Last summer the Clippers were ready to move on, they wanted Kevin Garnett to come and anchor their defense, play another year or two with Doc Rivers and try to win a title on the other coast. DeAndre Jordan would head back to Boston. But that blew up. Rivers came west but KG ended up in Brooklyn.
That left the enigmatic Jordan as the anchor of Doc Rivers’ defense.
Rivers has since spent the entire summer and regular season building up what Vinny Del Negro spent years tearing down — trying to bring confidence and help grow Jordan’s game. Particularly his defensive game. The most telling evidence is simply that Rivers plays Jordan late in the fourth quarter of games. You also see it in Rivers trying to talk up Jordan as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate — he’s not, Rivers knows it. That’s not the point — what matters is that Jordan hears Rivers say it. DeAndre is the intended audience. What matters is that he believes Rivers believes it.
And it has worked — Jordan has made a leap this season.
According to SportsVU data opponents shoot just 49.3 percent at the rim when Jordan is defending them — he alters and changes shots. That’s a better percentage than Marc Gasol or Tyson Chandler this year. Jordan is getting 2.5 blocks per game.
Jordan is also one of the best rebounders in the game — he pulls down 71.6 percent of the rebounds that come off the rim within 3.5 percent of him, a higher percentage than Kevin Love or Andre Drummond or a host of other elite rebounders.
Jordan’s rotations and timing this season are better, at times still a bit slow at times but improved. His play against the pick-and-roll is much better. What’s more is he is trying to be the quarterback, he is talking and calling out plays and commands. He better understands the game unfolding in front of him and he’s reacting faster.
The Clippers defense this year, inconsistent though it has been, ranks seventh best in the NBA in points allowed per possession (although it has been slightly better with Jordan off the court compared to on it).
But is it enough?
Sometimes it takes a little bit for Jordan to catch on to adjustments and what is happening around him, and the playoffs are all about adjustments. Teams delve deep, tweak their sets to find and exploit mismatches. Jordan is going to get tested.
If, as it appears, the Clippers first round playoff series is against Golden State, Jordan will get a massive test — the Warriors will pull Andrew Bogut out to set picks for Stephen Curry and force Jordan to defend that. Curry can make you look bad no matter what you choose. If the Warriors find something that works they will hammer it. Hard.
All season we have said the Clippers will go as far as their defense takes them — with Chris Paul and the improved game (and confidence) of Blake Griffin the Clippers will score points in bunches. Offense will not be the issue. Rather, they will need to get stops.
That will be all about Jordan.
That’s when we will see how all that time spent in the film room, all those words of encouragement from Rivers, if it all pays off or not.