As the off-season breaks down and everything starts up now in short order, perhaps the most striking fact about the Clippers is that they're all in on DeAndre Jordan. He was more than dangled in the discussions with the Celtics that ultimately brought Doc Rivers to the Clippers, but a key element of the resolution of that deal was Rivers saying sure, we can win with DeAndre, I don't need to bring KG with me to make this work. The league moves in mysterious ways, and it's not unhappy to have the Clippers satisfied and smiling, and Brooklyn looking pumped up and competitive at the same time. Boston's situation could be rosier, but a rare tank and lottery spot and upcoming cap space can do wonders for a marquee franchise. Welcome to the bottom, Massholes -- say hi to all your Laker friends. The humble citizens of Clips Nation will thoroughly enjoy bizarro NBA for as long as it lasts.
It's a complicated result, with all sorts of facets--and that's just looking at the DJ and Doc side of the equation, and ignoring pretty much everything else. That may be by necessity, because the Clippers didn't go out and get a backup banger or anybody who can replace DJ as the starting center or challenge him for minutes. DJ is the guy now. Mulligan is an exciting QCBM, but he's a backup's backup, until further notice. The banger problem will reveal itself in time, or not, and might be addressed before the trade deadline -- it's a playoff dilemma, and should have little to do with a regular season juggernaut, the likes of which we have never seen, and can still hardly imagine.
The Clippers held onto their youth, for good or ill. They kept the Griffin and DJ dynamic duo intact, rather than pursuing an established and steady senior partner for Griffin, which would have come at a significant cost, and they were already moving a lot of pieces around. We've watched Griffin enough to know that he will work hard to fulfill his role, and then he will work harder. Griffin's professionalism and focus has been infecting DJ's competitive bloodstream for a few years now, and DJ has come quite a ways from the goofy physical specimen deeply buried on MDSr's bench. But is he good? Has he come far enough? Can the Clippers compete at the highest level, and legitimately vie for a championship, with DJ as a critical piece in their starting -- and finishing -- lineup?
Maybe Doc Rivers is answering yes. At least he's willing to give it a try, and indications seem to suggest that he's excited to have a moderate challenge and project in grooming DeAndre Jordan into a richer maturity and some sort of championship form. And why not -- it could be fun! DJ certainly seems like a good guy, and his days as a distracted goofball seem to be mostly behind him. He has been putting in the work for a while now, and he seems relatively coachable at this stage, certainly more than ever before. Doc Rivers' job is to coach basketball, and my guess is that he thinks he's pretty good at it; he certainly puts in the work himself, he has an air of great authority on the sideline, and he has the results to prove it. We assume he likes to think that he's a better coach than, say, Vinny Del Negro, and he's not wrong. So he probably has some ideas about how he wants DJ to play, what he wants him to do, and what he wants him to work on. Rivers has a system and a style and pretty clear standards, I would think, about how he wants his guys to play. Somebody like Chris Paul he doesn't have to worry about so much, and he can just show him the system and then get into the fine tuning, and soon enough things become routine and situational. But the job with Blake Griffin, and especially with DeAndre Jordan, is much more involved than that.
Defense is where the action is, and a whole lot is riding on the idea that Rivers and his staff will be able to improve quite dramatically the defensive execution of DJ and Blake. It'd be nice to think that Rivers has a magic elixir promoting relentless effort, or that a new defense whisperer, another Thibodeau, will appear at his side. Rivers' best asset is that he enabled Thibodeau to install the system, and then Rivers himself conducted the orchestra. He saw all of it, and he knows players well. He knows there's no KG, but he believes that DJ, along with Griffin, can thrive in his system, and play much better and harder than ever before. That's his plan.
