There are at least 41 million reasons why, but Al Jefferson cites another one to explain why he is playing in Charlotte on a team firmly aimed at the Eastern Conference playoffs despite its losing record.
He explains it this way:
“I wanted to do the unthinkable,” he said.
For a guy who has made the playoffs just twice in his first nine NBA seasons, the unthinkable was signing with a Bobcats team that won fewer games in two seasons combined — including a 7-59 record in that 66-game labor lockout season — before he arrived after he signed a three-year, $41 million free-agent contract last summer.
“What I did a lot of guys probably wouldn’t do,” he said. “Come to one of the worst teams in the league last year and help turn them around. That was something I wanted to do. I feel if I come here and things go great, it’s something everybody will remember.”
A team that won barely 10 percent of its games two seasons ago and 26 percent of them last season approached the .500 mark after the Bobcats beat the Wolves on Friday night for the ninth win in the past 13 games.
Jefferson is the biggest reason why.
He missed nine games in November because of an arthritic ankle and didn’t fully recover until January. Since then, he is one of two players in the NBA who are averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds a game.
The other: Kevin Love.
The two played together in Minnesota for two seasons until then president of basketball operations David Kahn traded Jefferson away to Utah in July 2010 after he decided the two couldn’t play defensively together.
“That guy is good,” said Charlotte teammate Luke Ridnour, who played three seasons with Love in Minnesota and joined the Bobcats last month in a trade-deadline deal with Milwaukee. “I didn’t know how good he was. I always knew he was good, but night in and night out … he’s got an old man’s game. Al’s tough, Kevin’s so good, I think they would have been great together: One spread guy, one dominant big. I can’t believe they didn’t stick them together longer.”
Jefferson played two seasons in Utah and became an unrestricted free agent last summer, five years after the Wolves acquired him as the centerpiece in the Kevin Garnett trade and signed Jefferson to a $65 million contract.
He thought the apparently unthinkable and signed last summer to play in Charlotte, a team so like some of the lousy teams he played on but in a place not all that different from where he grew up in Mississippi.
“This probably feels more like home than any other city I’ve played in,” said Jefferson, who counts Boston, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City as his three NBA homes.
At age 29, he is playing like it as the low-post player with a million moves through whom the Bobcats’ offense operates, just like it did with the Wolves, particularly when Kevin McHale coached him for a few fleeting months before Jefferson sustained a season-ending injury in February 2009.
“I like it, inside-out basketball, it works for me,” Jefferson said. “I don’t mind the offense going through me. But they’re also teaching me to make my teammates better around me.”
Bobcats rookie coach Steve Clifford has insisted that Jefferson exert himself defensively and pass the ball, qualities Jefferson displayed too infrequently earlier in his career.
“We haven’t had to say too much to him,” Clifford said. “He’s highly competitive. He has such a unique game, but none of this would matter unless he didn’t badly want to do well. He wants to win. That to me has been as much a part of his success as anything.”