent shooting and completely unacceptable defense from a position that demands competence, a $13.5 million player option is all that stands in Jefferson's way of re-entering unrestricted free agency this summer.
Should he pick it up, play one more season with a supporting cast that can't accentuate his skill-set, then become a free agent in 2016 when the cap spikes and teams have way more money to spend? Or should he opt out, test this summer's market and try and get one last long-term payday before the weaknesses in his game further clash with the contemporary NBA's fashionable pace-and-space style?
It's a fascinating conundrum. Ideal centers must do several things: rebound, protect the rim, move their feet on the perimeter to corral/switch onto smaller ball-handlers, set screens, dive towards the basket and either finish above the rim or suck help defenders in off the three-point line. Knocking down a 15-foot jumper (or, lord willing, the occasional corner three) makes everything all the better.
Going forward, Jefferson probably checks off, what, two of these boxes? Instead, what he's really good at is a lost and increasingly unnecessary art form. Entering the ball into the post doesn't mean what it used to. Strategically, it's from a different era, when the three-point line was undervalued along with guards who can knife into a defense's stomach then kick the ball out to an open teammate.
While post-ups remain useful -- by forcing unwanted double teams -- guys who only isolate are dinosaurs -- and Jefferson is chief among them. Despite missing 17 games this year, no player posted up more often than Charlotte's best offensive player. He's still crafty and never turns it over, but, rising cap aside, what smart NBA team will give Jefferson a long-term, eight-figure contract?
That ship has likely set sail in Charlotte. After looking like a team on the rise in 2013-14, the Hornets crashed and burned, missing the playoffs with, to date, 10 fewer wins than a year ago. Lengthy injuries to Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jefferson did them no favors, but even when healthy, none of the three were able to lift Charlotte's bottom-three offense from the muckiest of mucks.
Are there any other buyers for Jefferson, though? The situations that make sense are ones similar to what Charlotte looked like back in 2013 -- rebuilding; in need of a dependable, proven offensive weapon -- or a team that's already competitive and could use reinforcements off the bench. Teams in the former must be willing to sacrifice their young core's development in favor of a player who can't do much without the ball in his hands.
Would a big-market Goliath like the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers do it for the sake of making something of a splash? Probably not. The Oklahoma City Thunder would be an interesting suitor, if they had any cap space.
Jefferson needs certain players around him to succeed. That includes shooters at every position -- especially in the frontcourt -- and defenders up and down the roster who can keep the ball in front of them. He isn't scaring anybody at the rim, so a supplementary shot-blocking menace needs to be around, too.
And that's the biggest elephant in the room. For all the contextual necessities Jefferson's offensive skills demand, he can't play a lick of defense. This isn't news. Young bull fighters interested in perfecting their craft should study how Jefferson deals with oncoming ball handlers. His footwork and anticipation are impeccable.
Per SportVU, opponents shoot 54.7 percent at the rim when Jefferson is within five feet of them. That's worse than Kevin Love, Jared Sullinger and Dirk Nowitzki.
Much is made of his ineffectiveness in the paint, but Jefferson may be even more of a catastrophe away from the basket. He's a statue. Opponents are 11.8 percent more accurate on shots 15 feet and further from the basket when Jefferson's guarding them, mostly because he physically can't contest any shots. Venturing too far from the basket leaves him vulnerable, which is to say he has nowhere to hide.
This all stinks. Jefferson is a gentle giant, one of the NBA's nicer humans and overall a really wonderful person. For all the stuff we can't quantify, Jefferson's value skies through the roof as a beneficial locker room presence and leader of young people trying to succeed at life.
He also only turned 30! Despite nearly 11 years of action that included one torn ACL, several ankle injuries and a recent bout with plantar fasciitis, it still feels too soon for a player this talented to subside at an age when he should instead enjoy his prime.
Either Jefferson takes a pay cut and accepts a much smaller role on a confident team that can fold him into what they already are (a la the Dallas Mavericks with Amar'e Stoudemire) or, well, Door B probably leads to more sadness -- Jefferson's only started only seven playoff games in his entire career.
But not everybody's cut out for an uptempo NBA. And nobody's winning with Jefferson as one of their two highest paid players.