NBA teams don't win championships without at least a few great defenders on the roster. Being strong defensively is almost a prerequisite for being a title team, and typically it's the man in the middle who makes the biggest impact. Tim Duncan. Tyson Chandler. Kevin Garnett. You get the idea.
For the Los Angeles Clippers, the lack of elite defenders has been an issue ever since Chris Paul joined forces with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. For as great as Paul is at creating turnovers, he alone can not spearhead a great defense. Griffin provides more help than he once did in that area, but almost all of his production comes on the offensive end.
Given Griffin's limitations and the lack of athleticism out on the wings next to Paul, DeAndre Jordan has been playing whack-a-mole for years now.
Over the past few seasons, when Jordan helped out on a drive, the dump pass to a big man would open up. When he contested shots, the weak side would be wide open for offensive rebounding. When he laid off a pick, his guards were too slow to get around or under the screen and stay in front. When he hedged too far, the Clippers were too vulnerable at the rim without him.
Jordan, for quite some time, could seemingly do no right. The systemic rules were almost nonexistent under Vinny Del Negro, and consistent minutes for Jordan were equally as rare.
A lot of that changed this year with the arrival of Doc Rivers. From day one, Rivers made it a point to stand behind Jordan and place him on the same level as Griffin and Paul.
Here's what Rivers told Arash Markazi of ESPNLA.com before the season:
I'm always focused on our big three guys, Blake [Griffin], DJ [DeAndre Jordan] and Chris [Paul]. Their leadership is important to our team. I'm always watching them. I think those are the guys that I have more focus on than anybody else.
That's our big three, I like our big three. I like what DeAndre gives us. He gives us something a lot of the guys in the league can't do. He can block shots, he can run the floor, he can defend, he's talking and he's in the best shape of his career. He's doing a lot of great things for us.
Rivers didn't shy away from putting lofty expectations on Jordan, because he knew what would be required of his young center if the Clippers were to become elite.
So far, Jordan has rewarded Rivers for his faith. Playing a career-high 35.8 minutes a game, Jordan is leading the league in rebounds per game (14) and effective field-goal percentage (65.1 percent). There are almost no statistical categories, advanced or basic, where Jordan hasn't improved.
It's not that Jordan has drastically changed his game or added a bunch of new skills. Instead, he's been able to focus almost solely on the few things he does at an elite level without the fear of getting yanked out of the game for making a mistake.
That's a good thing, because Jordan still does make mistakes.
Jordan isn't defending at a level worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year hype Rivers gave him in preseason, as his help defense can be a bit spotty and he can sometimes neglect to contest jumpers, despite registering third in the league in total blocked shots.
There's also the fact that the Clippers are slightly worse defensively this year than they were last season, but some slippage is to be expected in the first half of the season with a brand-new system, new players, and significant injuries to Chris Paul and Matt Barnes. The fact that the Clippers have been able to remain a top-10 defense in terms of efficiency actually says a lot about Jordan's ability to hold down the fort.
For the Clippers to eventually reach the level that Rivers' teams in Boston were at defensively, they'll need much different personnel on the perimeter. Any team with a wing rotation that includes Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick is going to be capped defensively. Those guys, whether it be because of size or speed or willingness, are going to give up their fair share of points.
Can the Clippers win a championship with DeAndre Jordan at center?
Jordan is at least better equipped to deal with the leaks on the perimeter than he was before, but there's still room for improvement both on an individual and team level. The Clippers are not yet maximized defensively, and Jordan's incredible combination of size and athleticism is the primary reason for that.
Once his instincts are further developed, Jordan can take things to the next level.
With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers have an offense capable of winning a title. The defense isn't there quite yet, but it's steadily improved throughout the season alongside Jordan's own improvements. That's a good sign.
In the past, the thought of Jordan being the key to the Clippers' title hopes would have been a little scary, and maybe even a little laughable. Given his role defensively and how completely irreplaceable he has proved to be, that's no longer the case. Everyone knows the Clippers can't win a title without Griffin and Paul at the best of their abilities. It's fair to include Jordan in that group now as well.