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Breaking Down DeAndre Jordan's Evolution into an Elite Rim Protector

Dylan Murphy@@dylantmurphyFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2015

AP Images

The Los Angeles ClippersDeAndre Jordan is arguably the most athletic center in the NBA, and his ability to block shots has never been in question.

But rim protection—one of the most crucial aspects of NBA defense—isn't just about swatting shots into the stands. There are multiple components to patrolling the back line, and most of those nuances occur before a ball-handler even gets near the paint.

It's within this technical minutiae that Jordan has shown significant improvement to become one of the league's best at guarding the basket. 

Grading defensive play with a number is a difficult task, particularly because we can only track completed events. What this means for any rim protector is that we only know how many times and with what rate of success an opponent challenges him at the rim. Any work he does before the shot or preventing it is lost. 

In Jordan's case, he's facing 8.6 field-goal attempts per game around the basket—the 12th-highest rate in the league, according to NBA.com's player tracking data.

Yet he's only forcing opponents to shoot 48.5 percent in such situations, which places him 26th (among players who face six shots at the rim or more per game). While this might not seem too impressive on the surface, his numbers are merely a function of a natural volume-efficiency curve.

Because Jordan is facing such a significant barrage of shots at the hoop, it's more difficult to maintain consistently high levels of rim protection. We can therefore expect his numbers to be slightly less impressive compared to players who are facing fewer rim attacks. 

To put Jordan's numbers in context, his 48.5 mark puts him within two percentage points of Omer Asik, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis and Hassan Whiteside. He's right there with the league's best, at least according to the eye test.

Seth Partnow of ClipperBlog breaks it down even further:

Over the course of the season, Jordan has gone from a clear negative (giving over an extra point per game versus an average defender) to strongly positive, saving almost three quarters of a point per game over an average defender. This puts him at around the 80th percentile of rim defenders, comparable to Dwight Howard and Amir Johnson. In fact, since that well-discussed poor start, he is saving approximately 1.75 points per game, which would also put him fourth for the entire season.

Jordan has also evolved in non-quantifiable aspects. The best interior defenders don't simply deny baskets close in; they prevent shot attempts in the first place. 

In head coach Doc Rivers' scheme—borrowed from former assistant and current Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau—Clippers players overload to the strong side of the ball and encourage long, cross-court passes (the most difficult pass on the floor). Should the ball completely change sides, the defense has time to rotate on flight time. 

This is easier for perimeter players because it's easy to avoid defensive three-second violations. With time to recover should a pass be hurled across the court, they can sit in the paint, quickly hop out and then jump back into position.

This is known as two-nine-ing. (A defender has 2.9 seconds to sit in the paint before he is whistled for defensive three seconds. To reset the clock, he can either step outside the paint with both feet or be within arm's length of an offensive player.)

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Maneuvering within the paint is a more delicate task for bigs. The idea that they're the last line of defense is misleading. More often, they're the first and only help-side players whose sole responsibility is to stop the ball.

While other defenders push over toward the ball to muck up driving lanes, their primary responsibility is limiting three-point shots on kick-outs. They might only stunt at the ball on drives, which is to say they quickly lurch out at it as a deterrent but jump back to their original men in a hurry.

The best defensive bigs, therefore, identify offensive sets and decide when to slide into a help position. Hover in the paint too early, and the offense might attack the basket while the defensive big is trying to clear the paint—that is, scurrying away from the ball side. Wait too long, and the help is late. 

This is where more heady players succeed. Sometimes the ball is on the other side of the floor without much danger of entering the paint. Smarter bigs will stay outside the paint in these scenarios to stave off the three-second call.

Other times, offenses run dummy actions to draw rim protection away from the restricted area. Studying up on an opponent can mitigate these obstacles, because a quick recognition of the action means the defensive big can avoid getting drawn out of position.

Jordan's maturation as a defender stems mostly from his increased mental awareness—namely his ability to diagnose the play quicker. 

Here's an example of his struggles at this art from earlier this season. (Though he's improved a lot this year, it's impossible to eliminate mistakes completely.) 

The Minnesota Timberwolves run what's known as "Floppy," a set in which two guards pop out to the wings off down screens from bigs. On this play, J.J. Redick is trailing Kevin Martin as he flies out to the three-point line, and Spencer Hawes thinks his teammate needs help.

