BasketballInsiders.com’s Alex Kennedy joins CineSport’s Brian Clark to discuss the Indiana Pacers’ recent struggles and whether they can regroup to contend in the East.
Al Jefferson Deserves MVP Consideration
Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson deserves to be in the Most Valuable Player discussion. This sentence would’ve seemed like a joke before the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, but that was before Jefferson had the best season of his career and transformed the Bobcats from the laughingstock of the league into a playoff team.
Jefferson won’t finish ahead of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant or Miami HEAT forward LeBron James in MVP voting, but he certainly belongs in the conversation and deserves credit for his remarkable season. He also has a strong All-NBA argument.
When the Bobcats signed the 29-year-old to a three-year, $40.5 million deal last offseason, the move was a head-scratcher. Why was Charlotte splurging on a marquee free agent now? The 2014 draft class was expected to be one of the most talented in recent memory, so wouldn’t it make more sense to struggle for one more year and land a potential franchise-changing player? While it’s easy for people outside the organization to think like that, losing 120 of 148 games over two seasons took its toll on the franchise. The Bobcats were tired of their annual tradition of losing a ton of games, firing their head coach and selecting near the top of the draft. It was time for Charlotte to turn things around.
They brought in Jefferson to change the culture and give the team a go-to scorer, and he hasn’t disappointed. The big man has averaged 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and a block while shooting 50.5 percent from the field. In less than one season, Jefferson has already become the best player in franchise history. Charlotte has never really had a dominant offensive player, until now. Jefferson has more 25-point, 10-rebound games this season (13) than all other Bobcats’ players combined over the last four years (11). Jefferson is virtually unstoppable one-on-one and Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford has worked with the big man on scoring quickly before being double-teamed or passing out of those situations to create easy baskets for others. He has also emerged as the team’s leader, guiding young players like Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson among others.
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Throughout the season, Jefferson has tormented a number of teams. After Charlotte’s games, it’s common to hear opposing players and coaches vent about how they had no answer for the big man.
“Al Jefferson, no one on the planet can guard him,” Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce said. “We tried to double him, single, triple, there’s nothing we could’ve done with him tonight. He was in that type of zone, and that’s the way he’s been playing. It’s so surprising he didn’t make the All-Star team or even [be in the] MVP discussion. He’s one of the more underrated players in the game.”
“He’s ridiculously talented,” Portland Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez said. “He’s possibly the most skilled scorer at the center position right now.”
“He’s got to be one of the toughest, if not the toughest guy to guard in the post,” Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s very difficult to get any kind of read on.”
“Al’s pump fakes, which are maybe the best in the league, they’re ridiculous,” San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s still got that herky-jerky, unbelievably tough game to guard. He gets people off their feet constantly.”
“He’s one of the most effective low-post scorers in the league,” Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s really difficult to guard one-on-one, when you try to double him it creates opportunities for other guys and if you don’t he scores it efficiently. There aren’t a lot of guys like Al Jefferson in the league. He’s a game changer.”
“He’s a bad matchup for the entire league right now,” Detroit Pistons head coach John Loyer said. “We knew exactly what we was going to do – they ran the same plays they always run – but there’s not much you can do to stop him.”
The Bobcats managed to clinch a playoff berth over the weekend, just the second time in franchise history that Charlotte has participated in the postseason. The team currently sits in the East’s seventh seed with a 39-38 record. Not bad for a team that won 28 games combined over the last two seasons. Aside from the addition of Jefferson in the post and Clifford on the bench, the team is largely the same. Jefferson has made that much of a difference, giving the team a star and elevating the game of those around him.
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“He’s been nothing but amazing this year,” Walker said. “He just makes all of the right plays. He’s a great leader and that’s why we brought him here, to be our veteran leader and lead us to win basketball games. He’s been great with that. And when we get that man the basketball, nobody can stop him one-on-one. When guys double-team him, he always makes the right play and passes the ball out; he’s been great with that all year. We need to continue to get him the basketball and hopefully he can continue to make plays.”
Jefferson is thrilled to be in the postseason for just the third time in his career. The knock on Jefferson used to be that he put up big numbers on losing teams. He was considered a black hole on offense and a lousy defender, so he wasn’t viewed as a winner. That couldn’t be further from the truth this year. He’s glad to shake that reputation and lead Charlotte to the playoffs.
