The Fundamentals: What’s holding back DeAndre Jordan on defense?
Somewhere along the way, Doc Rivers’ expectations for DeAndre Jordan took on a life of their own. Just days after signing with the Clippers as both head coach and vice president of basketball operations, Rivers made his forecast for Jordan clear (via the Los Angeles Times):
Rivers said he’s never coached a player with the explosiveness of Jordan, who’s averaged 1.5 blocks a game over his five NBA seasons. Rivers thinks he’s so talented, he should be next season’s defensive player of the year.
“One hundred percent, I think that’s what he will be,” Rivers said. “When other teams show up, they should look at him and say, ‘This is not going to be a fun night.’ ”
Though this might seem to be the kind of wild declaration typical of the preseason, there is truth behind the broadcast. Jordan had established himself to that point as both a jaw-dropping athlete and a talented shot blocker, while in Boston Rivers had gotten the most out of players far less physically gifted. It was safe to assume that Jordan’s defensive work would be sharpened under Rivers, though only the coach of the Clippers himself would go so far as to announce the center’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy.
From there, Jordan was shoehorned into the Clippers’ “Big Three” – first by Rivers, then by others – alongside Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, no matter the divide between those two stars and their still-emerging teammate. Then he was championed by Rivers as an All-Star, despite the fact that there were around 10 more qualified Western Conference frontcourt candidates. It’s clear that Rivers holds Jordan in high esteem, but it’s time to pump the brakes on the hyperbole to ask a more basic question: Just how good is DeAndre Jordan?
Before we make any attempt at an answer, we should first establish the stakes involved. Jordan might not seem like all that important a player in the grand scheme of the NBA, but he’s in a position to uniquely shape the outcome of the entire Western Conference playoffs. The Clippers were already established as one of the best offensive teams in the league and capable of holding their own against any opponent. High-level title contention, though, remained elusive — and largely contingent on defensive growth. That’s Jordan’s cue; nowhere else on the Clippers’ roster would you find a deeper well of defensive talent, nor a more valid basis for internal improvement. Paul and Griffin may have rebooted the Clippers, but it was on Jordan and Rivers to transform them.
That particular project is ongoing, though some advanced statistical resources already give Jordan amazingly high marks. On a simpler level, he’s indisputably elite as a rebounder (where he ranks second in the league in rebound rate), a finisher (where he boasts the highest effective field goal percentage in the NBA, despite the fact that he never shoots three-pointers), and a shot blocker (where he’s posted a top-10 block rate and more total blocks than all but two players). But while Jordan has clear on-court value in each of those distinct categories, his relationship with team defense remains a bit more complicated.
Take a basic pick-and-roll sequence from a recent game against the Pistons, for example. L.A.’s standard defense of the high pick-and-roll brings Blake Griffin up to the top of the floor to hedge against the ball handler (Rodney Stuckey) — in this case pulling him as far as the three-point line. That means that the rest of the Clippers will need to account for the potential roll of Griffin’s mark, Josh Smith. Yet when Stuckey finds Smith with a quick lob, everything falls apart for the Clippers:
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Making the right defensive play would require Jordan to leave his man (Greg Monroe) briefly in order to protect the basket. He didn’t come through. That’s the leap of faith that good team defenders must make, with the trust that their previous assignment will be picked up by the next rotation in sequence. In this case that responsibility fell to J.J. Redick, who identified the need for rotation far earlier than Jordan did.
Missteps of this kind are especially frustrating because we know what Jordan is capable of; there aren’t many players in the league who could reasonably expect to stop Smith at the rim, but Jordan is certainly one of them. Had he been in better position, he would have had a chance at a clean block or could have fouled Smith at the least. Instead the Clippers surrendered an uncontested dunk to a poor offensive team, never challenging Smith or the Pistons to make the next play.
This kind of error partially explains why the Clippers, despite Jordan’s presence, allow their opponents to shoot one of the highest percentages in the restricted area in the league — a whopping 62.9 percent, ranking between the porous interior defenses of the Jazz and Cavs. When Jordan is where he should be, his shot blocking both rebuffs opponents and deters them from shooting in the first place. He’s guilty, though, of waiting a beat too long before rotating over to help (or recovering back to his initial assignment), whether due to reading a situation poorly or making a conscious effort to swoop in for the block. Such are the sins of the remarkably gifted; Jordan is so huge and such an explosive leaper that he can get away with those faulty plays from time to time, making it all the more difficult to reinforce the practical value of a more fundamental approach.
What’s even more maddening is that Jordan isn’t at all a lost cause. He’s capable of staying down to blanket an opposing post scorer, but in other situations will bite on obvious pump fakes. He’s athletic enough to get down in a defensive stance to keep opposing guards in front of him, but careless enough to let an opposing big drive by him for an uncontested dunk. He’ll hold his ground against Roy Hibbert on the block but give an easy angle to Andre Drummond. He nimbly darts out of the paint to take away one open shot, then proceeds to surrender wide open mid-range jumpers to any other opponent interested in taking one:
That inconsistency is why the Clippers’ defense, though a top-10 outfit in points allowed per possession, rarely seems water-tight. Rivers needs Jordan to be a defensive captain and a technical whiz — to read the floor perfectly for himself and his teammates, and to bark corresponding instructions from the back line. That was the standard set in Boston, where Kevin Garnett arrived with the unique ability to cover tons of ground, defend space without losing focus, and snap into rotation at just the right moment. That combination made him a perfect fit for the defensive scheme Rivers had hoped to execute, but Jordan isn’t anywhere near that level of defensive proficiency — separated from Garnett’s example by a matter of class rather than mere degree.
Jordan is still quite helpful in spite of his flaws, and improving both in his on-court communication and in his grasp of his responsibilities as a back line defender. His current standing, though, serves only to reinforce the world of difference between the NBA’s athletic difference-makers and its true defensive elite. Jordan is certainly the former, and on his best days hints that he has a shot at becoming the latter. Between those stations, though, lies an indefinite number of hours in the film room and on the court, as to hone the instincts of a player who is fantastic when not working against himself.
Next page: Anthony Davis’ dominance, Mike Miller keeping on, Cleveland’s dark age, more