Los Angeles Clippers Need DeAndre Jordan to Make One More Leap This Season

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2014

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan dunks during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, in Los Angeles. The Kings won 98-92. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Clippers are calling DeAndre Jordan's name, and he hasn't responded—yet. 

The man who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago was supposed to make another leap during his second year under coach Doc Rivers. But so far, DJ has actually regressed following his breakout season.

Jordan's improvement last year was mental over all else. He didn't physically develop. He was always a freak athlete. But while playing for Rivers, it all clicked in his head.

DJ hit his rotations more sharply. He understood how to defend the pick-and-roll better. He didn't bite as often on pump fakes. He boxed out more than he ever had, pulling down a career-high and league-leading 13.6 boards a night. He just looked like a different guy.

It didn't all happen early either. Jordan may have gotten off to a nice start, but "nice" is hardly great. Through 11 games last season, the Clippers stood 29th in points allowed per possession, leading to countless not-good-enough-defensively-to-win-a-championship labels for L.A. 

But December Jordan was better than November Jordan. January Jordan was better than December Jordan. The Clippers finished eighth in points allowed per possession, and the progression continued until he averaged 15.1 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game during last year's first-round playoff series against the Andrew Bogut-less Golden State Warriors.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

DeAndre Jordan looked like a different player—and his team became that much more suffocating because of it. The improvement seemed as if it would carry into the 26-year-old's current season. But it hasn't.

Jordan has anchored the Clippers to the league's 21st-ranked defense through seven games, though the poor results aren't fully DJ's fault.

The wing defenders have let perimeter ball-handlers slide by them with Michael Jackson-like grace. Opponents are getting to the rim whenever they want, and once they get there, there's not much for Jordan to do.

That's partly why the Clippers are allowing ghastly 60.5 percent shooting at the rim, good for worst in the league, even with a center who's thought of as a world-class paint protector.

It's not all on the wings, though. Jordan also hasn't been putting himself or his team in a position to succeed, straying from the paint more often than before. He hasn't been the anchor he was a year ago. And like with his improvement, his regression isn't physical. It's all stylistic.

One of the reasons Jordan bolted his way into the top-10 NBA Defenders Club last season was because of his ability to contain and anchor, two necessary traits for a dominant defensive center.

Through the Clippers' seven games and especially in the first five-and-a-half, Jordan has jumped passing lanes and showed particularly high during pick-and-rolls, leaving the paint unmanned without anyone coming over to help.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

He's been far more aggressive on the defensive end than we saw before, which is not an inherently bad trait. Some of the NBA's best defenders—Joakim Noah, for example—share that characteristic. But there's a glaring difference: When Noah leaves the paint to defend the perimeter, he has Taj Gibson or another upper-echelon defender there to rotate behind him. And Jordan's teammates aren't helping him. 

Actually, as Jordan has gotten more aggressive on the defensive end, his frontcourt-mate, Blake Griffin, has seen his effectiveness deteriorate.

Griffin was never an all-world defender, though he did bring himself up to capable levels last season. But for some reason, it's been different in 2014-15.

You can blame it on offseason back issues, flu-like symptoms, lack of effort, disinterest or anything else that I can't think of off the top of my head. We can't know for sure exactly why Griffin's defense has taken such a noticeable dip this year. But whatever the trigger, Griffin's lost the ability to help the helper, often not even bothering to get into a defensive stance.

With DJ, it all looks antsy, like on this play from a Nov. 5 game, when the Warriors torched the Clippers D for 121 points. Watch Jordan lunge for the pass aimed at Andrew Bogut:

Credit: NBA.com

Bogut is not a threat beyond the three-point line as long as there's a defender in front of him. But when Jordan goes for the interception as opposed to staying back and manning up, he gives one of the best-passing big men in the game a chance to create an open shot.

So Bogut takes a couple dribbles and kicks to a now wide-open Draymond Green, whose man, Griffin, had to jump into the lane to prevent an easy layup. 

Therein lies the issue. When DJ leaves the paint, the Clippers are no longer capable of protecting it.

