DeAndre Jordan is in a no-win situation.
There was always going to be a ton of pressure on Jordan after he signed a contract extension that bumped his annual salary into eight-figure territory. With the subsequent arrivals of Chris Paul and now Doc Rivers, however, the expectations for the Clippers — and Jordan, in turn — are even higher than they might otherwise have been. The ceiling in Los Angeles is now a championship, and much of the debate about whether or not the Clippers can achieve such a lofty goal centers on Jordan and his development as a defensive stalwart in the paint.
The Clippers were far from slouches on that end of the court last season, when they were ranked 8th in defensive efficiency. That top-10 defensive ranking, coupled with their 4th overall offense, made them borderline contenders. Yet while the aggregate numbers were solid, the weak link for Los Angeles was their backline. Good-to-great offensive teams were able to pick apart the Clippers’ interior defense with fast-hitting pick and rolls that sucked Jordan and Blake Griffin into the middle of the lane, opening up dump-offs for easy buckets when the defensive rotations were a step or two slow. Jordan has a reputation for chasing blocked shots at the expense of proper positioning, and the top teams in the league are more than happy to exploit his headhunting. On an average night in the regular season, Jordan’s athleticism and knack for swatting shots into the Pacific Ocean more than made up for the gaps in the Los Angeles defense. But come playoff time, that lack of discipline doomed the Clippers.
Jordan just turned 25 this summer; he’s still young, but not so young that one can project a heaping pile of development at this point. If he’s to reach his potential, particularly on defense, and demonstrate that he’s worth his $11 million price tag, he needs to become more disciplined as a defender, STAT. More than that, however, he needs a solid defensive scheme within which he can operate.
Enter Doc Rivers. With apologies to Mike Dunleavy, Kim Hughes and Vinny Del Negro, Rivers is without a doubt the best coach Jordan has had so far in his NBA career. While he wasn’t the true architect of the defensive menace that was the late-aught Boston Celtics, Rivers has a nose for defensive schemes and getting the most out of his players on both ends. There are few coaches in the league whom I’d prefer be handed the responsibility of molding Jordan into the defender most hope — and think — he can be. And if Jordan does in fact improve in leaps and bounds on defense, and if the Clippers are able to make their way to the NBA Finals, Rivers will deserve quite a bit of credit.
Unfortunately for Jordan, Rivers will likely be given most, if not all, of the credit for a deep run by the Clippers this season. After all, his presence is the most visible change for the franchise. Given the lambasting that Vinny Del Negro took as coach last year in Los Angeles, it’d be easy to point to the upgrade on the bench as the single biggest factor in the team’s improvement. But if the Clippers are that much better this season, and if they can make it to the Finals, then it’d be downright criminal to gloss over the improvement in Jordan’s game that’s an absolute necessity to facilitate such postseason success.
Therein lies the rub. It’s nigh impossible to separate the influence a coach has on the development of a player from said player’s own work and dedication to improving himself. It’s doubly true on defense, and I’ll triple stamp that double stamp when it comes to defensive bigs. The Joakim Noah/Tom Thibodeau and Roy Hibbert/Frank Vogel pairings shine a glaring light on the intrinsic link between those who best protect the rim and the schemes they’re tasked with implementing. Yes, the coach is extraordinarily important in designing a staggeringly effective system that’s able to shut down some of the greatest offensive players in the league, but such a system is nothing but bits of code without a software engineer to churn inputs into an on-a-string defensive effort.
Hibbert and Noah (and to a lesser extent, Marc Gasol, whom I’m not sure is particularly linked to his former coach; he’s simply a savant of space and time) have had time on their side. They’ve grown alongside their coaches, working to develop an understanding of their defensive rules and responsibilities as their careers have progressed. DeAndre Jordan has no such luxury. If he fails to become the defender that the Clippers need and that many think he can be, that failing will be on him. If, however, he’s able to reach for the stars and swat them back down to Earth while still being ready to rotate to more terrestrial threats, his improvement will almost certainly be credited to his new coach. The arrival of Rivers may very well push Los Angeles to new heights, but they won’t get there without Jordan’s dedication to honing his craft. A teacher can prod and provoke his student to the very limit of his ability. Without the student internalizing the lessons, however, it’s all for naught.
Doc Rivers is one of many keys to the 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers. It’d be a shame if we end up treating him as the only one.