I feel good about last night's win. I feel good about the Clips leading 3-1 over Memphis. I feel good about the Clips chances against the Grizzlies in Memphis. I even feel good about their potential chances in the rest of the playoffs. But I don't feel good about everything. There's a grey cloud on the horizon. I'm worried about the future...
It was the litmus test for an unproven Clipper front office. Between the signing of Caron Butler and the trade for Chris Paul, in this past truncated off-season, Clipper GM Neil Olshey had a task that needed urgent and immediate action. This was to be the event that Clipper fans had hoped and prayed for thirty years... the sign that their beloved NBA franchise was willing to go beyond making a minimal profit and actually try and build a winning team.
Olshey's test, of course, was the potential signing of the young and not-quite-proven center Deandre Jordan, a restricted free agent.
The situation was loaded. Tall, athletic big men are a rarity, and often carry a hefty price tag on the open market. Jordan was already a signature player... one of a pair of big men who had caught fans attention all over the NBA, the aggressive young sidekick of the Clipper's best player, power forward Blake Griffin. Off the court the two young giants were best friends, teaming up for a series of playful videos. On the court, they were high-flying, raw, but awesomely athletic wrecking balls. Dunkers, the collective enterpiece of what was to become known as "Lob City". Jordan was also a fan favorite, a charming, affable, child-like mega-man, who never took himself too seriously.
But when DeAndre Jordan arrived in Los Angeles in 2008, he wasn't any of these things. He was just a second round draft choice with a compelling grin, a long-armed, loping kid, who could barely get on the basketball floor, and when he did, couldn't manage to stay there. Twenty-years old, he had great potential but few skills. His defense was woeful, his footwork non-existent. Were it not for injuries to starting center Chris Kaman, Jordan would have stayed at the end of the bench. His second year was only slightly better... he averaged 5 rebounds and 5 points in 16 minutes a game.. Then last year, he seemed to make a leap. With starting center Chris Kaman out for the better part of the season, Jordan seemed to make real strides. He became a reliable rebounder and seemed less-lost on defense. He played eighty games, started in 66, averaging 26 minutes, 7 points and 7 rebounds. And, importantly, Blake Griffin's extraordinary work ethic seemed to rub off on him, Jordan no longer played the role of the lovable goofball, but started taking the game seriously. The Clippers seemed to have found a diamond in the rough.
But now, suddenly, the clock was ticking. Jordan's rookie contract came to a close this off-season. After the three-month labor disagreement, the Clipper front office went on the clock. They immediately made Jordan an offer... reportedly around eight million dollars a year... a lot of money for an unproven player, sure, but centers are a scare commodity in the NBA. Would someone else offer him more?
We all know what happened... in this lightening-round two week offseason, the Golden State Warriors, another team looking to shuck off the mantle of mediocrity, offered the third-year player a hefty 42 million dollar, four year deal. And the Clippers did what appeared to be the right thing: They swallowed hard, matched the offer, and signed Jordan. DeAndre Jordan was 23 years old and making 10 million a year.
The signing meant a lot, more than we even knew at the time. While the Jordan offer was pending, the Clippers inked veteran forward Caron Butler for eight million a year. Butler was 32 years old, coming off knee surgery, a former all star who was probably on his last big contract. Then, three days after Jordan signed, lightning struck and the Clipper front office made the biggest move in their history... bringing in superstar Chris Paul and shipping out Kaman and shooting guard Eric Gordon.
But the Paul trade brought the Clippers more than a shot at the playoffs... it sealed their financial fate for the next half-dozen years. With Blake Griffin headed for a max contract after the 2013 season, and a max contract extension slated for Paul (should he deign to extend with the Clippers), the Clip's payroll was suddenly swelling to the bursting point. Signing DeAndre Jordan to a large contract suddenly went beyond betting big money on a developing young player, it meant that Jordan would become a building block of the franchise... the third piece that would send the Clippers skyrocketing into the future.
So, how did the Clippers do? After a handful of playoff games and a short regular season, how did DeAndre Jordan do? Jordan started all sixty-six games this year and was remarkably injury free... something Clipper fans, used to years of Chris Kaman injuries, surely appreciate. And Jordan's numbers are up... slightly. He averaged 8 rebounds, 7.4 points, and 2.7 blocks. His fouls are down to 3.8 per game (bettering last year's 4.5). He had a very decent PER of 16.4... and his WP48 is .235, seventh among NBA centers. As the season went on his woeful free throw shooting seemed to be improving (.525 for the year), but Jordan only managed to average 27 minutes a game, only two more than last year. Worse, Jordan's defensive skills are still, at best, unreliable. While he loves to reach for the spectacular block, his "man" defense is wanting, he doesn't always block out for rebounds, his rotations are unsure, he's often in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Lately, he's lost minutes to veterans Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin. He's averaging just 22 in the playoffs, with 5.5 rebs, and 4.3 points. He's never near the floor in crunch time. And his frustrations are becoming apparent on the court. He's clearly upset with his lack of playing time, and, for the first time ever, his sunny disposition has vanished. He seems angry with the coaching staff, he sulks, walks off the court quickly when pulled from the game, and celebrates less with his teammates.
When he gets the ball above the rim, which seems to happen at least once or twice a game, he delivers nothing less than a spectacular dunk, but his body language subsequently seems to have changed. He's no longer delighted by his ability, instead, he glares angrily at his opponents, and often fails to get back to his defensive assignment in a timely manner. (He's not alone in this... Griffin also, often, gets caught in this charade).
DeAndre Jordan has, for the Clippers, become a conundrum. Assuming Griffin and Paul sign maximum extensions, they will. by definition, assume 2/3rds of the payroll. Add in the 10.2 million dollar Jordan, and the Clippers will leave the team with little room for other, perhaps more important contracts. With the new luxury tax penalties, a Caron Butler, a Mo Williams, a Chauncey Billups, a Kenyon Martin, will be luxuries the Clippers can likely not afford.
Of course, the Clippers aren't alone in this dilemma. Increasingly, teams will have to rely on perhaps three highly paid players... and a bunch of lower-priced role players. The critical strategy is which three pieces you choose. The Oklahoma City Thunder have three critically important players in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. They really can't afford to pay anyone else "star" money. Onerous luxury tax penalties will make signing a Thabo Sefolosha, or Serge Ibaka difficult or impossible. When the Clippers matched the Golden State offer on DeAndre Jordan they were committing to him as their "third star". But can DeAndre Jordan produce like James Harden? Or Ray Allen? Or Manu Ginobili? Or even Chris Bosh?
With the Clippers in the playoffs for the first time in six years, we've already seen what they need... a reliable third offensive option, a tall, rangy, shut down wing defender. Maybe that's one guy, maybe two, but it's certainly not DeAndre Jordan. So, can you find that guy or guys on a lightweight, perhaps mid-range contracts?
Can DeAndre Jordan improve his numbers at both ends, anchor the defense, and play 35 minutes? Can he ever improve enough to warrant his big contract? Can he become what his contract demands? Or did the Clippers, with the all the best intentions, commit a fatal mistake?