Over the summer, back when the Clippers had five players under contract and aspirations of building a team around LeBron James, I (with the help of my brother) found it appropriate to examine the cases of two particularly significant pieces of the puzzle in some detail. The future of the franchise would no doubt be tied to the success of Blake Griffin, who at that point had yet to play an NBA game, but nearly as critical would be the development of Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan. Both were entering their third seasons surrounded by a mix of uncertainty and tantalizing potential, but with questions about their role and future with the team still needing clarification. As we know, Gordon allayed all fears of a plateau over the course of the summer for Team USA and into this season, settling into the conversation of the best guards in the league. As it turns out, even though it took a little longer than Gordon to materialize, it’s entirely possible that the most pleasant individual surprise on a team full of them, is the emergence of Jordan. He has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for this season — which I will revisit in a moment — and in doing so, has added value to the team that has contributed mightily to its improved play. He has also done wonders for his own value as he approaches restricted free agency this summer, a factor not to be overlooked as the Clips begin to make important decisions about their future.
To start, some perspective on expectations for DeAndre heading into the year. As you will see if you take a look in the comments of the post, opinions varied, but the following seems like an accurate representation of the feelings of Clipper Nation. From the same post this summer:
DeAndre Jordan’s ceiling is the reason why many Clippers fans were ecstatic to see the team take him in the draft. He has the combination of size and athleticism to be one of the best rebounding and defending big men in the league. His offensive game still has glaring weaknesses, but he also does a few things so well (rebound and dunk), that consistent effort could make him a very valuable weapon off the bench. With another year of development and continued playing time, Jordan could actually make Kaman expendable, at least by the time his contract comes up after next season. He isn’t there yet, but he certainly has that type of potential if he can improve his free throw shooting and develop some basic post moves.
What is amazing about he undoubtedly is “there” now, and yet he has arrived as a legitimate starter essentially without improving on his weaknesses at all, particularly on offense. Still no post moves, still a horrific free throw shooter (45.5%, which is actually up from about 38% his previous two seasons, but still…) and only a marginally improved turnover rate. He remains mainly a finisher at the rim, rebounder and defender, but he is just doing those things so well that he has established his role on the team and has made himself nearly indispensable. His field goal percentage is up from an impressive 60% last season to almost 69%, a number that leads all centers who average over 20 minutes a game. He only attempts about four shots per game and according to Hoopdata, three of them fall under the category, “at the rim,” the other one in the category of “under 10 feet.” His mere presence has a profound effect on the Clippers offense, because opponents can basically count on a dunk if they decide to help off of DeAndre. With weapons like Gordon and Griffin, and Baron Davis out there throwing lobs left and right, just threat threat of such a strong finisher hanging around the basket has tremendous value in opening up driving lanes, like a great three-point shooter standing in the corner that prevents his defender from fully engaging in the team defensive concept.
But the area where DeAndre’s emergence has been most noticeable has been on defense and on the glass. Before this season, he would struggle with the simplest defensive fundamentals, often confounding fans with his inability to turn special physical gifts into even adequate production. This year, he took the opportunity created by Kaman’s absence and has proven that he is more than capable of handling increased workload (about 24 minutes a game, up from 16 last year), much to the benefit of his teammates. He has become the focal point of the team’s much improved defense thanks to improved shot blocking (1.63/game, including a recent stretch of three consecutive games with six or more) and a disciplined approach. He has also joined with Blake to establish a truly dominant rebounding presence that has allowed the Clippers to play with — and recently beat — some of the league’s best teams. Don’t believe what you are seeing with your eyes? Take the word of the team, from the team’s notes before the Heat game: “In the ten game stretch (before the game), the Clippers just barely trail the Miami Heat for the honors of the league’s best opponent field gold percentage at 42.6 percent, while the Heat stand at 42 percent. Throw in that the Clippers are top five in blocks, second overall in total rebounds, and the top team in the NBA in rebounding differential.” The improved level of play is very real, and it is a result of a team-wide commitment to defense, a big part of which is the improvement of the incredibly athletic man in the middle.
The timing of everything couldn’t be better for all parties involved. The Clippers have been building a foundation ever since they drafted Blake, and DeAndre has grown along with it. He has responded to Blake’s example and his improved work ethic (which was at question in college and early in his pro career) has drastically improved, just in time to manifest itself on the court in time to impact his next deal. He will be a restricted free agent after this season, and while he clearly has made himself some money with his play this year, it’s hard to imagine the Clippers letting him get away after investing so much in his development. There are reports recently about teams in need of centers, like the Knicks, throwing tons of money at him, and that’s understandable because there aren’t many centers like him. But it’s difficult to imagine a team offering him a contract so large that the Clips don’t match. He has catapulted into a place in the team’s future because he is still so young and fits so well with the culture they are building, both on and off the court, and the Clippers will gladly take his production at the cost of a couple extra million per year. They have the money and, with a strong core already in place, are fortunate enough to need very little in the way of outside help going forward.
With Kaman hurt now and always a risk to be so, DeAndre’s rise does little to impact his status with the team. We have heard plenty of calls to trade Kaman, not unlike many times throughout his career. And while DeAndre’s emergence has shown us he is capable of making an impact in a starting role, it does little to add any urgency to move his predecessor. Sure, if Neil Olshey gets a good offer, he can feel comfortable taking it, now with the knowledge that he has a viable option already in place. But there is no urgency to make a move, as some suggest, because the team really doesn’t lose anything keeping him for the remainder of his deal, even in a reduced role. It’s what you could call a high-class problem, too many players deserving of minutes, but unlike most situations like that, there doesn’t appear to be any issue with players on this team accepting their roles. A departure from past Clipper teams, no doubt, and you can bet that one of the differences is pretty evidently DeAndre Jordan.