Posted Jul 15 2010 12:07PM
One morning this autumn, Al Jefferson will fire up the Internet, visit his favorite Web site -- why, this one, of course! -- and see that his team has a bigger number under that "W" column than it has under the "L" column. He will blink, rub his eyes and feel some mixture of amazement and amusement.
One evening this winter, Jefferson will plant himself low, next to the paint -- and there won't be two guys in suits yelling at him from over on the bench, "Get out of there!" His bench. His position and his game instead will be met with tacit encouragement from Jerry Sloan, an NBA head coach who knows a thing or two about power forwards with bankable offensive skills. Jefferson will see Deron Williams, an elite point guard, dribbling the ball across halfcourt, calling for another pick-and-roll, and he will smile.
One day next spring, Jefferson will be in a locker room or a gym and he will not be alone. It will be a "game on!" atmosphere in May -- players stretching, trainers taping, coaches scribbling on a white board and a video of his team's most recent game on the flat-screen. Huh? You can actually play the same opponent three, four, five times in a row? Jefferson will shake his head and maybe pinch himself.
If Dwyane Wade felt last week that Christmas came in July for him and the reconfigured Miami Heat, it should be noted that Santa's itinerary included a layover in Minneapolis. Jefferson, the affable, blue-collar, immensely skilled power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves, found a bow wrapped around a gift he didn't even have on his wish list: Freedom.
A complete, unabridged set of freedoms, in fact, thanks to the trade that shipped him to the Utah Jazz: Freedom from confusion about his place in Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis' pet triangle offense. Freedom from yet another rebuilding plan -- Jefferson's teams have unveiled about 13 of those since he got to the NBA, no small feat considering he's logged only six pro seasons. Freedom, most of all, from losing.
First with the Boston Celtics, who drafted him out of Prentiss High School with the 15th pick in 2004, and then with the Timberwolves, Jefferson experienced losing like few others in the modern NBA. At age 20, as a rookie, he got a tease of the playoffs with the Celtics in 2005, followed by a plunge into the red ink of the NBA standings. His teams over six seasons were a cumulative 166 games under .500. He played for four head coaches -- Doc Rivers, Randy Wittman, Kevin McHale, Rambis -- in a span of less than three years.
Now Jefferson is headed to the NBA's equivalent of Stonehenge, a rock of stability, where winning is expected and playoff dates are scribbled in pen, not pencil. Utah, during Jefferson's career elsewhere, was 54 games over .500 with only one losing season and three first-place finishes in the Northwest Division. In Sloan, the Jazz have had the same head coach not just since Jefferson has been in the league -- they've had the same head coach since before Big Al turned 3 years old.
No wonder he was in such ebullient spirits upon touchdown in Salt Lake City.
"It's a wonderful feeling, man. It's a wonderful feeling," Jefferson said, as quoted in the Deseret News, upon being met Wednesday night at the airport by balloons, banners and Jazz fans and staffers, including CEO Greg Miller. "I'm glad to be here. I'm happy to [get] a chance to finally play with a great team, a playoff team."
Minnesota figures to be a playoff team too -- if Jefferson plays as long as Sloan has coached. OK, that's too harsh, but the Wolves' timeline clearly was out of sync with their best player's. David Kahn, the team's impresario of basketball operations, acknowledged that after dealing Jefferson for two conditional first-round Draft picks and a bundle of additional salary-cap space. Kahn sounded legitimately sincere in doing Jefferson something of a favor by sending him to the Jazz.
"I think he will have a huge year for Utah," Kahn said. "He's poised for big things. So I know it's coming. But the trajectory of our team is such that, we're at least a couple of years away.
"Al has been on teams that have struggled since he stepped into the league ... Utah will be a great place for him. They're stable, they're solid, they've got Deron Williams and some other very good players, and of course Jerry Sloan."
Minnesota, in shedding a 25-year-old with 20-points, 10-rebound capability, actually got younger. Its oldest player in Ryan Hollins (25), its fattest salary belongs to newly acquired Michael Beasly ($4.96 million). Beasley's arrival this week, on top of the existing positional overlap between Jefferson and Kevin Love, made Jefferson and the $42 million left on his contract especially expendable. Some critics feel that the Wolves got too little for their best player, but then, Kahn had been saying since he was hired in the 2009 offseason that on a playoff contender, Jefferson would need to be the second-best player.
Well, now he is, behind Jazz playmaker Williams. The key guy for Minnesota in the blockbuster Kevin Garnett trade is gone less than three years since that trade was made (so are the other four players -- Theo Ratliff, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green -- in that deal, with only 2009 Draft picks Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington still around). Meanwhile, Kahn continues to churn the roster for a vision that's way, way down the road, over the next hill and then barely a speck on that horizon.
The Jazz's plans are more imminent. That's why they pounced with their trade exception on Jefferson, who will be 18 months removed from ACL surgery and rehab by the start of training camp. With his bulk down low, his array of low-post maneuvers, an improving face-up game and an interest in defense expected to grow under Sloan, Jefferson should be on his way at least to All-Star snub status this season.
"It's a little early to be projecting where we might win," Miller told reporters. "I think the best approach for us to take as a franchise is just to be competitive."
That had looked a little shaky after Utah lost Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver as free agents to the Chicago Bulls. Even Williams was cranky about it, sending fears through Jazz fans of an even more troubling free-agent defection in the near future. But adding Jefferson and defensive ace Raja Bell in rapid succession has some folks thinking Utah will take a step forward this season, not backward.
It already has Jefferson waking up wondering, "Is this heaven?"
No, Big Al, it's Utah.
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