The Pacers have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Al Jefferson to a three-year contract worth $30 million, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. Jefferson, 31, averaged 12 PPG and 6.4 RPG for the Hornets last season in the final year of a three-year, $41 million contract. The gifted low–post scorer missed 52 games over the last two seasons, and he’s one of the few players to agree to a deal that represents a pay cut over his previous contract so far during the 2016 free agency period.
This contract isn’t so much a win for the Pacers as it is a loss for Jefferson. Two years ago, the preps-to-pro big man averaged 20–10, earned All-NBA Third Team honors and looked poised to receive one final major payout once he hit the margin again. Instead, recurring injuries limited Jefferson’s effectiveness and forced coach Steve Clifford to deemphasize Jefferson’s role in the offense and shift him into a reserve role. With Charlotte’s offensive efficiency picking up considerably under its new spread style, Jefferson was no longer the franchise’s top priority. Rather than pound to an aging bruiser on the block, the Hornets shelled out the big money to Nicolas Batum, a younger and more versatile forward who is key to their new look on offense.
While the initial temptation to some observers might be to label Jefferson a steal, this deal is about right for a player who is clearly declining, has struggled to maintain good health and has enjoyed limited postseason success. Last season, Jefferson’s overall efficiency took a hit, he graded out as a clear minus defender, and he converted his post touches into points at a much lower rate than the top centers in this summer’s class.
In an ideal world, Jefferson will be used as a second-unit anchor, giving good minutes behind promising young center Myles Turner and power forward Thaddeus Young, an off–season trade acquisition. In that role, Jefferson’s tendency to slow down the offense and his weaknesses as a defender should be less glaring. From a style standpoint, though, new coach Nate McMillan will need to make some choices or find a way to strike a delicate balance. Indiana’s other major moves—trading for Jeff Teague and Young—seemed to signal a desire to play more fast and loose, but expecting Jefferson to keep up in that scenario is simply expecting too much.
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The major takeaway here is that Jefferson hit the market with terrible timing. He’ll get the chance to play meaningful minutes on a team with serious postseason aspirations, but he’ll do so for far less than seemed possible in the not too distant past. While Indiana’s somewhat modest investment is defensible, this signing won’t prove to be a game-changer unless Jefferson can recapture the scoring prowess he displayed upon his arrival in Charlotte.