Here's a quick trivia question for you: Can you guess which team has the best defensive rating in the league since March 1st?
Since you're reading this article on ClipsNation, you may have guessed the Clippers, and if you did, you'd be wrong. The San Antonio Spurs have the best defensive rating in the month of March. But you wouldn't be all that wrong, because the Clippers are not far behind, and when I started writing this piece on Friday, Los Angeles was the league's best defensive team in March (but who can resist a quick game of trivia?).
Through 14 March matchups, the Clippers are allowing just 97.6 points per 100 possessions, which is just .5 points per 100 possessions behind San Antonio's league leading mark and 4 points per 100 possessions better than LA's defensive rating for the season (101.6). Coupled with the third best offensive rating in the league over the past 30 days, Los Angeles' improved defense has made them the second best overall team in the league since March began, and DeAndre Jordan's play has had a major impact.
For the season, the Clippers have still been ever so slightly better on defense with Jordan off the floor than with him on (again, it's a minuscule difference of 0.6 points per 100 possessions), but since March began the Clippers are allowing just 94.1 points per 100 possessions with Jordan anchoring the defense, easily the best mark on the team amongst rotation players. And when Jordan goes to the bench, which usually leaves Glen Davis as the lone big man on the floor, the Clipper defense falls apart, posting a 105.4 defensive rating during the 211 minutes Jordan has been on the bench this month.
It's worth noting that these trends are also present on the offensive end, as the Clippers have scored a remarkable 115.4 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor and a paltry 99 points per 100 possessions when Jordan is off the floor in March. But it's quite obvious that Jordan has a bigger impact on the defensive numbers than the offensive numbers, and the Clippers are always going to score a ton of points with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the floor, and Jordan is rarely on the floor without those two.
But on defense, Jordan has made big strides, not only from where he was last season, but also from where he was a few months ago, and he's been playing like a legitimate defensive stalwart recently. He's still not a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but with this being just his first season with Doc Rivers and given the improvements he's shown of late, there's a lot of reason to be optimistic about his future in this defensive system.
The lifeblood of the system involves having the bigs sag back at the foulline to contain on almost pick-and-rolls as the Clippers attempt to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor. This put a lot of pressure on the big directly involved in the pick-and-roll as well as the one on the backline. At this point, Jordan is better when it's his man setting the screen because it allows him to use his length and his lateral quickness to corral penetration and force the opposition into secondary actions.
Here's a great example of Jordan containing the basketball and getting back to the roll man as Paul and Jamal Crawford fight to recover over a couple of screens. Notice how both Darren Collison and Matt Barnes have a lot of responsibility on this possession as they've got to make sure that Asik doesn't get a clean roll to the rim. The Clippers are perfectly in sync on this play and the result is chaos for the Rockets.
Now, there are some times when Jordan fails to properly deter the pocket pass to the big man, which is the schematic loophole with this pick-and-roll coverage.
Watch how James Harden expertly controls the pace here, keeping the attention of Jordan with Barnes on his hip, opening up Asik on the roll. If that was Dwight Howard, it would have been a dunk, but Asik fumbles the ball and Jordan is able to recover for one of his six blocks on the evening. It went into the boxscore as a stop, but those aren't gaffs you can afford in the post-season, particularly against teams that will pull Blake Griffin a step or two outside of the paint with stretch bigs.
Jordan is also not immune to being late on weakside rotations, and too many times he can purposely take an odd angle when stepping into the paint in hopes of swatting the shot from behind rather than getting set at the rim and either taking a charge or doing his best impersonation of Roy Hibbert.
On this play against the Pelicans, Collison and Blake are 'icing' a Tyreke Evans/Anthony Davis side pick-and-roll. Evans employs the standard counter, hitting Davis on the pocket pass. The backline of the defense - which includes both Jordan and Barnes - should be ready for Davis to catch the ball on the move, but instead, Jordan is distracted by Alexis Ajinca for a split second too long, and Davis is able to blow right by him for the dunk.
Like I said, Jordan is not yet in the same class as Hibbert or Noah or Howard as a defender, but we've always known that he has the athletic potential to be an elite rim protector, and he's made a lot of progress throughout the season. He's starting to grasp the system more and more with each passing month and he's currently the backbone of one of the league's hottest defenses. In other words, Jordan has met all of the expectations that were placed on him coming into the year. At least the reasonable ones, anyways.
Kevin Arnovitz said something very interesting on a recent podcast with Zach Lowe, hinting at some organizational chatter that Jordan was a slow learner. While it seems like a condemnation, not everybody sees the game like Chris Paul, and, to be honest, it's not necessarily a surprising thing to hear if you consider how little Jordan was rewarded for his development under Vinny Del Negro, who probably isn't the best teacher in the world.
But now that Jordan is paired with a coach that not only believes in his talent, but also makes outlandish statements about him being the next Bill Russell for the sole purpose of boosting his confidence, it's likely that Jordan will start raising his GPA from a decent D to an elite one. And if Jordan can reach the next level defensively, the Clippers will become a totally different team. One that has a place in the title discussion for many years to come.