When DeAndre Jordan crashes into next summer with a diametric combination of awesome physical ability and clear-as-day offensive limitations, the Los Angeles Clippers center will be one of the most sought after unrestricted free agents on the open market.
At least one of the NBA's 30 teams (including the Clippers) will most likely lob a maximum contract in his direction. Wondering whether the flawed but effective big man will receive a huge offer is a waste of time. Jordan is a clear-cut starter with playoff experience and Defensive Player of the Year potential. He’ll finish the 2014-15 season with seven years of experience under his belt, and he will still be three years away from his 30th birthday.
Despite heavy odds against him ever making a single All-Star game throughout his entire career (and not being one of the three most valuable players on his own team last season, depending on where you stand with 2014 Sixth Man of the Year winner Jamal Crawford), cap space will be aplenty for several franchises that view him as a significant draw at a decisive position.
He’ll get paid. The more important question worth asking, then, is: Does he deserve it?
Jordan’s goatee droops nearly seven feet off the floor. He turns sure layups into hesitant floaters then dissolves the ball in midair, often summoning a soft prayer out of opposing guards as they drive towards the basket.
He made quite a few strides last season, but one statistic stands out above the rest. It isn’t the 1,114 rebounds or 67.6 percent shooting from the floor—and both certainly qualify as “impressive,” being that they led the entire league.
No. What matters most is more difficult to measure. Jordan missed zero games over the past two seasons but was on the floor 860 more minutes last year than the one before. The Clippers finally believe in Jordan. He averaged 5.0 minutes per fourth quarter in 2012-13 (10th on the team), and 7.5 minutes per fourth quarter in 2013-14 (good for fifth).
The 2.5-minute boost is hugely significant; tangible evidence of a player coming into his own on a championship contender. Jordan was once viewed as a gross liability thanks to porous free-throw shooting and lapses on defense. He couldn't be counted on to stay on the floor in a tight spot.
Fourth quarter minutes obviously can't tell the whole picture, though. Jordan put up numbers and wowed the audience on a nightly basis with some of the most impressive dunks hammered home since DVR was invented. But an unquantifiable chunk of his performance is the direct result of the environment he’s set in. His fundamental weaknesses aren't getting better.
Jordan runs the floor, sucks help-defenders into the paint on pick-and-rolls and makes good use of his hands above the rim. His screens are made of granite, and he has great timing on cuts into open space.
As far as offense goes, that’s about all Jordan can do. Is it enough punch to rationalize a max contract, even if it comes with top-notch rebounding, quality rim protection and serviceable pick-and-roll defense?
Not really. Jordan is relatively young but has already banged his head against his offensive ceiling. We know he’ll never be a legitimate back-to-the-basket threat, have the ability to take his man off the dribble or space the floor with a threatening face-up game. It’s tough to imagine him ever becoming a 50 percent free-throw shooter (if that): Jordan is a career 42.5 percent shooter from the charity stripe and finished 41.1 percent over the past two seasons.
Even though Jordan doesn’t deserve a max deal, his value to L.A. is different than it would be on another team. Mobile big men who anchor successful defenses (the Clippers were top-10 in defensive rating both overall and with Jordan on the court last season) do not grow on trees. They’re extremely valuable commodities. As CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper points out here:
In 2013-14, the Clippers gave up a slightly lower percentage in the restricted area when Jordan was on the floor, but they also gave up 3.0 percent fewer shot attempts in the paint with DeAndre patrolling the key. His athleticism wasn't just a highlight factory anymore; he was actually a deterrent at the rim and he got better as the season went along. The Clippers with Jordan on the court after the All-Star break protected the restricted area 4.7 percent better than they had with Jordan on the court prior to the break.
But Jordan’s shortcomings (shot attempts beyond three feet of the rim are an absolute horror show) and looming price tag create a tricky situation. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are both signed through the next three seasons before they can opt out in July 2017. The franchise's duo isn’t going anywhere. Cementing Jordan as the third wheel with a five-year deal worth 30 percent of the 2015-16 salary cap would prevent the team from adding more useful two-way pieces.
It would restrict their depth and severely hinder their ability to build a championship roster.
If lead decision-maker Doc Rivers feels he can use that money elsewhere—behind new ownership, Rivers as the coach, two of the league’s 10 best players already in place and a sun-tanned backdrop, perhaps no destination for free agents is more attractive than the Clippers right now—Jordan will sign a four-year max deal with another team (the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers immediately come to mind), and succumb to a dramatic and overwhelming increase in responsibility.
If he’s removed from Rivers’ cocoon or stuck in an offense that isn’t run by the best point guard in the world (the pick-and-roll’s Picasso), it’s difficult to picture Jordan widening his repertoire on both ends—or even finely tuning the skills he already has.
Even though Jordan’s position, age and clear strengths (defense and rebounding) equate to him receiving a maximum contract, whichever team actually pays it (again, including the Clippers) will come to regret the decision.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.