“It was important for us to get in,” Jefferson said. “From where we came from to where we are now, it’s an honor to be in the top eight teams in the East. It means a lot. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in the playoffs, but the work isn’t done. We still have a ways to go and we feel like we have a chance to move up [in the standings]. We’re not just trying to get to the playoffs and then get swept, we want to make some noise in the playoffs. Our work isn’t [over] for us. We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing since day one in training camp – staying together and fighting hard. This happened for us and the sky is the limit for what else can happen for us.
“I looked in some of them guys’ eyes – Kemba, MKG, those boys – and looking in their eyes I’ve seen something that I’ve never seen before; them boys were so happy that we clinched and you can just tell that they want more. And Coach does a good job keeping us in line. You would think we didn’t make the playoffs with the way Coach has been walking around here (laughs). But that’s the way it has to be to keep us hungry and keep us fighting. That’s not going to be a problem with the young boys. Them young boys proved a lot of people wrong this year. They stepped up when nobody thought they would, nobody outside of this locker room. I think they’re going to continue to climb.”
The Bobcats are happy to have Jefferson, and the feeling is mutual. He says that this team is different from the others he has played on throughout the course of his 10-year NBA career because the players are so close and able to communicate with one another.
“This is the only team that I’ve ever been a part of where everybody gets along. Everybody,” Jefferson said. “When we go out, everybody goes out. We go to dinner, talk, have fun and [joke] about each other. But we’re the first one to have each others’ back when we get out on that court. We fight hard. If I’m not doing something right in the game, Kemba can get on me and I take it. If Kemba isn’t doing something or Gerald isn’t doing something, we can get on them and everybody takes it and moves on. It’s nothing personal. And to me, that’s the way it has to be for you to have a chance. I mean, Gary Neal just got here and he’ll get on us like he’s been with us all season long (laughs). That’s how you have to be. That’s how great teams play together and win together, and that’s how we have to do it.”
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If the playoffs started today, the Bobcats would be matched up against the Indiana Pacers in the first round. That’s a good draw for Charlotte, considering Indiana is really struggling as of late and the Bobcats just defeated the Pacers by 22 points earlier this month. Jefferson says that regardless of their opponent, Charlotte is “playing to win” in the postseason and not backing down from anyone. The big man is particularly excited for the team’s playoff games at home in The Time Warner Cable Arena. Charlotte has won 23 games at home this season, and Jefferson can’t wait to play in front of the team’s fans in a playoff atmosphere.
“Our fans bring that energy that gets us through a lot of games,” Jefferson said. “It’s really good for the city of Charlotte, especially with the Hornets coming back next year, for us to make it to the playoffs. I can’t wait for Game 3. I know it’s going to be crazy here.”
The thought of the Bobcats playing in the postseason, just two seasons after posting a historically bad .106 winning percentage, is crazy as well. Jefferson is a big reason for that, and deserves some MVP love for his efforts.
Jefferson, Nowitzki Named Players of the Week
Speaking of Al Jefferson, he and Dirk Nowitzki today were named NBA Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for games played Monday, March 31, through Sunday, April 6.
Jefferson led the Bobcats to a 4-0 week, which saw them clinch their second playoff berth in franchise history. Jefferson averaged 24.3 points (fourth in the conference) on .481 shooting from the floor, to go along with13.0 rebounds (second in the conference) and 1.25 blocks (tied for fifth in the conference). On April 5, he recorded 24 points, including seven in overtime, to seal a 96-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the third time this season that Jefferson has staked claim to Player of the Week honors.
Nowitzki led the Mavericks to a 3-1 week, averaging 25.3 points (fourth in the conference) and 8.0 rebounds. He connected on 13-of-23 three-point attempts and his .565 shooting from behind the arc was good for seventh in the conference. On April 3, he had 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting and 11 rebounds to help the Mavericks to a 113-107 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Houston’s Omer Asik and James Harden, Miami’s LeBron James, New York’s J.R. Smith, Phoenix’s Gerald Green, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan.
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