The improvements Blake Griffin has made this season have understandably garnered most of the attention in Los Angeles, but it's the play of his frontcourt mate DeAndre Jordan that has the Clippers looking like a legitimate title contender for the first time in franchise history.
The development paths of both players have been wildly different. Griffin has shown off more versatility with his game, often functioning as the lead distributor and decision-maker in the half-court and a capable ball-handler out on the break. It's his skill level that's impressing above all else now.
For Jordan, however, there are no such displays of newly added skill or versatility. Whereas Griffin's improvements are impossible to ignore because they're right in front of your face, Jordan's development has mostly taken place between his ears. It's easy to see when a player introduces a new go-to move to his arsenal, but a player's confidence being sustained throughout the game is a little more subtle.
To understand how far Jordan has really come mentally, you have to understand where he was before. Under Vinny Del Negro last year, Jordan played in just 30 out of a possible 82 fourth quarters, averaging just five minutes when he was lucky enough to see the floor.
Del Negro's lack of faith in Jordan was evident throughout the year. He was yanked from games after a single mistake, and his overall minutes began to decline slowly throughout Del Negro's tenure. Jordan was often hung out to dry in the media for no real reason. He wasn't being developed; he was being phased out.
All that changed upon the arrival of Doc Rivers. Rivers quickly realized that the biggest avenue to improve would be getting the 25-year-old back on the right track. Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated put it nicely here:
The Clippers were already established as one of the best offensive teams in the league and capable of holding their own against any opponent. High-level title contention, though, remained elusive — and largely contingent on defensive growth. That’s Jordan’s cue; nowhere else on the Clippers’ roster would you find a deeper well of defensive talent, nor a more valid basis for internal improvement. Paul and Griffin may have rebooted the Clippers, but it was on Jordan and Rivers to transform them.
In a way, Jordan became Rivers' top priority the day he took the job. The implementation of Boston's strong-side defense would require everyone to buy in, naturally, but no player would be more important in spearheading that effort than Jordan.
Before that could take place, though, Jordan needed to know that he had the trust of the new staff. Here's what he recently told Sam Amick at USA Today about Rivers:
"He believes in his players, and it's not like it's just something he's saying," Jordan told USA TODAY Sports about Rivers. "He really believes it. He just puts that confidence in not only me but everybody here. That's huge, when not only you believe in yourself but your teammates believe in you and it comes from the top. And he's a Hall of Fame coach, and he believes in me, so that just takes your game to a whole new level.
"He kept reiterating that, and it made me feel comfortable and even more confident when I'm out there playing. From Day One, he put a big task and a big goal in my head. I'm accepting that challenge and am going to embrace it and work as hard as a I can to make it happen."
Jordan is finally playing without the fear of failure, and because of that his development is no longer being stunted. He's fully embraced all the responsibility, and you can tell he's both appreciated and tries his hardest to live up to Rivers' praise of him at every turn.
As a result, Jordan has seen huge gains across the board in his sixth season. He's currently leading the league in rebounds per game and effective field-goal percentage while also posting personal career highs in points per game (10.2) and PER (18). Advanced metrics love Jordan this season as well, as he ranks eighth in the league in Win Shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
It's really been quite simple. With consistent playing time and sustained confidence for the first time in his career, Jordan has become, well, consistent.
And while there are still strides to make defensively, both for Jordan and the team, it's a positive sign that the Clippers have hit another gear now that everyone is more comfortable in the system. According to NBA.com's media stats site (subscription required), the Clippers are second in the league in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break, holding opponents to a paltry 98.9 points per 100 possessions.
When you pair the Clippers' improvements on that side of the ball with Jordan's elite rebounding, you can certainly make the case that he belongs in the discussion for Most Improved Player. NBA TV researcher Kevin Cottrell weighed in at NBA.com about Jordan's candidacy:
Last postseason the Pacers and Spurs were left wondering what would have been if their big men were on the floor in crucial moments of 4th quarters to protect the basket and secure game-winning rebounds. Due to Jordan’s off-season work, the Clippers should not be left wondering “what if” this postseason. Furthermore, DeAndre Jordan should not have to wonder what it would be like to be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
While it seems unlikely that Jordan will win the award over more skilled offensive players like Goran Dragic, Lance Stephenson and even teammate Griffin, the type of work he's doing on a nightly basis in the shadows deserves plenty of praise.
Jordan has always been athletic and capable, but the combination of opportunity, patience and faith instilled by Rivers has now made him what the Clippers always needed him to be: reliable.