With recent rumors causing the Al Jefferson trade ideas to go from occasional to constant, I've noticed the language used in advocating the trades becoming increasingly emphatic. Lest it become accepted as universal fact that "We can never be contenders with Love and Jefferson," I submit my contrarian view, that keeping both Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, even after Love's salary must be upped to 8 figures, is a perfectly viable option and quite possibly the best one we've got.A few assertions I hold to be true:
1) You don't need a top 3 defense to win a championship. 50% of the NBA titles since 1974 have been won by teams with defensive efficiency ranked 4th or lower. Regardless of what popular adages would have you believe, the statistics show that a team with dominant defense/good offense is no more or less likely to success than one with dominant offense/good defense.
2) A team with a starting frontcourt of Love/Jefferson isn't forever doomed defensively. It will probably never be top 3, but it absolutely can be in the 4-10 range, as evidenced by the fact that teams featuring starting frontcourts of Ilyasova/Bogut, Green/Krystic, and Boozer/Okur currently are. This isn't even taking into account the likelihood of eventually adding a top-notch defensive C as the third member of the rotation. (More on that in a bit). The model we ought to be shooting for is the 2002 Kings, who as far as I'm concerned won the NBA title that year. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, educate yourself.) An elite offensive team, they managed to play the league's 6th tightest defense that year despite an unintimidating frontcourt of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac (to say nothing of the well-documented defensive shortcomings of fellow starters Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby). If you think the difference between us and a contender is that Love and Jefferson will never measure up to the defensive prowess of a Webber/Divac frontcourt, I don't know what to tell you.
3) If you are contending for a title, $30 million+ is the going rate for a frontcourt rotation. Here's what this year's contenders are paying for the significant members of their PF/C rotations:
- Lewis/Howard/Gortat/Bass: $43 million increasing up to $53.4 million.
- Varajao/O'Neal/Ilgauskas/Hickson: $40.3 million
- Nowitski/Dampier/Marion: $38.5 million
- Gasol/Bynum/Odom: $36.4 million, increasing up to $43.3 million.
- McDyess/Duncan/Bonner/Blair: $30.8 million
- Garnett/Perkins/Wallace/Davis: $30.0 million
- Martin/Nene/Anderson: $30.0 million
If we are to keep the band together, our best bet would be to put all our money toward the best 7' defender we can get. I won't bore you with an explanation as I'm sure we've all seen before, suffice to say that size and defense are the major holes left by the first two members of our frontcourt, and we do well to make that a priority in rounding out the rotation. (As a side note, I'd still love to see us target Marcin Gortat for this role. You'll notice that Orlando will be paying an obscene amount of money on their frontcourt by 2013 (or rather, obscener). They're fine paying for the extra depth now, but they'd be insane to keep all these guys around through the duration of their contracts. At some point, you can expect both Brandon Bass and Gortat to become available for cap relief and little else.)
Adding in the missing piece, we'd then use Love/Jefferson/defensive C as a three man frontcourt unit in the style of LAL or Denver: three guys use up all 128 PF/C minutes, with a 'tweener (Gasol, Nene, Jefferson) vacillating between PF or C depending on which other big man he's playing with. Using generous salary estimates of $14 million (Al), $12 million (Love), and $7 million (Gortat type C), we can complete our lineup while staying around the that $30 million threshold. It seems like a lot of money now, but if we intend to contend, we'll have to pay it like everybody else.
All in all, since Jefferson and Love aren't and will never be a perfect paring, nor is Jefferson a great fit for Rambis's system, It would be best if we moved Jefferson for a player of equal talent but better fit somewhere between now and contending. But as of now, the only two players whom I consider to be Jefferson's equal in talent as well as age and contract status, Danny Granger and Andre Iguoudala, both play for teams whose desire to change a wing into a big man is understandably muted by the sizable amounts of money they have committed post-2010 to big men already on their roster. Time could change that, but for now, our best option isn't an option.
What should be the alternative? If you ask me, it would not be to trade Al for parts, but rather to try to build the best team we can on the foundation we've already got. We can't keep re-re-re-building, trading proven talents for potential and fit. The odds that a young prospect we get in exchange for Jefferson will reach his levels of production are slim. We already have a fair number of young guys and soon-be-drafted players whose potential we can hope for. At a certain point, you have to take the 8 or 9 assets you've got and turn them into the best core of 3 or 4 guys you can. To trade Al for prospects and cap space would be to move in the wrong direction and would just make it that much longer a wait before we finally turn this team into a winner.