CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Al Jefferson sits at his locker, following a surprising season-finale overtime win over the Bulls, talking about the playoffs. And you can’t help but wonder what he’s doing.
He’s in boxer shorts and a dress shirt and already putting on high-top shoes.
"What about your pants, Al?" a reporter asks.
Big Al offers a wide, familiar smile and proceeds to explain his pants are just big enough in the leg area to get his tennis shoes through; and if he puts his pants on first, the pants will get wrinkled while he sits back down to put on shoes.
That’s Big Al — always unconventional, always seeing things before they happen, always explaining the method to his madness.
For that reason, it’s fitting that he ended up in Charlotte.
In the 1980s, businessman/Hornets team owner George Shinn believed a small- to mid-market city like Charlotte could actually thrive and support its NBA team with sustainable enthusiasm.
And now, the current incarnation of NBA/Charlotte (the expansion Bobcats were born in 2005) — after years of rebuilding through the draft — are in the playoffs.
That movement toward respectability was accelerated last summer, when the Bobcats inked Jefferson to a three-year, $40 million contract. The prevailing thought: Will the club still be bad enough to get a high-lottery pick for the 2014 draft — supposedly one of the deepest in recent years?
The answer was no … as in, No, the Bobcats were no longer content to be in the lottery; and No, they weren’t just blowing smoke last fall, harboring public ambitions to reach the postseason.
In Jefferson, the Bobcats found an undervalued star in an NBA climate that supposedly deters stars from signing with small- to mid-market teams.
It’s what the Detroit Pistons tried to achieve with Josh Smith — a signing that looks bad after just one deplorable season.
In the NBA, All-Star-caliber free agents are seemingly only attracted to glitz-and-glamour teams and/or cities — particularly big-market clubs with win-now rosters already in place.
Charlotte had neither at the time; and yet, Jefferson took a chance on the Bobcats.
"Charlotte (has) always been one of my favorite cities. I’m not the type of guy to look at markets," Jefferson said. "I look at the team and do they have a chance to win? And that’s what I saw when I came here."
Not many saw what Jefferson saw. But not many anticipated just how good Jefferson would be, either. After the signing, team president Rod Higgins talked about how low-post scoring in the NBA comes at a premium … and no one does that better than Jefferson.
Despite that, the perennial 18 & 10 player had never made an All-Star game. He was always overlooked during his previous nine seasons (Celtics, Timberwolves, Jazz). And he was largely ignored with the Bobcats, as well, despite averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds.
As such, Jefferson won’t be surprised if he’s left off the All-NBA teams, too.
"Of course it would be great to make it. Something I’ve never done, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if I don’t," Jefferson said. "This season, as far as making the All-Star game, it didn’t happen, but what we’ve done as a team is all I care about."
His coach, Steve Clifford, values Jefferson’s contributions and overall impact with a club fostered a 21-game improvement, compared to last season.
That’s not a coincidence. That’s Jefferson and that’s what low-post scoring can do for an offense. Over just one season, the Bobcats have transformed from a perimeter-based to inside-outside club.
"It’s real different this year. We’re playing inside-out now. We just play off of Al. We play off of him, and trust in him to make the right plays and right passes and every night he does," said point guard Kemba Walker. "He gets double teams and he finds his teammates and if not, he just goes in and scores."
Carlos Boozer had a simpler explanation of how the Bobcats present a different matchup with Jefferson roaming the paint, compared to previous years.
"He’s the reason they made the playoffs," Boozer said.
Jannero Pargo was shooting on a corner basket toward the exit of the Bobcats’ practice gym one day, approached him from afar, before willingly getting into a defensive stance.
Pargo dribbled a couple times, flashed a smile, and then pulled the old streetball move of tossing the ball off Jefferson’s forehead. (Never mind that Big Al had seven stitches on his forehead.)
Pargo then let the ball roll away as he cackled laughing. Jefferson pretended to be faux angry for a second and then flashed a smile.
Asked about that incident afterward, Jefferson laughed: "You know when the camera was off, I kind of roughed him up a little bit."
That’s been their dynamic all year. The two had never played together before, leading Jefferson to believe that Pargo was "an A-hole" from their time on the court, as opponents. But now, they’re two of the tightest members of the Bobcats.
Pargo teases Jefferson about him not being athletic and Jefferson’s always got a comeback.
"It’s just a joy to be around a guy that’s always positive, always upbeat, always happy," Pargo said.
Leadership had never really fallen to Jefferson in previous seasons with the Jazz, but his arrival to Charlotte dropped all the responsibility in his lap. Walker has always been a floor general, but Jefferson — the prized center in free agency — was acquired to carry the offense and lead the young Bobcats.
"He’s a tough leader. Sometimes he’s a bit too tough. I think it’s OK to be intense and be tough and be hard because you have to be like that as the captain and leader. You have to be strong, but I also think you have to give some credit where credit is due," Pargo said. "This is first time being as vocal as he is, so I think he’s learning on the fly; and I think he can only get better."
