“They were talking about trading me for three years, so I don’t really care about it anymore,” Jordan said. “If it happens, it happens.
“I just want to be somewhere I’m wanted. If it’s here, it’s here. If it’s not, then, hey, it’s a business.”
Do you feel wanted by the Clippers?
Jordan looked around for nine seconds before answering.
“What do you think?” he said.
I contemplated for a moment then answered honestly: “I don’t know.”
“Me neither,” Jordan replied immediately.
Jordan is caught in a series of clashes, the results of which will determine how he spends the rest of his prime. One is a genuine mystery. In a couple others, he’s fighting an uphill battle. The combination creates for immense uncertainty.
Clippers winning now vs. Clippers rebuilding
When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin, they said they wanted to keep winning, add young talent and increase flexibility. Cool. So does every team.
More often, teams face forks in the road where they must decide to prioritize one goal over another. That’ll almost certainly be the case with Jordan this offseason.
He holds a $24,119,025 player option. If he exercise it, all the trade considerations reemerge. If he declines it, the Clippers must determine how much to invest in someone who turns 30 this summer.
It wouldn’t be simple to pivot into a new direction without Jordan.
That’s even more true after signing Williams. Even if the Clippers let Jordan walk in free agency, they’d project to have about the mid-level exception to sign a replacement. With a re-signed Jordan, they’d have… the mid-level exception to spend on free agents. They have so much money committed to next season already, losing Jordan wouldn’t make much difference without other moves.
But commit to Jordan long-term, and his salary would be an impediment in 2019, when Tobias Harris‘, Austin Rivers‘, Boban Marjanovic‘s, Teodosic’s, Wesley Johnson‘s and Beverley’s contracts expire. (Rivers, Teodosic and Johnson have player options for next season that only complicate planning, but the bet here is all three opt in.)
This team probably tops out as a low playoff seed with Jordan. Without him, the lottery looks more probable – not an ideal outcome for a team already locked into so many veterans.
That’s why Williams’ extension appears telling. That seems to be the Clippers accepting a short-term plan, prioritizing a window that matches Jordan’s.
Then again, Williams extension could just be a value play. He’ll earn $8 million each of the next two years and has just $1.5 million of $8 million guaranteed the third year. Clippers executive Jerry West predicted Williams would have earned $11 million on the open market.
“Yeah, it’s the truth,” Williams said.
Williams said he signed for the security and comfort with his teammates. But this is the same franchise that just fawned over Griffin then traded him. The Clippers could eventually deal Williams – or significantly change the roster he wanted to stay with.
Williams said he didn’t think about the possibility of getting Griffinned, nor did he get any assurances of the team keeping Jordan. West said the Clippers also offered Jordan a contract extension, but the center denied that.
“I can’t wait around,” Williams said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make decisions for yourself, do what’s best for your family, and hopefully everything else falls into place.”
Jordan could still sign a contract extension until he opts out, but that seems like a remote possibility. He and the Clippers can’t even agree on whether an extension was offered. They’re going to agree to specific terms?
From the outside, it’s also difficult to tell who’s running the Clippers. Lawrence Frank holds the highest front-office title, but West is influential. And then there’s Doc Rivers, who remains coach after getting stripped of his presidency last summer.
Jordan’s value probably plummeted as soon as that happened.
“D.J. means a lot to me,” Rivers said.
The Clippers now look like most organizations, where there’s an implicit tug-of-war between the coach trying to win now and the front office looking toward the future. Rivers’ years of team-building and exit from the Celtics show his aversion to rebuilding. That’s why Rivers was pleased Jordan stayed with L.A. past the trade deadline.
“He’s the anchor,” Rivers said, “and it’s nice to keep your anchor around.”
But for how long?
Centers vs. small ball
The Clippers trading Griffin was treated as them losing their only star. But Jordan has made three All-NBA teams, including a first team, since Griffin’s last All-Star selection.
The catch: Jordan’s All-NBA accolades came at center, essentially a protected class in All-NBA voting.
The league decreasingly values centers like the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Jordan. Teams are too good at exploiting traditional centers’ flaws – their lack of floor-spacing offensively, their slowness defensively. These bigs generally haven’t figured out how to exert their will in small-ball matchups, especially deep in the playoffs.
Jordan is a dinosaur, on the verge of extinction.
Of players averaging 32 minutes per game, just 8% are attempting fewer than one 3-point attempt per game. That mark has never been lower since the NBA added the 3-point arc:
This hardly renders Jordan worthless, but he must excel in other areas to compensate for his hindrance on floor-spacing. The resulted are mixed.
Jordan remains an elite rebounder. He has excellent size, strength, hops, coordination and timing.
But many of those same attributes also make Jordan such a strong finisher, and there’s slippage there. He’s shooting just 68% in the restricted area – good, but well down from the 74% and 75% he shot the last two years:
Maybe that’s just a consequence of no longer playing with Chris Paul, who excelled at setting up Jordan for lobs. Or maybe Jordan has lost explosion due to aging.
Neither potential explanation bodes well for Jordan’s value.
More troublingly, Jordan look doesn’t look nearly as agile defending the perimeter. Jordan was fairly nimble for his size. But even moderate decline there could be disastrous in the modern NBA.
It’s not because Jordan is just hanging low to protect the rim, either. Jordan is also averaging less than one block per game – a disturbing and once-unthinkable stat for him.
Maybe he just need to be reinvigorated. It can be tough going from aiming for a championship to just trying to sneak into the playoffs. Jordan and Austin Rivers are the only players left from the Clippers team that peaked with a seven-game, second-round loss to the Rockets in 2015.
But this also at least resembles age-related decline.
Jordan has plummeted to 22nd among centers in real plus-minus this season – down from third, third, fourth and sixth the previous four years. There’s already a stigma around centers like him. Only the best of that player type thrive anymore.
The pendulum could swing back. Size is still helpful. It’s just that other skills matter more now. Teams always adjust.
Maybe another team believes it could maximize Jordan’s contributions. But can that team afford him?
2018 and 2019 free agents vs. salary-cap reality
Jordan was heavily (and infamously) recruited during 2015 free agency. He has since produced the best seasons of his career.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Jordan expects even stronger courting next summer, especially considering the salary cap skyrocketed in 2016.
But teams are still burdened by long-term contracts signed that year, and the cap is only trickling up now. Free agents face harsh conditions the next two summers. Only a handful of teams project to have max cap space.
That’s especially tough on Jordan, who’d otherwise be in line to sign his last huge contract.
He ought to seriously consider opting in. He might not draw $24,119,025 next season if he opts out, though he might. It takes only team to value him that much. Or maybe he gets enough long-term security to outweigh a salary reduction next season.
His new agent, Jeff Schwartz, will have his work cut out assessing the market. Remember, Jordan must decide his player option before free agency even begins.
Teams can always trade to clear cap space, but will anyone be motivated to do that for Jordan, a traditional center in this league? His best bet to getting paid was ending the season with a team that values his Bird Rights. That way cap space wouldn’t be a concern.
Jordan will end the season with the Clippers. Are they that team?
Back to the original question: I don’t know.