It was just a fifteen months ago, December of 2011, that the LA Clippers agreed to a 4 year, 43 million dollar contract with center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan had, in the 2010-11 season become the starting center for the Clippers, and had shown signs that he was fully prepared to embrace the role for the foreseeable future. When, a few days after Jordan signed the contract, the Clippers included former All Star center Chris Kaman in the deal that brought Chris Paul to Los Angeles, Jordan's future seemed set.
The Clippers drafted Jordan as the 35th pick (2nd round) in the 2008 draft after a single, underwhelming season at Texas AM where he averaged 20 minutes and around 8 points. Jordan was raw for the college game. But the pro scouts loved his size, agility, and athleticism. There were NBA draft boards, who, even late in the process, had Jordan as a potential lottery, even a top-ten pick.
In his first two seasons in the NBA, Jordan averaged around fifteen minutes, 5 points and 5 rebounds, playing behind Kaman. But "DJ" was learning slowly. While he made a few spectacular plays, leaping to swat blocked shots, or violently jamming lob passes, he also failed at other skills. He had no offensive moves under the basket, his footwork was terrible, he seemed to travel whenever he had an offensive touch. On defense he got caught jumping on even the slightest feint from an opposing player. His foul-shooting was terrible. He was, as he was in college, very very raw.
But athletic centers in the NBA are a rare breed... and Jordan seemed to improve, albeit slowly. He got better at staying on his feet defensively. He doesn't take too many cheap fouls. He has developed a couple of moves to the rim. He doesn't walk before his dribble anymore. He's not going to fool anyone into thinking he's Hakeem Olajuwon (or even Kaman) but he's undeniably better on offense. But his defense hasn't improved at the same pace. He's also almost completely inept at covering the pick and roll. His team defense, his ability to both tend to the defensive paint and his own man is severely lacking.
So, two years in on a four year 10 million a year contract, where are we with DeAndre Jordan? Never has the Clippers' dilemma been better illuminated than by events of the last five days:
Last Sunday, in a Clipper rout of the Detroit Pistons, DeAndre Jordan took a Chris Paul lob and hammered it over the Pistons' Brandon Knight, a spectacular play that rocked Youtube and the Twittervese, ... a play that's been repeatedly and roundly praised by NBA cognoscenti, some calling it, the "best in-game dunk ever".
But, three days later, in a Clipper loss against the Memphis Grizzlies, it became more than obvious that Jordan has lost the confidence of Coach Vinny Del Negro. One can't really assume Jordan ever had Del Negro's confidence, but the Clipper front office certainly did... and Del Negro's one of the triangle points of the vaunted Clipper three-man GM conglomerate, right? And we heard nothing last off-season that indicated that Vinny was unhappy with DJ's development.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a team with big and proven front line, and Jordan played only twenty minutes. No one's gonna pretend that Jordan should sit because Memphis was going "small-ball". But when Jordan picked up his second foul in the first quarter, one had the feeling that coach Del Negro was relieved, he could replace his 10 million dollar center without embarrassing either Jordan or himself. But Jordan finished with the same two fouls (and only two rebounds and four points) and the Clippers were hammered all night by the Grizzlies bigs. Couldn't, shouldn't Del Negro have given Jordan more minutes?
Of course, another problem for the Clippers is their growing lack of salary cap flexibility. Blake Griffin has a maximum extension. The Clippers have every reason to believe Chris Paul is staying and he too will get the max. With Jordan guaranteed at 10.5 million next year, the Clippers cannot bring in another high salary player without going over the luxury tax. If they've lost confidence in Jordan, shouldn't the Clippers look to deal him?
If the trading deadline rumors were true, it almost happened. The Clippers reportedly came close to sending Jordan (and phenom guard Eric Bledsoe) to the Boston Celtics for aging superstar Kevin Garnett. The deal was widely reported as having the backing of Del Negro, though the front office (in the person of Clipper VP Gary Sacks) denied any interest in trading Jordan. Is there a division in the Clipper's "brain trust"?
With the Clippers struggling to prepare for the playoffs, and the deadline gone, Jordan's here for the duration of the season. But perhaps a similar deal will be a possibility in the off-season.
Clipper fans are of two minds. One camp argues that Jordan needs playing time. He should hit the court for thirty minutes plus every night, until he finally starts to correct his mistakes, and learns to play within the system. There's nothing like in-game experience, right? And big men take a little longer. Patience is the key. But there's another argument inside this one, might Jordan function better, grow faster with a different coach? Is the Del Negro-Jordan relationship simply beyond repair?
But there's another point of view that seems equally valid. Jordan will turn 25 this off-season. Everyone with a computer or a television saw his dunk against the Pistons. His value is still high, perhaps the Clips can trade him in the off-season and find someone who can play a bigger role in the middle for the Clippers.
There are, of course, other facets to the Jordan dilemma: DeAndre and Clippers star power forward Blake Griffin are close friends. How would Griffin feel about a trade of Jordan? Similarly, the Clipper's primarily goal this off-season is the signing of Chris Paul to a long term deal. How would point god and part-time GM Paul view a trade of Jordan?
And is it too simply to early to give up on Jordan? He came in raw and he's improved slowly, but he's also a bright, charming guy, well-liked by fans and teammates. 25's certainly not old. Will basketball finally click for him?
Do we know anything about Jordan's real value? Can he be easily replaced? Ten million's a big chunk of the Clippers' salary cap... but it's really not a lot of money for a starting center. Will another team value Jordan's upside over his failure to develop quickly? Is that upside worth a ten million dollar gamble... especially on a team that NOT already paying two stars the max?
The Clippers have seventeen games remaining. Willl we see Jordan's numbers continue to decline... or is it time to see if he can really hold down the job?