Charlotte Hornets

So what becomes of Al Jefferson with the Charlotte Hornets?

Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson will have played 12 NBA seasons when he reaches free-agency in July.
Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson will have played 12 NBA seasons when he reaches free-agency in July. AP

The question I get asked most these days about the Charlotte Hornets: What becomes of Al Jefferson?

Hornets center Jefferson is going through a rough patch right now. He was inactive the past six games because of a left calf strain. He is about to serve an NBA-imposed five-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

The Hornets went 4-2 while Jefferson was injured, which has caused a sector of the fan base to wonder if this team plays better without Big Al. I get the reasoning; the Hornets are playing a fluid, athletic style on both offense and defense and Cody Zeller has had some good moments as the fill-in center.

Zeller is different than Jefferson; not as skilled offensively in the low post, but he offers a quick, athletic approach that is in contrast with Jefferson’s strengths.

What does all this mean to Jefferson’s future, both short-term and long-term? Some educated guesses:

Will he be marginalized?

Assuming Jefferson’s suspension starts with Wednesday’s game in Orlando, he’d be eligible to return for the Dec. 26 home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the meantime, he can practice, which hopefully gives him time to get back into game shape after the calf injury.

Will he immediately return to the starting lineup? Unlikely, based on how coach Steve Clifford has handled injuries in the past. Clifford tends to work players back into the rotation incrementally.

It’s true Zeller has had some strong games at center. I think this handful of games suggests he’s better suited long-term to center at the NBA level than power forward. With Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky around, the options at power forward are abundant.

But I don’t think that marginalizes Jefferson. Clifford is committed to playing 1-in and 4-out, surrounding a proven post scorer with four 3-point threats. Whatever his flaws, Jefferson is by far the best low-post scorer on this roster.

The Hornets look like a playoff contender and what Jefferson does tends to be more valuable in the postseason, when the game slows. A healthy Jefferson, either as a starter or a reserve, would be an asset in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Does a trade make any sense?

I never dismiss the possibility of this franchise making a trade – the team’s most common and probably most successful strategy since the Bobcats’ inception in 2004.

But trading Jefferson for something that would fit both short-term and long-term would be challenging.

Jefferson makes $13.5 million in this, the final season on his contract. So a team looking to acquire him would likely be searching for a salary dump.

The Hornets would have to acquire some considerable assets to justify not keeping his contract until it expires in July. Logically the top agenda item in the summer of 2016 would be re-signing Nic Batum. Retaining Batum will be expensive, and the Hornets aren’t looking to pay luxury tax if that is avoidable.

Is Jefferson back for the 2016-17 season?

I’d say the odds are no better than 50-50 and might hinge on Jefferson’s salary expectations.

He’ll be 31 and will have played more than 25,000 NBA minutes by July. His first season in Charlotte he was third-team All-NBA. He had a disappointing second season and lost 20-plus pounds over the summer to be better prepared for this, his third season.

But the mileage is there; he missed 17 of 82 games last season and has already missed six of the first 23 this season.

There is no real telling just yet what Jefferson is worth to the Hornets or on the open market when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in seven months.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell