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The Case for DeAndre Jordan as the NBA's Most Improved Player

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The Case for DeAndre Jordan as the NBA's Most Improved Player
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It's time for DeAndre Jordan to follow in Paul George's footsteps. 

That may seem like a strange comparison at first, especially since the two players line up at very different positions and play nothing alike. George is a dynamic wing player who leads a team on both ends of the court, while Jordan is a true big man who never strays far from the basket whether he's playing offense or defense. 

But it was George who won Most Improved Player in 2013, bucking the trend of handing the award to a player who only saw his time on the court increase dramatically. The leader of the Indiana Pacers did receive almost eight more minutes per game, but he also improved his performance rather drastically. 

And that's exactly what Jordan is doing during the 2013-14 campaign. 

Much like George did, the Los Angeles Clippers big man is indeed receiving many more minutes per game (11). And much like George did, he's also gotten significantly better during his breakout season. 

Heading into the Clippers' Jan. 22 contest against the surprisingly tough Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan is averaging 9.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 2.5 blocks per game, and he's doing so while shooting a league-best 63.8 percent from the field. 

Yes, his free-throw shooting is just pathetic. There's no debating that, as he's connected on only 40.3 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, which is actually more charitable for the other team. But he's been able to counter that terrible number with everything else. 

Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Since Chris Paul left the Clippers' lineup with a separated shoulder that he suffered on Jan. 3 while driving against the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles hasn't fallen back off pace in the tough Western Conference. In fact, Doc Rivers' squad has actually gone 6-2, and much of the credit can be handed out to the frontcourt. 

Blake Griffin—who is in the midst of an absolutely fantastic campaign, one that leaves no doubt he's an elite power forward—has actually gotten better without CP3 making his life easier. He's shown that he can create for himself and lead a team on a consistent basis. 

Against all odds, the same can be said for Jordan. 

In fact, you may as well call him Marshawn Lynch, because he's been on beast mode ever since his point guard suffered that unfortunate injury. Over the eight games without Paul in the lineup, Jordan has averaged 11.0 points, 14.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 3.6 blocks per game, shooting 59.4 percent from the field. 

Take a gander at how those numbers look compared to the pre-CP3-injury ones: 

Infogr.am.

As you can see from the first group of columns, it's not like Jordan is experiencing an uptick in playing time. An average of 0.1 minutes per game extra isn't what's leading to the bump in rebounds and points. 

The 7-footer has had quite a few excellent outings in 2013-14, but it's hard to point to a better one than his Jan. 20 performance in a 112-103 victory over the Detroit Pistons

Detroit might not be having a lot of success this season, even in the ridiculously weak Eastern Conference, but it still boasts one of the most imposing front lines in basketball: Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith

Not only did Jordan explode for 16 points, 21 rebounds, one assist and four blocks on 8-of-11 shooting from the field, but he also helped make life miserable for the opposing bigs. Splitting time between Drummond and Monroe, he helped hold the latter to only three field-goal attempts. Even when he was guarding the former, Jordan was so active with his help defense that he still corralled the other big man. 

Drummond did finish with 15 points, but he only made two buckets when Jordan was acting as his primary defender. 

It's that defense that has made the biggest impact, and it serves as the primary argument for his Most Improved Player candidacy.

"When Doc Rivers arrived in Los Angeles and immediately began gushing about Jordan's potential, it seemed like a tactic, a ploy to build Jordan's confidence and get him to buy into being the player he could be," wrote Steve Perrin on Clipsnation.com. "Whether it was a a ploy or a sincere expression of Doc's viewpoint, it has clearly had a huge impact on DJ."

What is Perrin referring to? 

That would be Coach Rivers' boasts about his starting center, ones that occurred before the start of the season and were largely viewed as either hyperbolic or flat out ridiculous. Rivers told ESPN's J.A. Adande the following, after all: "I'm looking at DeAndre Jordan as an all-defensive player. I think he should be on the [all] defensive team, I think he should be a candidate for the defensive player of the year award. I'm putting a lot on his plate."

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It was laughable at the time. 

Jordan was a great shot-blocker, but there's a massive difference between blocking shots and playing effective defense. The former includes swatting away attempts, but the latter includes making proper rotations, providing help defense, shutting down individual assignments and—most importantly—preventing points. 

It's no longer laughable. 

Rivers has continued his praise, even saying that Jordan has looked like Bill Russell at times. I wouldn't go that far, but it's clear that the Vinny Del Negro replacement has done some incredible things turning the big man's lofty potential into actual production. 

Jordan does still have work to do protecting the rim. He occasionally gambles too much and allows easy dunks or layup opportunities, and NBA.com's SportVU data shows that he's allowing 51.5 percent of the 9.5 attempts per game he faces at the rim to drop through the hoop. Among the 65 players who face at least five attempts each contest, Jordan is in the bottom half in terms of shooting percentage allowed. 

But that's not his sole task on the Clippers.

Due to the overall ability of the frontcourt—both the starters and the backups—Jordan has to move frequently and constantly provide help for his teammates. And he's still improved as an individual defender. 

Below, you can see the points per possession he's allowed in certain defensive situations, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required): 

Year Overall Isolation Post-Up Roll Man Spot-Up
2012-13 0.86 0.8 0.85 0.72 0.91
2013-14 0.86 0.74 0.88 0.92 0.84

The struggles against roll men—which are partially by design because Jordan is more concerned with defending the paint than preventing players from getting the rock—depress the overall mark to the point that it's the same over the last two years. But he's still an improved defender largely because individual defense is no longer his primary responsibility. 

Which is more impressive? 

Allowing 0.86 points per possession while not worrying about help defense (2012-13) or allowing 0.86 points per possession while considering help defense a role of paramount importance (2013-14)? 

That's why he's improved as an individual defender, even if the numbers in a vacuum don't show that. 

Jordan is a large part of the reason that the Clippers have improved so dramatically over the course of the season, especially on the less-glamorous end of the court. At the beginning of the year, there were concerns about whether the offense could overcome the defense, but now the point-stopping unit borders on elite. 

According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers are allowing only 103.8 points per 100 possessions, which is good for the No. 8 spot in the NBA. That doesn't happen without the services of a certain big man, and I'm not talking about Byron Mullens

Is Jordan the next Bill Russell? Absolutely not. 

Is Jordan the next Defensive Player of the Year? The answer is still no, but it's less definitive than was the case with the last question.

Though he certainly shouldn't be favored over Roy Hibbert, he's at least putting himself in the conversation this season, which is more than could be said last year. Even though blocks tend to win over voters when they shouldn't, Jordan wasn't one of the 21 players who received votes in 2012-13.  

Defense alone doesn't win Jordan the Most Improved Player award, though; rebounding can do that as well. 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In 2012-13, he was a great asset on the boards, averaging 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. Despite a large increase in minutes played, Jordan has pulled down 13.9 per 36 minutes in 2013-14, and he's leading the league in boards per game. 

His offensive rebounding percentage has jumped from 12.7 to 13.3. As for defensive and total rebounding percentage, they've risen 6.6 and 3.8 percent, respectively, according to Basketball-Reference

Only one player ranks in the top 10 for offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. It's not Kevin Love or Dwight Howard, but rather Jordan, who has emerged as the top crasher of the boards in the NBA. 

Who is the Most Improved Player thus far?

Submit Vote vote to see results

As Perrin writes, "A 31 percent increase such as Jordan has experienced this season—from 10.6 to 13.9 rebounds per 36—is almost unheard of, particularly for a player who was already a very good rebounder. And as we know, it turns out to be the difference between 'very good' and 'the best.'"

Jordan has made significant strides on the glass, become a much more impactful defender who deserves to be one of the leading runners-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, grown as an offensive threat and stepped up his game when the Clippers lost Paul to a separated shoulder. 

There are plenty of viable candidates for Most Improved Player: Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas and Arron Afflalo, among others. 

But Jordan, just as he normally does when lining up next to human beings, stands tallest. 

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