The offseason deal that brought Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers is supposed to fix a defense that fell apart in the second half of last season and in the playoffs, but it's a side of the trade that never happened that will go a long way towards determining Lob City's ultimate success in the upcoming season.
In the original talks, the Clippers were supposed to get Kevin Garnett, the longtime defensive backbone of the Celtics' impeccable strong-side zone defense in Boston, along with Rivers. DeAndre Jordan would have gone the other way. The NBA didn't allow the trade because the CBA prevents teams from swapping players as compensation for a coach. Now, Garnett is in Brooklyn, and Jordan takes on a role the Clippers not-so-privately thought he was ill-suited to fill.
Expectations are sky high for the Clippers after an offseason that saw the team bring back Chris Paul and add Rivers as well as a new set of starting wings in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. The elephant in the room is Jordan's play on the inside at both ends of the floor, which could derail arguably the most talented Clippers squad in franchise history if he's unable to take a step forward.
Elite NBA defense can be about system fit, effort and intelligence as much as raw physical attributes, something highlighted by Jordan's struggles throughout his career. The Clippers allowed 97.8 points per 100 possessions without Jordan on the floor last year, per NBA.com, a mark that would have ranked third-best in the league. With him, that number jumped 104.1 points per 100, which would have placed L.A. No. 21 in defensive efficiency.
Can Jordan really go from a gaping hole in the middle to the defensive stalwart the Clippers' title hopes rest on?
It would take massive gains, but it's possible. At 6'11, 265 lbs. and with a 7'6 wingspan, Jordan is genetically equipped to lock down the paint. Oh, he has the athleticism required to protect the rim, too. Never have Jordan's agility and leaping ability been better displayed than when he slammed home an alley-oop dunk over the then-Pistons guard Brandon Knight to hijack the NBA's web-savvy conscious for days:
It's the greatest example yet of Jordan's immense potential, and the reason the Clippers matched the Warriors' $43 million offer sheet before the start of the lockout-shortened 2012 season. Now it's up to Rivers and Jordan to come together to help the player and team reach their ultimate goal.
Offensively, Jordan has been sabotaged by the same flaw as so many other big men. He led the NBA in field goal percentage last year at 64.3 percent, mostly because he took nearly 85 percent of his shots at the rim. When Jordan gets close, hardly anyone can match his combination of size and athleticism. There is one way to stop him, however, and that's to foul him.
Jordan's free throw percentage dropped from 52 percent in 2012 to under 39 percent last season, better than only Detroit rookie Andre Drummond among guys with 65-plus attempts. It forced then-coach Vinny Del Negro to make some hard decisions in crunch-time, with opposing teams often electing to wrap Jordan up and send him to the line before he threw down the inevitable slam dunk. Jordan has reportedly put in work this offseason to fix the problem, and the Clippers better hope it worked.
This sounds familiar, doesn't it? In the NBA, teams are often forced to invest playing time and money in young players who might not be fully there yet. That goes especially for big men who take take a notoriously long time to develop.
But DeAndre Jordan is 25 years old now, an age that often triggers something in human beings to get it together. Your youth is still there, but you can sense it fading. At a certain point, you are who you are.
For the Clippers, what DeAndre Jordan has been isn't quite good enough yet. If he ever reaches another plateau, Lob City will be as tough an out as any team in the West.