Before Doc Rivers arrived, the Los Angeles Clippers' DeAndre Jordan was a roaming big man without much defensive discipline. Though he's still prone to finding himself out of position, Rivers' scheme and teaching have helped Jordan unlock some of his massive defensive potential.
It's easy to see why Jordan could be an absolute defensive force in the NBA. At 6'11" with rangy arms and elite athleticism, he's a natural shot-blocker who can also move his feet really well. Without too many back-to-the-basket post-up players left in today's NBA, his athletic body type is an almost perfect counter to the strong, long and quick wings revolutionizing the perimeter positions in the NBA.
Because more teams are spreading out defenses with four perimeter players and one big, there's less clogged area in the paint. While this has the defensive advantage of the ball starting further away from the rim, it requires more athleticism and quickness to handle longer defensive rotations as the ball pings around the perimeter.
In terms of shot-blocking, this actually makes it easier for rim-protectors to get their hands on shots, or at least alter attempts at the rim. They have the freedom to roam and help oftentimes, having only to worry about their man and the ball.
The lack of goings on in the paint limits responsibility this way, which in some sense makes the job of the shot-blocker easier. But with less bodies comes more offensive rebounders: The easiest way to grab an offensive board is when a defensive big leaves his man to help on the strong side.
Without proper rotation—which, again, is difficult due to teams spreading out further on the floor—the offensive player is now standing alone on the weak side. With the shot-blocker now airborne and/or fully occupied, it's all but assured the offensive big can grab the miss.
So how does this affect DeAndre Jordan, exactly? Doc Rivers' defensive scheme dictates overloading the strong side and forcing teams to make difficult, cross-court passes—hoping to limit the collateral damage caused by missed rotations and offensive rebounds under normal circumstances.
If the ball does swing, the entire defense must switch sides and realign itself in response.
It's in this moment that offenses can catch defenses off guard. A defensive guard who closes out too quickly can get blown by, and now it's up to the big to help.
This is where Jordan is vastly improved. While he used to foul and go for SportsCenter-type blocks, he's now much more disciplined when rotating into a help position. Instead of being late and going for the blocked shot, he's getting there early and establishing position.
This not only gives him a much better chance of limiting his fouls, but also makes it much more likely that he can cause a miss or retreat by the offensive player.
Check out this nifty lead-in to a pick-and-roll by the Phoenix Suns, which puts Chris Paul in a bad spot and Jordan left to handle a two-on-one—the Suns' Markieff Morris rolls to the rim as Ish Smith probes the paint off the dribble.
A previous version of DeAndre Jordan would have cut off Morris and invited Smith to drive, with the thinking that he could easily swat any Smith shot attempt at the rim. Sometimes, Jordan would get the block and all would end well. But more often than not, he would commit the foul as he launched his body into the air and made contact with the shooter.
This time, here's what he does:
Smith is barely even dribbling below the three-point line, and Jordan is already sliding his feet to get himself between the basket and the ball. This is picture perfect pick-and-roll defense, especially since Jordan is keeping his inside hand low to guard against a bounce pass. He'll trust his body positioning to legally thwart Smith, and his athleticism to handle the lob should it come.
Because Jordan is in such a perfect position in that brief moment of Clippers' vulnerability, Smith changes course and tries to elude Jordan by weaving through the paint. That split second gives Los Angeles' defense enough time to recover and clog the paint, forcing Smith to throw up a floater.
But the time also allows Jordan to slide his feet, once again maintaining his position between Smith and the basket. Without having to put himself in a foul-prone position, he blocks the shot.
One of the innate advantages Jordan brings as a defender is his ability to roam outside the paint. Though most NBA teams prefer deeper drops by their big men to syphon shots to the mid-range, athletic bigs like Jordan can be more aggressive to handle quicker ball-handlers.
His length and speed allow him to block shots should he get blown by, and any space created by a step-back jumper can be countered by a solid contest due to his length. It's really a lose-lose situation for the offense, should Jordan remain disciplined.
But the true staple of great defense is denying penetration in the first place. Here, Milwaukee's Ramon Sessions finds himself one-on-one against Jordan after a solid pick knocks off Paul.
Under normal circumstances, the guard would attack the big and head to the rim. Jordan is so quick and early at jumping out after the pick, however, that Sessions is caught off guard and immediately crosses back over towards Paul.
In effect, Jordan's calculated, but aggressive drop completely blows up this pick-and-roll. Sessions takes a pull-up jumper instead, which is exactly what Rivers wants his defense to do.
We can again see the difference with Rivers as his coach because Jordan, despite his aggression, remains squared up to Sessions. He's not baiting him to drive, as he's so prone to doing, and instead sticks to Rivers' defensive principles. This allows the Clippers to get their desired result.
In both of the above scenarios, Jordan only needs momentary discipline to succeed—his imposing frame is often enough to scare away opponents from venturing into the paint any further.
But on this next play, we can see that Sessions isn't quite as hesitant. Initially, all's well and good: Paul fights over the pick, Jordan steps up in his aggressive drop and the Clippers seem to have everything well contained.
It's just that Sessions doesn't quite give up on his angled sideline drive. He still has Paul somewhat compromised on his hip, and senses an advantage if he can keep Paul at bay and remain patient.
If there's a scouting report on Jordan, it's to attack him directly and let him commit fouls. He's at his best on the weak side, but only improving in on-ball situations. Here, Sessions does just that and holds his ground.
In that brief holding pattern, Jordan prematurely returns to his man, thinking Paul has fully recovered when he actually has not.
Jordan turns his head, takes one step back toward his original man and Sessions explodes to the rim. Luckily Sessions tries to draw contact and Jordan stays vertical, making the layup much more difficult than it needs to be. Had he simply finished with power, it would have had a much better chance.
Jordan, quite simply, is an athletic freak. This simple fact will always make him an effective player around the rim, both offensively and defensively. Basketball, however, is much more than size, speed and power. Some of the best players lack all of these qualities, yet are nonetheless extremely effective.
If Jordan can nail down some more technique under Rivers, he'll be a big-time defensive player and one of the top assets in the league.
Thus far this season, we've seen him take some strides to unlock that massive potential. There's still a long way to go, but it's certainly promising.