The result is that Hawes and Redick end up doubling the ball. 

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Even though Jordan must be mindful of Andrew Wiggins' cut to the perimeter on his side of the floor, he should know to load to the strong side once point guard Ricky Rubio throws a pass to either wing player.

It would be impossible for him to know that a double is coming, but it's still his responsibility to slide over to the middle of the paint. In case something breaks down defensively, he's in a better position to rotate over. Instead, he remains hugged up on his man, Nikola Pekovic. 

When Rubio hits Martin, Martin immediately whips the ball over to Adreian Payne. 

FOX Sports

If Jordan is already hovering near the rim, he only has a short step to confront Payne and stop him from earning an easy two points. By remaining attached to Pekovic, he has a greater distance to travel and is late as the helper. Payne rises up for the dunk and draws a foul.

These instances of late rotation, however, are decreasing at this juncture of the campaign. Jordan is much more disciplined in his movements near the basket. 

When Isaiah Thomas looks to attack the basket early in the shot clock on this play, Jordan is perched in the center of the paint and lifted on the floor. His man, Tyler Zeller, is below him and not a current threat. 

CSN

Jordan detects a lot of danger in Thomas' drive to the rim. By moving a few steps toward the ball, he becomes a greater deterrent to penetration without increasing scoring risk. Though he can only venture out for 2.9 seconds, it's enough to make Thomas veer horizontally toward a ball-screen.

As Thomas puts his head down and works to avoid the ball pressure from Blake Griffin, there's a brief window for Jordan to reset the three-second clock and clear out of the paint. By the time he gets both feet clear, Thomas has only thrown the ball to Jae Crowder at the top of the key.

And if Crowder drives, Jordan is ready to help.

CSN

Jordan caps off the play by taking a shrewd angle toward the ball when Crowder puts it on the floor. Because Griffin has the right side cut off with solid defense, Jordan expertly places himself between Zeller (who's lurking on the baseline) and Crowder.

With more precise movements, Jordan both deters a shot at the rim and prevents a drop-off pass for a dunk. 

In response to this defense, Crowder panics in the air and nearly throws it away.

There's even more here at the end of the play—a sign that Jordan has begun to rewire his shot-blocking instincts to adapt to NBA verticality rules.

Due to his immense athleticism, Jordan has always been inclined to swat every shot at all costs. The flip side of this aggression is his being prone to pump fakes and fouling, both of which have plagued him at various times in his career. This year, he's averaging 4.2 fouls per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com—an improvement from 4.4 last season and 4.6 in 2013-14.

As you rewatch the video, look at his arms just as Crowder thinks about shooting the ball: Jordan is bringing both hands back toward verticality.

The normal instinct is to bring one or both hands forward, an angle that draws an immediate whistle. Any contact by a defender through non-verticality is a foul, and it's what gets many of the NBA's more aggressive bigs in trouble.

Look at how Jordan remains in a clearly legal guarding position here against Trevor Ariza of the Houston Rockets. As Ariza turns the corner, he charges at Jordan with a solid head of steam. With Jordan on the move and caught in an awkward area between the basket and Ariza, he's in prime position to make a mistake.

Except he doesn't. 

Notice how he raises his right arm early and leaves his feet just a split second before Ariza. This establishes him as completely vertical and proves Ariza has initiated all the contact. Jordan has not committed any sort of foul. 

These details are the difference between Jordan the athletic shot-blocker and Jordan the rim protector. He's clearly an elite defensive big at this point in his career and deserves consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Rivers has already stated that he agrees, via Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

He's clearly the defensive player of the year. If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation. … What he’s doing defensively, if he was doing that offensively, he would be recognized as the MVP or one of them, but because it's defense, no one notices.

Jordan is especially crucial for a Clippers team that has played middle-of-the-pack defense all season. Chris Paul isn't the on-ball stopper he used to be, Redick can't stop elite wings and Matt Barnes is a shell of his former self. Their backup bigs, Glen Davis and Hawes, do not provide nearly the same level of rim protection as Jordan.

Jordan is the one steadying the ship for the Clippers defense. He'll command a significant salary this offseason, and multiple suitors will throw $15-plus million at him to try to lure him away. 

If the Clippers are smart, they'll do whatever it takes to keep him around. He's a crucial component of any postseason run they hope to make, both this year and in years to come. 

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