DJ will be ready. We know that Griffin will be more than ready, that he will even try to enhance his ability to be spongelike, his spongelike qualities if you will. His first question will be what can I do to emulate KG, but he can't be KG, and he has to learn how to be ferocious in his own way. Doc Rivers will help him. One of the most fun parts of being a Clipper fan the past few years has been watching the patient, though often stunning, evolution of Griffin's game. He's always working on something, and his improvement over the course of an entire season, for instance, has its subtleties but it is mainly vast, a generalized focus and level of new experience, with new skills appearing on a regular basis. DJ's readiness is an index of his own improvement, which is less than dramatic in part because we compare it to Griffin's. We were shocked -- shocked I say -- when DJ unveiled his plucky and even lightly polished post-up game a year ago, in the preseason. It was a real leap. He was better in almost every category (except one, of course--hang on, I'll get to that), and his focus and effort in general were improved. He needs to do much, much more, but I'm expecting considerably more polish on everything now, right from the start of camp and the beginning of the season. None of the stuff he unveiled last year is new this time around. He just needs to do it better, stronger, and with more consistency.
So maybe this is a good time to talk about the free throws. It's hasn't been said yet that DeAndre Jordan is a longterm project, mostly because it goes without saying, but it's important to remember that we're entering Year six of the DJ experience. The numbers don't say as much as we would like (others will analyze and quote them at length, of course, and a whole lot of people will be speculating along all sorts of lines about DJ very, very soon), as he's been going back and forth between eight rebounds and seven points, and seven rebounds and eight points since he started playing with Griffin. His free throw numbers have been consistently horrendous, although getting up to 52.5% in 11-12 has to be credited now, after last year's 38.6% backslide. Griffin shot his free throws poorly once again in preseason and at the beginning of the year, but eventually they started going in and he leveled off at 66%, a 14% uptick from 11-12. Griffin's improvement was real and easy to see, but he and DJ were on the same program, and Griffin was just ahead of DJ, and it's easier for him. What DJ showed at the line last year, to go along with the rest of his shiny new offensive game, was that he actually knows how to shoot a free throw, that he has a basic stroke. Now he stands up there and shoots it exactly the same way every time, as much as possible, and he does it hundreds of times a day. In earlier years DJ's form would change, often in fundamental mechanical ways, every couple of months. Bad big man free throw shooters, and DJ is definitely one of those, often do this, trying different gimmicks, getting desperate. DJ knows what he's doing now, and he also knows that his free throw problem was costing him a lot of minutes, keeping him off the floor and hurting his production in a significant way. It's a big headline for the preseason. Griffin has work to show too, as he needs to go up to 70 and towards 80%. DJ needs to get to 60% at the beginning of the season, and then stay there. DJ just needs to make them. His ability to do so, even in the preseason, will tell a whole lot about how things are going to go.
The free throws are just part of a larger gestalt, one that includes defense and rebounding and the general toughness of the Griffin-DJ duo. Griffin has room for improvement in all of these areas; most of his aforementioned exciting progress has been in the finer points of his offensive game. One good question is whether the duo is, or can be, truly symbiotic, if Rivers can meld their athleticism and talent into a cohesive and fearsome force. Griffin is more of a known and quantifiable entity, and one can guess at his development and progress in a new system with a celebrated new coach. It won't be flawless, but it promises to be substantial. Perhaps DJ is known and quantifiable as well, and he's merely an advanced, 6th year QCBM, and he will continue to muddle in mediocrity and mild dysfunction. But we can safely assume that Doc Rivers is eager for his chance to push DJ towards a higher level, and the question of whether he can is probably the biggest unknown element for the Clippers right now. Can a true QCBM, one of the most entertaining and fun-loving ever, the easy-going sidekick of a major star, become a legit, solid, no-joke stalwart on a contending team? Chris Kaman came excruciatingly close, as fate and an August one-on-one game with FElton intervened. DJ has a much clearer path and a better opportunity, and glory sits right there, within reach. I can't quite wrap my head around the appropriate Waltonian hyperbole for this situation, this moment, and what Doc Rivers will mean to DJ's development and performance ("like Socrates in the Agora, explaining to Plato and the youth of Athens that all we know is nothing, or Aristotle tutoring Alexander in the art of empire, so will Doc Rivers guide young DeAndre..." Something like that?). It's a game we can play amongst ourselves as we wait to see how things come together over the next few weeks.
In case you missed them, be sure to check out Citizen Zhiv's other pre-training camp posts: