MINNEAPOLIS – Al Jefferson will always have love for Minnesota and the Timberwolves. This is where he made a name for himself as one of the best low post players in the NBA, signed a $65 million contract and saw his No. 25 jersey on the backs of fans all over Target Center.
He still calls the Twin Cities his second home, yet there isn't a day that goes by that he isn't thankful he doesn't play here anymore.
On Wednesday night, Jefferson faced his former team for the first time since being traded to the Utah Jazz last summer. He is averaging 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Jazz. But more importantly for him, the Jazz entered the game in first place in the Northwest Division at 20-9. That's five more victories than the Wolves had all last season.
"I think both sides agreed on it," Jefferson said of the trade that sent him to the Jazz and brought two first-round draft picks and Kosta Koufos to Minnesota. "Both sides felt like it was best. I take my hat off to (Wolves President) David Kahn and the front office. They put me in this situation."
While the parting of a team and its star player can often get messy, Jefferson's split with the Wolves couldn't have gone much better.
Minnesota needed to move Jefferson's hefty contract and get more athletic as they proceeded with their rebuilding project while Jefferson, at 26 years old and entering his prime after a nasty knee injury, wanted to play for a winner for the first time in his career.
He started in Boston while the Celtics were struggling, then was dealt to Minnesota in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett to the Celtics. The Wolves never won more than 24 games in Jefferson's three seasons with the team, bottoming out last year with a 15-67 record.
Kahn pulled the trigger on the trade this summer in an effort to cater more to coach Kurt Rambis's up-tempo style and open up more minutes for Kevin Love and Darko Milicic in the front court.
"He could have sent me anywhere," Jefferson said. "It's not likely that someone would send the star player to the same conference. He sent me to the same division. I think he did that because he wanted to see me succeed and have a great career. I just take my hat off to him and I'll always have mad respect for him."
Kahn said he would've preferred to send him to the Eastern Conference, but Utah's offer gave him the best package of picks and salary cap room.
"It was purely the best deal possible," Kahn said. "I would never make a decision that wasn't in the franchise's best interests."
In some ways, the deal has already worked out for both sides.
Jefferson is fitting in nicely with the veteran-laden Jazz, forming a fast bond with point guard Deron Williams as the Jazz have surged out of the gates.
"I knew this team's goal is not to make the playoffs," Jefferson said. "This team's goal is to win a championship. Everybody's on the same page. Everybody's got the same goal."
With Jefferson gone, Love has emerged as an All-Star caliber player. He leads the NBA with 15.5 rebounds a game and is averaging 20.8 points as well. Milicic also is having his best season and is second in the league in blocked shots.
"I'm not surprised one bit," Jefferson said of Love. "He needed me to get out of the way. Now that I'm out of the way he's showing that he can be a top power forward in this league."
There were plenty of cheers from the crowd when Jefferson was introduced on Wednesday night, and still a few of his blue No. 25s in the stands. Jefferson said he will never forget the fans for supporting him through a DUI arrest, a major knee rehab and a ton of losses.
He just sold his home just outside Minneapolis, but said he'll always come back.
"I love it. All this water around here? I love this," said Jefferson, an avid fisherman. "That's why I stayed here in the offseason. It's such a great place. I know it's cold in the winter time but in the summertime it's one of the best places in the world to me."