Show him the money!
By JARED DUBIN
The word gets overused a lot, but when DeAndre Jordan entered the NBA Draft out of Texas A&M back in 2008, he was raw as hell. His college production didn't nearly match his hype - he was the nation's No. 8 recruit as a high school senior - especially considering his ridiculous combination of size and athleticism.
Initially projected to go as high as the top 10 in the draft, concerns about his "bust potential" dropped him all the way into the second round, at No. 35 to the Clippers. His first two seasons in L.A. also had their share of adversity. He barely saw the floor as a rookie on a 19–63 team, only got some increased minutes once Mike Dunleavy was replaced by interim coach Kim Hughes the following season, and generally paired up-and-down defense with a still-very-much-developing offensive game.
Since the 2010–11 season, though - when Jordan finally got a shot at real minutes - everything has changed. It's been a gradual process, but he's slowly but surely turned himself into one of the best bigs in the league.
Over that span, Jordan has missed only two games. (He's now the NBA's active leader in consecutive games played.) That kind of durability is remarkably uncommon for a big man, especially one who throws his body around as much as Jordan does. His per-minute efficiency, on-off court numbers and contribution to wins have also improved with each season.
After Jordan showcased his enormous potential in that breakthrough 2010–11 campaign, Golden State saw fit to use their one-time amnesty on Charlie Bell in order to offer Jordan a four-year, $43 million offer sheet. The Clippers, knowing just how valuable their asset was - a 23-year old center who could jump out of the gym and was getting stronger and more powerful with each passing day - predictably matched the Warriors' offer within 24 hours.
A day later, Los Angeles traded for Chris Paul and Lob City was born.
Hooking up with CP3 and Blake Griffin has done wonders for Jordan's career. He's been freed up to do what he does best without having to worry about much else. By concentrating on a select set of tools and sharpening them as much as possible, he's become a much more dangerous weapon. Jordan is a pick-and-roll dynamo, one of the most ruthlessly efficient finishers in the game. His dives to the rim demand the attention of the defense and open up space for everyone else on the floor. He has what all pick-and-roll bigs need: gravitational pull. It shows up in both the eye test and the numbers.
Though Jordan showed major improvement in s0me areas in his first two seasons with the Paul-Griffin combination, he did stagnate in others. His defense, despite eye-catching block totals and SportsCenter-worthy moments, still left much to be desired in terms of consistency. His help defense, in particular, was variable, at best. Vinny Del Negro didn't trust him enough on either end to let him play in crunch time, which damaged both his confidence and his development.
The Clippers' coaching change from Del Negro to Doc Rivers has allowed Jordan to flourish on the defensive end. Almost immediately, Rivers started comparing Jordan to Bill Russell - a reach as a comparison to be sure, but one that surely boosted Jordan's confidence, something he commented on various times last season. Ultimately, his measurable defensive production has finally matched his reputation, and the result was a deserved third-place finish in the 2013–14 Defensive Player of the Year vote.
There were still bumps and hiccups last year - Jordan's communication with Griffin was not always perfect, he still bit on too many pump-fakes, and he often slid over in help defense a beat too late - but he made a world of improvement that, again, has shown up in both the eye test and the stat sheet. L.A.'s defense has been 1.5 points per 100 possessions better with Jordan on the court since Paul came to town.
The 2014–15 season, though, has been Jordan's crowning achievement to date. He's posting career bests in offensive, defensive and total rebounding percentage, steal rate, turnover rate, offensive rating, True Shooting Percentage, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Share rate, Box Score Plus-Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player.
In addition to his now-usual gravitational brand of offense, he's graded out as the sixth-best defensive center in the NBA this season according to ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus (RPM). He's doing a wonderful job of ending possessions, leading the league in rebounding for the second consecutive year while snagging more steals than ever. His block rates have jumped back to where they were a few years ago even as his positioning has become a bit more refined.
ESPN's Wins Above Replacement pegs Jordan as the NBA's very best center thus far this season. In any normal year, he'd be a shoo-in for the All-Star Game. But this is not a normal year and the Western Conference frontcourt crop is not a normal crew of All-Star hopefuls. So Jordan won't get voted into the game (Griffin, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol led the last round of voting, with Jordan sitting in 12th), and he surely won't make it over Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, or Tim Duncan either. If he were in the Eastern Conference, though, it would tough to be argue against his inclusion on the merits.
Either way, at 26 years old, Jordan is having the best season of his life - and it's entirely possible that he gets even better. Athletes tend to peak in their age 27 season, and, as luck would have it, Jordan's free agency timing couldn't be more perfect. Luckier still, he might just find himself as the best big man up for grabs.
Yes, Aldridge and Gasol currently are better players than Jordan, but they're also both extremely unlikely to actually hit the open market. Aldridge has gone on record saying the only reason he hasn't yet signed an extension with the Portland Trail Blazers is so he can sign a five-year contract that allows him to stay in Portland as long as possible. With the Blazers ever on the rise and Damian Lillard by his side, there's little incentive for LMA to depart the Pacific Northwest.
Gasol has spent near half his life in Memphis, attending high school there while his brother Pau plied his trade for the Grizzlies. Marc has stuck around Bluff City long enough to see the Grizz to become a bona fide championship contender, and with running mates in Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, there isn't a situation out there that suits him much better than the one he's in now.
For Jordan, however, the circumstances might be different. The Clippers have fallen off some this year - now sitting in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff bracket after securing at least one home court series each of the last two seasons. Something tells me GM Doc Rivers isn't going to make head coach Doc Rivers the scapegoat if the Clips don't meet weighty expectations in the postseason, so someone else will have to take the fall. Jordan, with his offensive limitations, makes as good a candidate as any, especially since his contract is set to expire anyway.
If that's how it all plays out, it's entirely possible that Jordan is cast out of the Clipper Circle, with L.A. attempting to patch things over for a year with Spencer Hawes in the pivot before chasing an even bigger fish in the summer of 2016. And should that happen, Jordan will find himself as a top-flight center in the prime of his career with a wealth of options from which to choose.
Nearly half the league will have upwards of $10 million or more in cap space, and that's before factoring in cap-clearing deals that could be made in the next month or so before the trade deadline. Four years ago, Jordan got nearly $11 million a year under a much tighter cap, when his potential impact was more of a hope and a prayer than an actuality. Now that his influence is real, he's surely in line for a hefty raise.
It's not every day you see a 26-year old big man who can anchor a defense hit the open market. That's the kind of scenario that just screams "MAX CONTRACT," and with the improvements he's shown, the upside that may still remain and the major influx of TV money coming into the league shortly, he very well would be worth it.
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