It's natural to view Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan as a somewhat dispensable third wheel to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. When you play with two of the best talents in the league, that will happen.
It might even be easy to think that because Jordan isn't particularly skilled, he could be replaced rather easily.
That's a dangerous line of thinking, though.
Over the course of last season, Jordan proved that he's critical to the Clippers' title hopes as the team's lone defensive anchor. Once he was finally trusted with consistent minutes and given a clear role, Jordan blossomed throughout the season and became the type of player people always thought he could be.
Here's what Clippers head coach Doc Rivers told Chris Palmer about Jordan for Bleacher Report:
'Very few players are willing to accept a specific role like his,' says Rivers. 'But early on he realized this defensive and rebounding thing is not bad.'
'DJ gives us cohesion,' says Rivers. 'He helps create an environment that puts everyone at ease. He's really good at that, and it's why our guys get along so well.'
The Clippers could still be a good team without Jordan. Paul and Griffin seemingly guarantee a top-5 offense every single year just on their own. At least on the surface, they might not need Jordan.
But without their big man in the middle, the Clippers would be gutless and maybe a little lifeless. Driving lanes would go uninterrupted, and a dunk or block from Jordan is sometimes worth more than two points, even though technically it's not.
Here's Zach Harper at CBS Sports:
After one season under Doc Rivers, Jordan flourished on the defensive end of the floor. In his first five seasons in the NBA, Jordan was capable of blocking shots, but a lot of them seemed empty. He'd provide the highlight, but it didn't stop the other team from regularly scoring whether Jordan was on the floor or not. 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. Jordan was the leading rebounder in the NBA, had the second most blocks total, and the third highest blocks per game in the league.
Jordan's improved play and perception brings about another set of problems for the Clippers, even though they're good ones to have. There's no doubt that as an unrestricted free agent in the 2015 offseason, Jordan is going to attract some buyers.
Centers always seem to get paid at a premium, and Jordan is unique in that he'll be hitting unrestricted free agency at the same time he's hitting his prime as a basketball player. Even though he's incredibly limited as a scorer and free-throw shooter, Jordan is a player who knows what he is and what he's supposed to do.
His rare combination of size and athleticism would attract teams on its own, but now with a year of production and the backing of a championship-winning coach like Rivers, teams with a need in the middle will undoubtedly look at Jordan as a way to take care of the defensive side of the floor and the glass.
Here's Michael Pina of Bleacher Report:
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?
There may be some hesitancy when it comes to paying Jordan a max deal, but the Clippers should hope that they have enough in place to convince Jordan to take a little less. That's where he's spent his entire career, after all, and it's a new day with owner Steve Ballmer taking over for Donald Sterling.
You would think that Jordan will want to stay in Los Angeles, anyway. Rivers is the first coach that has really fully trusted him, and by all means he's a guy players love to play for. Jordan has also maintained a close relationship with Griffin throughout the years, which should certainly be a pull.
While the Clippers should be worried about what the market dictates as Jordan's price, they shouldn't be too concerned that Jordan will bolt to a different situation so long as the money is equal. In Paul, Jordan has the league's best point guard and distributor, and attaching yourself next to Griffin for the future is a pretty strong idea. Also, Los Angeles isn't exactly a bad place to call home.
If money is the only real incentive to leave, the Clippers should try to lock in on an extension before Jordan gets to the open market. There's a pretty good chance he only increases his stock even more with another season under Rivers, so now might be the best time for the Clippers to negotiate.
Ultimately, if push comes to shove, the Clippers can either go into the luxury tax or make salary sacrifices elsewhere, like letting go of Jamal Crawford's partially guaranteed deal or finding a way to dump Jared Dudley or J.J. Redick.
While Jordan is a lock to make more than the $11.4 million he'll be paid this season going forward, a full max offer may be slightly unrealistic to expect from multiple teams, particularly from ones Jordan would consider leaving the Clippers for.
That's in large part because the center position could potentially be pretty deep in 2015 free agency. Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik are all set to become unrestricted free agents barring extensions. Roy Hibbert, Al Jefferson and Brook Lopez all have player options, and Nikola Vucevic is on tap to be restricted.
That's seven quality starting centers that could be available aside from Jordan, and so the large pool of players could potentially drive the price down a bit. It seems unlikely that Jordan would garner an offer worth $20 million a year if Asik was available for nearly half of that, for example.
Ultimately, the Clippers should be pressing for an extension before the season, even if Jordan likely stands to gain more by waiting to negotiate until free agency.
There should be some natural concern here, but when you have a great player's coach, the league's best point guard, one of the league's richest owners and the benefits of the city of Los Angeles in your corner, you don't need to be stricken with fear over losing your team's longest-tenured player. Those days are pretty much gone for the Clippers.
Basically, it's not about being able to retain Jordan, it's about the price point and the potential consequences of having a third massive contract.
Is it worth being a luxury tax team for a few years if you're contending for a title? Is there a replacement for Jordan readily available who will keep the team financially flexible and in the title hunt? Is it worth it to overpay for an asset to maintain steady forward progress?
These are all questions the Clippers will have to answer, but if I had to guess, Jordan won't want to leave and will be viewed as indispensable by Doc Rivers. There's too much mutual incentive present for the two sides not to come to an agreement at some point, whether it be this year or next offseason.