Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum seem to be eliciting the most chatter among soon-to-be free agent centers as the offseason draws near, but Al Jefferson could prove just as valuable, if not more so than the oft-injured Bynum. The burly, 6'10" center has never made it past the first round of the playoffs, but he's proven a productive inside force in each of the last seven seasons, a rare commodity in the NBA. The Jazz appear poised to give up either Jefferson or fellow unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap this summer, so it seems there's a decent chance he'll be changing teams.
As I noted yesterday, it's tough to differentiate between Jefferson and Millsap, who are similar in age and on-court efficiency. Jefferson's size might give him an edge to return to Utah, particularly if the Jazz are more comfortable with Derrick Favors at power forward instead of center. Favors appears more ready for starter's minutes than Enes Kanter, a more traditional center, though the club could be anxious to get more minutes for both of their young big men. Utah has dropped few hints about whether Jefferson or Millsap is more likely to return, so it might be easier to assess the market based on the needs of other teams.
NBA executives appear to remain enchanted with centers even in the wake of the small-ball Heat's championship last season, as witnessed by inflated deals for JaVale McGee, Omer Asik, Ian Mahinmi and others. Those three players, who were backups for their teams in 2011/12, signed for a combined $85.124MM. That's one reason Jefferson, despite never having made an All-Star Game, has a chance of inking a maximum-salary contract in the summer. Teams that miss out on Howard and are wary of Bynum's knee trouble could be tempted to spend on a productive 28-year-old big man who has missed more than six games just once in the past six seasons.
Such an offer would likely result in a salary of between $17MM and $18MM next season, or 30% of whatever the salary cap will be for next year. If he re-signed with the Jazz, he could get a total package of five years and close to $100MM. A maximum deal from another team would be four years and about $75MM. Unlike under the old CBA, Jefferson will be limited to the smaller max if he goes to another team even if Utah facilitates a sign-and-trade, as it appears they'd like to do rather than let Jefferson or Millsap walk for nothing in return.
One report suggested the Spurs were the frontrunners to land Jefferson at the deadline, citing the close ties between their front office and Utah's, but San Antonio's payroll concerns likely prevented any deal from getting too far. The Spurs might be more open to bringing Jefferson aboard in the offseason, since they have slightly less than $33MM in commitments for next year. The Suns appeared to have interest in Jefferson at the trade deadline, too, and they'll have plenty of cap room to sign him outright or engage in a sign-and-trade, since there are multiple reports that no one on Phoenix's roster is untouchable. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News wrote earlier this season that he believed the Mavs could make a run at Jefferson, and if the team can't land a marquee talent like Howard or Chris Paul, Dallas might turn to Jefferson rather than wait another year to upgrade around an aging Dirk Nowitzki. The Hawks were reportedly seeking a "quality young center" in return for Josh Smith at the trade deadline, and while Jefferson, middle-aged by NBA standards, might not be young, he otherwise fits the bill.
Jefferson was upset after a report from Boston suggested he was open to returning to the Celtics, a prospect that seems far-fetched barring a major overhaul for the C's. In response to that report, Jefferson expressed his desire to remain in Utah, saying, "The only way I won't be there is they don't want me there." It's unclear whether the Jazz want him to stick around as much as he does, and if they do, I don't think a max deal is the most likely outcome. Still, wherever he ends up, I think Jefferson will have a contract worth more than enough to keep him satisfied for years to come.