PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – So far the biggest storyline in the Clippers training camp has not been the status of Blake Griffin’s knee or Chris Paul’s ankle and impending free agency. In fact, it has nothing to do with either superstar.
All of the fuss has been about DeAndre Jordan, whose improved offensive repertoire has gained the praise of his teammates and coaches.
Everyone has noticed. Most of the newcomers – Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf – have addressed it. More importantly, Vinny Del Negro, the proprietor of Jordan’s playing time, has acknowledged his newfound offensive touch.
Last season was disappointing for Jordan, to say the least. After signing a four-year, $43 million deal that ensured him the starting center job, he was projected to be a nightly double-double threat and the third leg of the Paul-Griffin-Player X tripod.
Instead, he barely progressed production-wise from the 2010-11 season, when he split time with the oft-injured Chris Kaman. To make matters worse, his offensive liabilities prevented him from finishing contests, meaning he’d often be found on the bench during crucial junctures in close games.
What was most frustrating was that the guys who replaced him in crunch time, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, weren’t better players. Heck, they shot free throws just as bad and were just as limited offensively.
But for some reason – whether it was trust, experience, confidence or endurance, to name a few factors – Del Negro felt those two guys were the safer choice. The better bet. And it clearly affected Jordan’s production down the stretch of the season.
While it’s not plausible to trace all of Jordan’s problems back to free throws, there’s no doubt the problem had a lot to do with his demise. Once Hack-a-DeAndre was implemented, Jordan’s confidence evaporated and so did his minutes.
It’s difficult being publicly embarrassed on a national scene as a 23-year-old. For as upbeat and playful of a guy as Jordan was and continued to be, even through his struggles, he lost his swagger on the hardwood. The way he was headed towards the end of last season, he was going to spiral out of control and become Andris Biedrins 2.0.
But the Clippers, tasting the potential of continued success and a long playoff run this year, wouldn’t let that happen. One of its primary goals this offseason – besides re-signing Griffin and Paul long-term and deepening its bench – was working on Jordan’s offensive skillset and attitude.
Throughout his four-year tenure in the league, Jordan has yet to show any signs of actually wanting to score or get more touches. Sure, he loves to dunk and showboat, but there are only so many lobs to be thrown in Lob City. If Jordan was ever going to earn his paycheck and gain traditional starter minutes, it needed to be now, not later.
So the Clippers hired a shooting coach, Bob Thate, to work on Jordan’s free throw mechanics – his release point, form and routine. All reports indicate he’s starting to make them more frequently in practice and appears more confident about shooting them in games.
Moreover, Clippers assistant coach Marc Iavaroni spent most of the offseason working with Jordan on his post moves, floor spacing, footwork and how he could find more scoring opportunities.
Despite the perceived notion that every big man should have a “post game”, Iavaroni said that’s not necessarily the case, especially with Jordan:
“Young players tend to make the game more difficult than it is. They don’t understand the nuances. After a while, you have guys like Grant Hill, Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, and they make everything look easy because they understand how simple the game should be kept. … It’s about learning how to play basketball. Posting up is a subset of it.”
For Jordan, the key is becoming an offensive threat. That doesn’t mean he has to develop a skyhook or implement the Dream Shake into his arsenal, but a simple post move and counter, as Iavaroni says, would do him wonders. He just has to keep the opposing defense honest.
Whether it’s post ups, catching and finishing in traffic or simply running the pick-and-roll, Iavaroni believes Jordan will have a more prominent role in the offense this season.
That’s encouraging to hear from an assistant coach, but it doesn’t mean much if Jordan isn’t on board himself. Except, well, he is. He wants the ball now. He wants certain aspects of the offense run through him.
“I feel like I have improved tremendously from last year. Whenever I get the ball in the post, I’m confident down there,” said Jordan after Tuesday’s practice.
“As long as I take my time and don’t rush it, I feel like I’m going to get something good. I’m going to score, I’m going to get fouled or I’m going to make the right play to somebody else. When my teammates give me the ball now that makes me even more confident.”
What’s the biggest difference between now and in years past?
Trust. Jordan believes in what his coaches are telling him and understands the value that his offense can bring to the Clippers. Iavaroni cited the 1970s Knicks as an example of a successful team that had five players that all could score. The Clippers will usually have four scorers on the floor at all times, they just need Jordan to be a decent fifth option.
Iavaroni acknowledged the fact that Jordan may never become a potent offensive threat, but said Jordan’s increased presence allows better opportunities for his teammates. Either way, it’s a win-win. If teams can’t play 5-on-4 defense, Paul and Griffin will have that much more floor space to attack.
Despite Del Negro’s reluctance to play him late in games, most of the Clippers’ top five-man combinations featured Jordan last season. Plus, the Clippers’ offense was reasonably better with him on the floor. So maybe he’s already not as bad as people think.
Jordan is clearly a valuable player, especially on the defensive end, who should have played more last season. For him to do so, though, it seems he’ll finally have to face his demons this season: free throws and handling the ball in the low post.