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Al Jefferson to sign with Bobcats for 3 years, $41 million

Well, it happened. After a week of rumors, Al Jefferson is reportedly set to sign a three-year contract worth $41 million, reports ESPN’s Marc Stein. The deal will have a player option that allows Jefferson to opt out after the second year. As expected, Tyrus Thomas will be amnestied to make the numbers work, according to NBA.com’s David Aldridge.

A lot of the conversation around this signing has been pitched as “winning” vs. “tanking,” but that’s a simplification. While he’ll provide the team a low-post scorer they’ve lacked for years, there are very real reasons to be hesitant about giving Jefferson this kind of money. Here’s how Grantland’s Zach Lowe described his game earlier in the year:

We have almost a decade of evidence now that Jefferson’s failings on defense outweigh his very real value on offense. His teams have generally been worse with him on the floor than with him on the bench, and that’s been true on the defensive end in almost every season in which he’s played meaningful minutes, per NBA.com and 82games.com. Let’s be clear: He is a valuable offensive player, even though he shoots just 49 percent, rarely gets to the line, and does little out of the pick-and-roll. There’s value in an automatic double-team who never turns it over, and Jefferson has been one of the league’s best crunch-time scorers for years.

That’s what the Bobcats will be getting for $13.6 million a year. You can decide whether that’s worth it.

The positive: Charlotte really, really does need some low-post scoring. The team ranked dead last in FG% on shots within five feet of the rim last year, and were 28th out of 30 in shots from five to nine feet. Jefferson’s main talent lies in those areas. Here’s last year’s shot chart:

Another bonus: if he maintains his TRB% from last year, he’ll immediately become the team’s best rebounder. That’s another area of weakness, as the Bobcats ranked 29th in defensive rebounding last year.

Now, the negative: Defense, defense, defense. Last year, the Jazz posted a defensive rating of 107.6 when Jefferson was on the court. When he was off it? That number dropped to 98.4. Part of that was playing in front of Enes Kanter, whose main value comes on that end, but it’s still sobering.

If you want a silver lining here, it’s that the Bobcats were already terrible on defense. The team was last in defensive rating, and the post play of Byron Mullens and Bismack Biyombo had a lot to do with that. If Jefferson represents an improvement on offense while keeping the defense “steady,” that’s still progress. We may even get a marginal improvement on D with new coach Steve Clifford’s schemes.

Jefferson’s contract isn’t a positive, but I wouldn’t call it a disaster. It’s a clear overpay, and you could easily argue that the money was better spent elsewhere. But it’s short, doesn’t significantly tie up the team’s cap space moving forward, and expires when the team will start committing serious money to their young guys. Jefferson has enough perceived value that the contract could eventually be moved, as well.

Some other scattered thoughts:

— In the short term, a Zeller-Jefferson frontcourt projects to be a defensive sieve. Zeller doesn’t have the strength to defend one-on-one down low at this point, and Jefferson’s issues on that end were covered above. It’ll be interesting to see where Biyombo fits in; while he’d help protect with shotblocking playing next to Jefferson, spacing would be nonexistent with an MKG/Bismack/Jefferson frontcourt.

GM Rich Cho, on Friday: “We’re a running basketball team, and [Zeller] fits that.” While Jefferson is a slow-footed big man more comfortable operating out of the post, this doesn’t necessarily mean the death of that idea. Jefferson’s teams have played at an above-average pace in seven of his nine years in the league. That said, I wouldn’t expect to see him do much in transition. Pushing the ball upcourt will be everyone else’s job.

— This pretty much taps out the Bobcats in free agency. We should still see Gerald Henderson re-sign, and there will be a few more marginal pick-ups, but this could mean saying goodbye to Josh McRoberts. It just depends on what the market is like for him.