Determining a player’s talent and championship-winning potential based on his All-Star game appearances (or lack thereof) is a bit dubious. The All-Star selection process is a fun but flawed exercise that mixes fans’ rooting interests and opinions with coaches’ biases. Anyone who ever stuffed an All-Star ballot box at McDonalds on behalf of Scottie Pippen could tell you as much.
So that’s the disclaimer.
Conventional wisdom has long held that to win an NBA championship, you need at least two All-Stars and a troupe of proficient role players; any team that lacks the former need not apply for contender status. A quick review of league history reveals that maxim to be essentially true. Of 37 title-winning teams since the merger, only nine had just one All-Star on their roster, and of those nine, six had either non-All-Stars on the cusp of breaking out (Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman in 1988-89, Pippen in 1990-91, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in 2002-03), an All-Star lock who missed too many games before the break (Pippen in 1997-98), or all-timers starting to fade (Clyde Drexler in 1994-95, Jason Kidd in 2010-11). Those Pistons, Bulls, and Spurs teams also had two players each on the All-Defensive Teams, and the Mavericks had Tyson Chandler, soon to be a Defensive Player of the Year.
Even the famous outlier, the 2003-04 Pistons, had Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Rip Hamilton (twelve career All-Star game appearances between them) to pair with Ben Wallace, their lone selection that season; that squad mirrors the 1977-78 Bullets, who surrounded Elvin Hayes with players also totaling twelve career All-Star nods. All of which leaves the 1993-94 Rockets as the true solo-All-Star champions. That season, Houston had a lot of machismo, a whole lot of Hakeem, and an open, MJ-free league.
So what’s the point? It’s good to have talent on your roster, and it’s hard to win it all if you don’t have at least a couple of guys who really stand out among their peers.
In Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers have that couple of guys, and if you peruse the depth chart, it’s apparent this team has talent in other spots, too. In a post-Decision world, though, are two All-Stars enough?
Regardless of the new CBA, doesn’t current conventional wisdom suggest you need an All-Star troika to win the title? For three years running, Miami’s loomed over the league, boasting the planet’s glossiest super-team, creating and abolishing narratives and notions along the way. The Heat have received a lot of credit (and catcalls) for fully embodying the Big Three Era, but let’s not forget that before LeBron, Wade, and Bosh got the party started in South Beach, Paul Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen aligned in Boston. Before that, there were the unassuming Spurs – Tim Duncan, Parker, and Manu – artless only in their lacking a clever moniker, and I suppose you could throw the ‘90s Bulls in the Big Three category, depending on how you feel about hyper-color-edition Rodman and Horace Grant. And then there were the ‘80s Celtics and Lakers, who deployed All-Stars, past, present, and future, by the dozens; I don’t even know what you’d label those collections of talent – “Big Lots?”
There have always been teams that hoard the top players. Having three or four studs is clearly better than having one or two. The Big Three idea is really nothing new. But in a league where coaching, player dynamics, matchups, and injuries significantly affect the outcome of games, series, and seasons, as long as you’ve got that “Dynamic Duo” and a great team, you can win the championship – you don’t need to have three top-20 guys. You certainly don’t have to call yourself a “Big Three,” whether you’ve got the All-Stars or not; the label applied to a roster is about as relevant as the color of a team’s shoelaces.
Except, this season, the label on LA’s roster is relevant to DeAndre Jordan – it matters for him, and no one knows it more than Doc Rivers.
Much has been written about the Clippers’ success depending primarily on Blake Griffin and Jordan’s development, both defensively and offensively. In Blake’s case, the needed improvement involves polishing a well-rounded, if a bit range-deficient, offensive game and reinventing himself as an effective team defender. Entering his fourth true season, in sculpting terms, Blake’s done most of the hewing; he’s eying the sandpaper and lacquer.
DeAndre’s game, on the other hand, looks something like this. A remarkable athlete with imposing size ideal for the modern center, Jordan tantalizes with what he might represent for the franchise: a roaming extinguisher of opponents’ forays to the rim, a cooler in the Chandler mold, the kind of back-line anchor that can elevate his teammates’ defensive play and single-handedly shift Los Angeles from contender to co-favorite status.
Man, that sounds pretty good.
That’s what DeAndre can be (in addition to being a more reliable offensive presence) if he can put it all together in his sixth season. But that’s a big “if”.
At this stage of his career, it remains unclear whether Jordan’s willing or able to realize his potential. I don’t doubt that he wants to be great, but being even an average defender takes hard work; to be one of the best requires relentless discipline, effort, savvy, and pride in doing thankless things.
Does that sound like the DeAndre Jordan we all sincerely know and love? Is that kind of dedication, concentration, and sophistication inside him? Time will tell, but I think so.
Michelangelo (the artsy Renaissance man, not the Ninja Turtle), famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”.
I see the statue of a Defensive Player of the Year inside DeAndre’s block, and Doc sees it, too – he’s been saying as much. With Rivers leading the charge, the whole LA organization is pushing DeAndre as the Clippers’ third star: there was Jordan, right next to Blake and Chris, at media day; there’s all three on Jimmy Kimmel; there’s Paul at halftime of a forgettable preseason game talking about how it’s on him and DeAndre to get the team on track. There have even been whispers of the Clippers having…a Big Three.
Granted, it’s a nice change for Jordan, who, for most of his career, endured Vinny Del Negro’s distrust and development-stunting decisions. DJ’s like the starving peasant who turns out to be royalty and finds himself suddenly plucked off the street and seated at the king’s feast. Compliments, responsibilities, and the promise of fourth-quarter minutes are flying at DeAndre like so many honey-drizzled biscuits. Already in the preseason, you can see him swelling with confidence, hustling and swatting everything in sight.
Of course, that’s why Doc’s talking him up so much; nothing stirs a neglected man like praise.
Will Jordan be an All-Star this season? If he is, does that mean the Clippers have an honest-to-goodness Big Three? The answer to both questions depends on how much chiseling a newly motivated DeAndre does. In a given year, you only need two elite players and a solid supporting cast to contend. This season, a team built like that could win the West. For the Clippers to get that far and beat Miami or Chicago, though, it’s likely going to take a little more – it’s going to take a breakout season for D.J.
He’s got the tools and material. It’s his time now. We’ll see what he makes of it.