Al Jefferson injured; The bigger picture

Getty Images - Brock Williams-Smith

Getty Images – Brock Williams-Smith

Late last night Rick Bonnell reported that the Hornets would be without Al Jefferson for at least four weeks due to a muscle strain in his left groin. This is obviously very difficult news for the team and it’s fans, but whoever thought Big Al would play anywhere close to 82 games this season was kidding themselves.

Charlotte is off to a disheartening 10-22 start to the season, and already seemed somewhat of a long-shot to make the post-season even before this Jefferson injury – now it may be time for the front office to look at the 2014-’15 season through a different lens. This presents an opportunity for some of the young front-court pieces to be showcased, it allows the Hornets to play a different style (especially offensively), and it introduces the idea of Charlotte possibly being a seller at the trade deadline.

Bismack Biyombo will become the starting center tonight in Houston, and although he is no Al Jefferson on the low-block, he will open doors for the team to play differently on both ends. Biz’ overall understanding of the game + ball skills are still far from polished, but he has shown some real improvements in spot minutes this season. He’s a spring-chicken compared to Jefferson and should be able to allow Hornets to extend their defense if Clifford so chooses to – containing high PnR’s at the point-of-attack would be one easy example, instead of sagging below the action with the big as the team does consistently with Jefferson. Charlotte will now have a legitimate rim-protecter (1.3 BlkPG in just 14 MPG) hanging out in the paint to clean up the mess which will allow the wings to deny passing lanes and stay more connected to their guys. This style of play on the defensive end should lead to the Hornets playing quicker offensively – when defenses are extended and counting on their bigs to clean up parties at the rim, they’re in position for fast-break opportunities.

The absence of Jefferson will also showcase the birth of Cody Zeller playing some minutes at center. Again, it will give team much more versatility with the mobility of their big, which can theoretically change the style of play on both ends. Noah Vonleh was immediately called back up to Charlotte after announcement of the injury and may finally be able to carve out some minutes in the Hornets rotation.

It’s doubtful that Clifford will commit less bodies to the defensive glass to aid fast-break chances, or even emphasize help-defense less now that he has a rim-protector, but it’s food-for-thought – especially when the style I’m mentioning likely fits his new core appropriately.

Aside from a different style of play, the bigger picture here is likely the roster and how it will be constructed in the next 7 months.

1) Clifford can stick to his guns while the front-office supports him, continue to coach the style of basketball that led Charlotte to a 7th seed in the east last season, and just try to tread water until the return of Jefferson.

2) Clifford and the front-office can together start to really look at the future of this core and begin to ask themselves if it’s time to punt on the season – here me out. Adjust the aforementioned style-of-play up a bit, showcase some of your young talent to either truly develop these guys, or look to audition them in hopes of having an asset at the trade deadline/next summer. In other words, it may be time to put all the cards on the table and not say anything/anyone is “untouchable” – Just so it’s in the open, I think Kemba Walker is truly the only player on this roster that’s not for sale. For the right price everyone else should be.

- MKG probably has highest value of the youth on this roster, with Noah Vonleh a close second.

- Cody Zeller has made major strides, and be certain that teams would listen if he’s involved in discussion.

- Gary Neal is on an expiring contract and playoff teams would fight-’til-the-death to add a scoring spark like him.

- Gerald Henderson is on a user-friendly $6mil deal this year, and next is worth the same if he elects to pickup his player option.

- Al Jefferson would even potentially be an option for post-season teams in need of low-post scoring help if they believe in him staying healthy and he commits to re-signing (player option – $13.5mil) for next season. The team says Al is “untouchable”, but I just can’t see them scoffing at the right offer.

In short, the Hornets have some options and it’s time they start seriously looking at them. Al Jefferson turns 30 next week, and he’ll likely opt-in to his player option worth $13.5mil next season. Just not sure how excited I would be in discussing a new contract with a 31-year old big with injury concerns – and how willing would Big Al be to taking a pay-cut to stay in Charlotte? Yeah, probably not happening.

You can mull these ideas and discuss them this evening with your fondest guest as you over-indulge before we welcome in 2015. Give me your thoughts.

Rich Cho and the front-office have done a great job in turning a historically bad roster into a playoff contender within just a matter of years, but the ceiling of this core has clearly revealed itself, and if this franchise wants to avoid returning to the middle-earth of the NBA – mediocrity – then it better start picking up the phone and seeing what’s to be had out there.