This is the final installment in a five-part series where we've discussed whether five of the NBA's biggest free agents are worth maximum-salary contracts. The first installment covered Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler. The second discussed San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. The third examined Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson. The fourth analyzed Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. Below, we look into Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.
No NBA player's true value is more frequently misunderstood than DeAndre Jordan's. The unrestricted free-agent center is pegged by many as an elite defender with little-to-no offensive value, but that assessment ignores many important details.
Unlike the other four players we've covered in this series, Jordan is not coming off his rookie deal. He just finished the final season of a four-year, $43 million deal and has played seven years in the NBA, with the L.A. Clippers. Because he's been in the league that long, Jordan is eligible for a contract with a starting salary equal to 30 percent of the salary cap, rather than 25 percent.
With a projected cap of $67.1 million for the 2015-16 season, these are the maximum-salary offers that could be coming Jordan's way when he dips his feet into the free-agency waters:
|Re-Sign With Clippers||Sign Elsewhere|
Clippers head coach and president Doc Rivers has already stated that the team will offer Jordan a max deal, according to Arash Markazi of ESPN.
Additionally, USA Today's Sam Amick wrote that Jordan has meetings scheduled with the Mavericks, Lakers and Knicks, and each of those teams is expected to offer him a maximum contract. Those teams believe they have a good chance of prying Jordan away because "league-wide rumblings have grown louder that Jordan might want a chance to shine in a different landscape," Amick wrote.
With all these teams preparing to offer Jordan a whole bunch of money, the question remains: Is he worth it?
The Hope: Why Jordan is Worth the Max
Let's start here: Jordan is one of the most durable players in the NBA. He's played 322 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league. That's every single regular-season game for four straight seasons, plus 10 more games. For any player in this day and age, that's pretty incredible. For a big man, it's nearly unheard of. The only other bigs to play every game in even the last two years are Tristan Thompson and Brandon Bass.
Jordan is also arguably the best rebounder in the league. He led the NBA in both defensive and total rebounding percentage last season and finished second in percentage of available offensive boards collected. Among players with at least 2,000 combined minutes played over the last two seasons, he ranks second in offensive, defensive and total rebounding percentage.
Rebounding, as you may know, was identified by Dean Oliver as one of the "four factors of basketball success" in his seminal book, Basketball on Paper. You can't score if you don't have the ball. Jordan gobbles up extra possessions for the Clippers by crashing the boards hard on both ends of the floor. His offensive-rebounding exploits helped them lead the NBA in offensive efficiency last season.
It's Jordan's offensive value that is the most frequently misunderstood aspect of his game. Far too many fans, coaches and media members equate a lack of range, shot creation and versatility with a lack of value. What Jordan provides to an offense is often hidden from the box score.
Jordan doesn't score much. He has a points-per-game average of 8.0 for his career, and last year, he set a career high at just 11.5 a night. What he does do is score efficiently; he's led the NBA in field-goal percentage for three straight years.
This is probably where you're thinking, "Of course he led the NBA in field-goal percentage; all he does is dunk!" That's largely true. It can't be denied. But dunks are the most efficient shots in the game. If you're only going to take one kind of shot, it should probably be a dunk. And it's far better that Jordan recognizes his limitations and tailors his game to fit them than trying to put up a bunch of jumpers just for the sake of appearing to have a more versatile offensive repertoire.
To be sure, Jordan has a variety of offensive skills; they're just not skills that help him create his own offense. He does plenty of creating for others, just not through passing. He sets good screens and rolls hard to the rim after nearly every one of them, whether he's screening on or off the ball; and again, his offensive rebounding provides additional possessions for the Clippers to use.
Shooters like J.J. Redick are renowned for their spacing effect because they knock down outside shots and keep defenders out of the paint. They stretch the floor horizontally to allow teammates easier inside looks. Jordan stretches the floor vertically, which is just as important. He draws defenders into the paint and opens up looks for Redick, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and others that might not otherwise be there.
That kind of value, though absent from the box score, often shows up in the Clippers' on-off numbers. Take a look:
Los Angeles' offense has been at least 4.5 points per 100 possessions better with Jordan on the floor in each of the last four years, and it peaked at 15.5 points better this past season. Overall, in the two years Doc Rivers has been coaching the team, it's been 11.5 points better with Jordan. Under Vinny Del Negro (and with Chris Paul on the roster), it was 6.0 points better. And in the last four years combined (i.e. since Paul has been on the team), it's been 8.9 points better. That's massive, and that's what we mean by hidden offensive effect.
Of course, Jordan's value is not limited to the offensive side of the floor. He led the league in defensive rebounding, collecting a board on 32.4 percent of opponents' misses while on the floor. Just as his offensive rebounding holds value because of the extra possessions it affords, Jordan's elite defensive rebounding does the same because it takes a scoring chance away from the opposition. If you recall, Doc Rivers dwelled on this point a million times this past season.
Jordan is a tremendous shot-blocker as well. He's one of just six players to block at least 5.0 percent of opponents' two-point shots while on the floor over the last four seasons.