Ultimately, it's about recognition, and while Jordan has been incrementally better over the past game-and-a-half (we'll get to this later), he started the year prioritizing shots outside the paint too much, partly because the Clippers struggled so much guarding the wings.

Just a few plays after the one mentioned above, Jordan contests a Klay Thompson fake in the paint, but when Thompson passes out to the corner, DeAndre gets caught ball-watching and doesn't notice Bogut slide below the hoop. When he does, DJ jumps the passing lane again and gives up a wide-open, two-handed slam:

Credit: NBA.com

This isn't a horrendous play by Jordan. It's just not a particularly heady one, and in the end, it's not what the Clippers should hope for from a guy who they need to be great to find success.

He wasn't following the ball to a fault much last year. He wasn't attempting those anxious desperation plays as often either. Granted, the help was coming more quickly when he did.

The Clippers' communication is far from perfect.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a play against the Sacramento Kings indicative of a particular rotation with which the Clippers were having trouble. DeMarcus Cousins rocked the Clips in their matchup, partly because of L.A.'s lack of communication on the pick-and-roll. Here was the play in reference:

Credit: NBA.com

See how DeAndre Jordan switches from Cousins to the roll man, Jason Thompson, on this play? Griffin doesn't register the switch and takes a step toward Thompson before darting to Cousins late, only to lean in lazily and foul on the Cousins make.

It's impossible to say exactly who is responsible here. It could be on Jordan for not communicating the switch in time. It could be on Griffin for not adjusting quickly enough or not understanding the switch. Griffin is, after all, a historically struggling pick-and-roll recoverer. 

Still, Jordan's communication, which improved so mightily throughout last season, is not as strong as it was by the time the Clips got to the playoffs a year ago, and the team's help defenders are suffering for it.

The Clippers can still improve the defense. These are philosophical, mental issues which they already know. They just forgot them. And over the past couple games, they're slowly starting to remember it all.

Jordan played his best defensive half of the season during the final two quarters against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 8, when the Clippers allowed just 40 points and pulled out a 106-102 victory.

He played another strong game against the San Antonio Spurs two days later, totaling five blocks and containing far better than he did in the first five-and-a-half. He's starting to rein in the overaggression, the impulsiveness which led to open shots like the Green make and the Bogut dunk.

He's even commanding the defense better, re-earning the anchor label he was tagged with last year, and the team defense is clearly improving because of it.

Even though LaMarcus Aldridge makes this third-quarter shot, watch Jordan trap Damian Lillard on the screen-and-roll and call for Jamal Crawford to rotate toward a popping LMA as J.J. Redick slides to man Wes Matthews down low:

Credit: NBA.com

That's admirably executed offense which leads to a shot make, but it's also well-oiled defense, even leading to DJ getting into rebound position in case of a miss. And this wasn't the only instance of the Clippers shoring up their rotations. They move like this for the whole second half against the Blazers. 

In the play below, Jordan actually stifles two pick-and-rolls on one possession. 

Jordan denies the passing lane to Aldridge on the first pick-and-roll, forcing Portland into another set. The Blazers then go into this formation out of which they would run another screen-and-roll, this time for Robin Lopez. Look at how far from Lopez Jordan stands at the start of the play:

Credit: NBA.com

But DJ reads the rim-run perfectly, leaving Aldridge to help on the Blazers center, forcing a pass to the corner without much time left on the clock. 

Credit: NBA.com

Of course, Chris Paul reads the lane and closes out on a miss to conclude the play.

This is how the Clippers, who led the league in three-point percentage against a season ago, played. They can regain that, especially if Jordan continues to run as he did during the final two periods against the Blazers, a half which should absolutely be on his resume tape.

The Clippers allowed a stifling 80.3 points per 100 possessions during those couple quarters. Even in a loss, they had a 95.3 defensive rating versus the Spurs on Monday. Both of those figures are better than the Indiana Pacers' league-leading defensive efficiency from last year. There's improvement, but Jordan isn't all the way there. And neither is this defense. 

For a squad with struggling wing defenders, it's not crazy to say Jordan has to be even better than he was a season ago for the Clippers defense to reach the same levels. Entering his prime, he's perfectly capable of doing that. We just haven't seen it yet.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade but maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of Nov. 12 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.