That’s the juggle: Jefferson doesn’t take life too seriously off the floor. But on the court, he expects perfection.
"I mean, it’s been a major challenge for me, but it is my role. And it’s good to have guys like [Pargo] and other veterans around who know what it takes and what you have to do. Sometimes it’s good to be very demanding," Jefferson said. "It’s a challenge for me, and I’ve learned a lot this year and hoping to get better over the years."
In an interview with Grantland last summer, Jefferson said it "ain’t a secret around the league" that he struggles with defense. Subsequently, some believed the Bobcats’ miserable defense from last season — 29th in the league in points allowed (102.7) — could actually regress more with Jefferson manning the middle.
But that’s probably the most shocking aspect of this team. The playoff berth — with John Wall healthy, Detroit, Cleveland and Brooklyn making offseason moves, and Miami, New York, Indiana and Atlanta returning key pieces — was shocking.
Nevertheless, Charlotte’s defense ranks 6th in the NBA in points per possession and 4th in points allowed (97.1).
Jefferson says, "No matter how good or great I am on the block, if I’m scoring 25 points a night and giving up 25, it evens out. I just know that we gotta get stops."
Clifford has done his part to help, too. His defensive scheme has pushed Jefferson back into what amounts to almost a zone on the high pick and roll, not letting him hedge on the ball.
This strategy gives up the pick-and-pop jumper to big men but allows Jefferson to stay between the basket, the ball and his man.
On baseline pick and rolls, he also drops back in the zone behind the screen, forcing the ballhandler to the baseline to give the defender time to recover and him time to get back to his man.
As a result, teams can’t exploit his lack of foot speed anymore. It’s the same way the Bulls hide Carlos Boozer in their defense.
"Don’t get me wrong, his defense is not great. I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke. It’s not great but itâs much better," Pargo said. "And I think it’s our defensive scheme and him just putting in the effort trying to get better defensively."
Against certain big men, Clifford has asked Jefferson to get up higher on the pick-and-roll to keep from getting burned by excellent shooting bigs. That’s why Miami — Charlotte’s first-round opponent — was such a worse matchup than Indiana or Toronto.
"(Jefferson has) gotten a lot better moving his feet, and his help-side rotation is pretty early now," Walker says.
Joakim Noah, the likely favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, can only shake his head when asked about Big Al. Sure, Noah had just held Jefferson to a 4-for-14 effort from the floor (on Wednesday), but Jefferson finished with 10 points, 18 rebounds, three assists and two steals and escaped with the win.
"I have a lot of respect for Big Al, the way he plays. I think he’s the best there is in the post," Noah said. "He’s definitely the best in the post."
But how does the 6-foot-10, 289-pound center do it? He’s not a leaper and is constantly giving up height and length to opposing post players.
"There’s a number of things about him: He’s always balanced and he can pivot off either foot," Clifford said. "But the thing that stands out to me is he’s so quick. He’s so quick."
And that quickness comes with a Swiss Army knife of post moves with it. Most big men in the league if you take away their primary post move, they won’t have a count.
But not Jefferson.
His go-to move — the right hook — is "more of a floater," Jefferson says. He developed it in 8th grade. It’s been his favorite weapon over time. His grandmother always told him, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."
"When I’m really feeling good, I can shoot it from 15 to 17 feet," he says, emitting laughter from a reporter.
"No, Seriously!" he counters.
And defenders can’t camp on it either. Camp on it and he’ll hit you with his patented pump fake, which looks identical to his floater hook — using only one hand to make the fake. Even Noah left his feet completely twice, flying past Jefferson to try to block what was just a fake.
Of course, teams have tried to bring help from different areas to contain Jefferson’s array of moves. Sometimes coaches have brought it from the weakside, hoping the primary defender will be able to sit on his hook and the defender will arrive in time for the counters.
Other teams, they allow the double-teamer to dig down directly off the entry pass, hoping the Bobcats shooters wouldn’t make them pay. Other coaches have even sent a dig from the opposing wing, and some even tried doubling Jefferson before the touch, but nothing has worked consistently.
"He’s a lot more versatile than he ever was before as far as his passing ability now," Noah said.
In his early years, Jefferson didn’t think anyone could stop him, even if they brought the double team. But as the game slowed down for him over the years, his evolution as a passer allowed him to get the ball back, at times, as defenses would scramble to rotate off that passes that kept teammates invovled.
"I’m actually making the passes [this year]. I’m not doing anything special," Walker said. "I’m making the simple pass — making it on time — and that’s been the difference."
That’s the stuff you can’t put a value on with Jefferson’s impact with the team — the stuff that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet.
That’s why there’s a premium on low-post scoring in the NBA and why Jefferson has the Bobcats back in the playoffs.