He led the NBA in Defensive Win Shares during the 2014-15 season, and everybody involved with the Clippers showers his defense with praise. Earlier this year, Matt Barnes told me this about DeAndre's communication skills:
We all talk, but myself and DeAndre are kind of the anchors of our defense. We just try to quarterback everybody, cover for each other’s mistakes and play hard. DeAndre knows every play. I take my hat off to him. He really studies the scouting report, and whenever they call a play, DJ calls it out. We all go with his call and get ready to play defense.
Captaining the defensive communication from the back line is one of the most important roles for an NBA center in today's game. Given how often teams run pick-and-rolls, and the sheer amount of misdirection and decoys elsewhere on the floor, having someone who knows what's coming, how to react to it and how to get that information to the other players on the floor is of paramount importance.
Jordan's two-way value is captured in a whole host of advanced statistics. Jordan posted career bests in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Share rate, Box Score Plus-Minus and Wins Produced last season, while he also led all centers in Wins Above Replacement and finished fourth in RPM.
He was one of just six players in the league with an offensive and defensive RPM above 2.0, per ESPN's calculations. The others were Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul Millsap and Danny Green.
The Doubt: Why Jordan Might Not Be Worth the Max
Simply put, Jordan is not nearly as good a defender as his reputation suggests. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh expertly tore down the "case" for Jordan as Defensive Player of the Year back in March. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's the relevant excerpt:
Ultimately, Rivers' case for Jordan as defensive player of the year is based more on rhetoric than reason. His high block totals overrate his rim protection, the Clippers aren't a good defensive team and Jordan's monster rebounding output does little to help the team's overall ability to get stops. Jordan's defensive RPM ranks 19th among all centers, which solidifies his standing as a good defensive cog, but far from a serious defensive player of the year candidate.
Let's walk through these critiques one by one, because they all apply even when we're just judging whether his defense is truly elite, and not whether he deserved to win Defensive Player of the Year. (Note: Jordan finished third behind Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green.)
Rim protection: Despite Jordan's block figures, he ranked just 37th in Seth Partnow's Points Saved Per 36 Minutes (a metric that combines the SportVU numbers for the rates of contested shots and opponent's shooting percentage near the rim into one number) over at Nylon Calculus, just ahead of Lou Amundson.
Clippers aren't a good defense: The Clips finished the 2014-15 season 15th in defensive efficiency. That's a league-average outfit. They were actually slightly stingier with Jordan off the floor, too. We're going to come back to this in a minute.
Individual defensive rebounding doesn't show up in team numbers: The Clippers' defensive rebounding percentage dropped only from 76.2 percent to 74.7 percent this season when Jordan left the floor, lending credence to the notion that he might be "stealing" rebounds, which has been suggested more than once in the past.
Only once in the last four seasons (i.e. since Chris Paul has been on the team) have the Clippers allowed fewer points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor than when he's been on the bench. Overall in that time, the Clips have actually been 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense with Jordan on the floor. On-off numbers aren't everything, of course, but if you're trying to paint someone as an elite defender, those figures don't exactly work in your favor.
And then there's the other end of the floor. Though Jordan has had an overall positive effect on the Clippers offense and would likely continue to do so if he stays in Los Angeles, the fact that he cannot create his own shot becomes more concerning if he were to play in a different context.
Consider this: Jordan attempted 534 shots last season. According to Synergy, he attempted 71 of those shots in transition, 80 as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations, 147 on cuts to the basket and 191 on putbacks. That means Jordan created a grand total of 45 shots for himself out of post-ups, isolations and other individual endeavors.
Pair him with a point guard that is a mere mortal and not Chris Paul, and what will happen to Jordan's offensive output? For a team like the Mavericks—rumored to have a 50-50 shot to sign Jordan, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, via ProBasketballTalk's Brett Pollakoff—that has to be at least a bit of a concern. The only guards Dallas has under contract for next season are Devin Harris and Raymond Felton. Jordan's game meshes well with Dirk Nowitzki's in theory, but he badly needs a pick-and-roll partner to reach his true ceiling.
There's also the matter of his horrendous free-throw shooting. Playing Hack-a-Jordan allows the opposition to grind the pace and rest on defense, and Jordan occasionally has to come out of the game altogether to stop the endless parade to the free-throw line. That's a huge, huge minus. And please, spare me the numbers on the Clippers' record in games where teams resort to Hack-a-Jordan; opponents are doing it because they're losing.
The Market Reality
The Clippers will offer Jordan the full, five-year max. Doc Rivers has already said so. If Jordan makes a different demand, like a shorter deal that allows him to hit free agency again in a year or two (or three or four, as Broussard is reporting), the Clippers will likely extend that offer as well. If Jordan walks, the Clippers will be over the salary cap with exactly one big man under contract for next season. They simply can't afford to let him leave.
Considering the sheer number of teams chasing after him, it seems incredibly likely that any deal Jordan signs will be for the maximum starting salary—the only questions are which team he'll sign with and for how long. Given the most recent reports, the guess here is that Jordan ends up in Dallas on a three-year deal with an opt-out that allows him to hit free agency again in time for the salary-cap bonanza of 2017.