The Los Angeles Clippers have surprised a lot of people in posting a Western Conference best 8-2 record and six straight wins early in the season. The beginning of the NBA season always yields multiple surprises, some of them pleasant and some unpleasant. Today across the NBA blogs of SBNation we'll be examining some of the biggest early season surprises team by team.
The Clippers have both pleasant and unpleasant surprises to choose from in the early going, though as you might expect with a team playing so well, the good news far outweighs the bad. Lamar Odom and his conditioning would have to qualify as the biggest unpleasant surprise, though in fairness his situation was not wholly unexpected given his struggles last season, and he is showing some signs of working his way into shape.
On the pleasant side of the ledger, the Clippers are benefiting from many unexpected boons on the young season. Matt Barnes, almost an after thought as a free agent signing, has provided needed depth and energy off the bench and has been a crucial wing defender in the early season absence of Grant Hill. Jamal Crawford, the team's main free agent signing, has to date played even better than his Sixth Man Award form from Atlanta a few years back; he's leading the team in scoring and is currently second in the league in points per minute while scoring with a career best level of efficiency. Eric Bledsoe has a PER over 22 after 11 games and has been a game-changer off the bench for the Clippers in just his third year.
But all of those contributions, while most certainly pleasant, were not entirely unexpected. Barnes has always been a good wing defender and energy guy, Crawford may be overachieving some but it's not a shock that the guy is a phenomenal scorer, and while Bledsoe may be surprising many, this is more or less what I was hoping for from him.
So for me, the most pleasant surprise on the Clippers after three weeks has got to be DeAndre Jordan.
Like Bledsoe, Jordan is young so there was certainly reason to hope that he would continue to develop. Unlike Bledsoe, Jordan's actual production had unfortunately been pretty flat over his first four seasons in the league. Sure, he improved his points per game and rebounds per game each season, but that was entirely a function of increased minutes. His per minute production showed no improvement, and in fact his scoring went down a tick last season on a per minute basis.
Bear in mind also that each year the Clippers organization has touted how hard Jordan worked during the offseason, how much he had improved his game. Yet each season he's been essentially the same -- a superior athlete, a terrific finisher around the rim, an intimidating presence on defense when he's focused, but essentially useless on offense beyond dunks and putbacks. So when the Clippers again gushed about the strides taken by Jordan in the offseason I took it all with a grain of salt and set my expectations more or less where they had always been -- somewhere around 10/10 per 36 minutes, with fingers crossed that he'd continue to improve on the defensive end.
But from the first preseason game it became apparent that something was indeed different with Jordan. In his first four seasons in the league, you could probably have counted successful post moves from DeAndre Jordan on one hand. Repeatable successful post moves would not have requires any form of counting at all. Suddenly this preseason, Jordan was making drop steps, shooting jump hooks -- with either hand no less -- and generally looking like a legitimate scoring threat in the post.
After back to back 20 point games in the second week of the season -- only the fifth and sixth of his career and the first ever to come in succession -- it became clear that this was no fluke. Those right handed jump hooks weren't just randomly finding the bottom of the net; after four full seasons where he was nothing more than a lob-catcher on the offensive end, suddenly DeAndre Jordan was a bona fide weapon. A player who could overpower smaller centers, who could outquick slower opponents. A guy whom opponents might even have to double team. Imagine that -- playing with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who would ever imagine that DeAndre Jordan would draw a double team?
Jordan still has work to do. His rebounding is off this season (as is so often the case when players start thinking more about scoring), he needs to continue to improve on defense (though he has definitely made strides) and he's looked overwhelmed against the few double teams he's seen so far. And then there's that free throw shooting. But for the first time in his career, he has made a significant stride forward, which gives one more confidence that he can make the next stride and the next. He may not be the best center in the Western Conference as Shaquille O'Neal somewhat playfully labeled him a couple weeks ago, but he's awfully good and can get even better.
And the fact that I suddenly have confidence that DeAndre Jordan will continue to improve and may eventually fulfill his massive potential is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all.