The Los Angeles Clippers no longer have wiggle room for failure. When the team acquired Doc Rivers to be their coach, their excuse of trying to win with Vinny Del Negro as the coach went out the window. They sent a draft pick to the Boston Celtics in exchange for one of the best coaches in the NBA and one of the best motivators in the league.
They went from having a coach on the court in Chris Paul to two brilliant basketball minds melding together from the sidelines to the court on a team that is theoretically good enough to win an NBA championship. Chris Paul is arguably the third best player in the NBA and Blake Griffin catapulted himself into the elite discussion of the NBA this season with the way he's developed and grown into a force of nature at all times during a basketball game. They have a mixture of shooters and veterans to surround these guys with to give just about every aspect of a championship caliber team you could ask for.
However, the defense remains a concern even in the face of numbers around the court which make everything look more than adequate for a late postseason run. At the center of this entire defensive equation is DeAndre Jordan. The human pogo stick with the 7'6" wingspan has all the makings of what you would want in a defender. He's 6'11" and has a lot of muscle definition. He can jump out of the gym at the blink of an eye and replicate that same jump on an instantaneous second attempt. His wingspan allows for a maximum vertical reach that Red Bull would have to sponsor a descent from that height.
The presence of Jordan is ideal, but it's been his improvement in defending the pick-and-roll and rim in general, which give the Clippers hope of coming through on the aspirations of title contention. But his defense has to remain disciplined in order for this to become a reality.
The Clippers' defense is currently ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 101.9 points per 100 possessions. They give up the fifth lowest effective field goal percentage in the NBA and force the seventh highest turnover rate. Their ability to defend the rim has been inconsistent, even with Jordan on the floor.
This team gives up the ninth highest field goal percentage in the restricted area (61.6 percent) with mixed results when Jordan is in the game. Jordan seems to be capable of excelling protecting the rim when he has defensive role players in the game with him. The Clippers' most used lineup (due to injury) this season is Jordan with Griffin, Paul, Matt Barnes, and Darren Collison. With the havoc they're able to create on the perimeter, it allows Jordan to focus more on making sure the rim is protected.
In this lineup, Jordan helps the Clippers drop their percentage in the restricted area to 56.5 percent. Sub out Barnes and Collison for Jared Dudley and Jamal Crawford and the Clippers still do a great job of protecting the rim, allowing 54.1 percent of shots in the restricted area to go in. The team's most effective lineup of Paul, Jordan, Griffin, Barnes, and Crawford allows just 53.1 percent in the restricted area while blowing teams out of the water with a net rating of plus-20.3 per 100 possessions.
What seemed like the ideal lineup for the Clippers going into this season of Paul, Dudley, J.J. Redick, Griffin, and Jordan has struggled to protect the rim and is their second most used lineup. They've allowed 62.3 percent of shots in the restricted area to be successful, and this could be a lineup (if healthy) that has a lot of use for them in the playoffs. But Jordan will have to do a much better job of contesting shots and altering them at the basket, even if he's not outright blocking them.
As Seth Partnow at ClipperBlog.com shows us here, Jordan has improved his defense as the season has gone on and the impact it has on the Clippers seems to be immense. Jordan does a fantastic job of contesting shots. His improvement in pick-and-roll defense, post-up defense, and closing out on spot-up shooters is huge.
Ball handlers in pick-and-roll attacks shoot just 35.1 percent from the field against Jordan and he helps force a turnover 23.5 percent of the time. He's improved to allowing just 41.5 percent from the field on post-up field goal attempts. And his ability to use his athleticism and length on close-outs to spot-up shooters has seen an improvement from 40.2 percent from the field and an effective field goal percentage of 46.4 percent last season to 37.9 percent from the field and an eFG of 41.9 percent this season.
There aren't going to be many teams going directly at Jordan in the playoffs unless they're hoping to get early foul trouble on him and get into that thin big man depth. That means the key to his impact will continue to be in help defense.
The Spurs do such a great job of getting you off-balance in how you protect the middle with their side-to-side action, that it's easy to not know where to be once they get the shot they're working for. In this defensive play by Jordan, he's covering the middle away from the pick-and-roll action. He keeps everything in front of him as he stalks the eventual shot attempt.
Realistically, Parker's best shot is kicking it back to Tim Duncan for the spot-up jumper and hoping a recovering Griffin isn't going to get a good contest on the shot. Because his head is down and he's trying to quickly get the ball up, he never sees Jordan timing this ball perfectly. This is one of the ways in which Jordan seems to have improved his pick-and-roll defense. The angles he takes are typically much better.
Of course, he still has trouble at times cutting off the best path to the hoop for the offensive player, but because his shot blocking timing has improved and he has the length and explosiveness that he does, he can still make up for it on plays like this block against James Harden.
Harden took the right angle on Jordan and had the ideal path to the basket. It looks like Harden's hope is to draw the foul on Jordan (shocking, I know), but instead of getting deeper into the basket area or going to the other side of the rim, Harden wastes his good angle. Jordan is getting better at recovering in situations like these, so even though he made a mistake on the defensive angle, he can still turn the defensive possession into a positive for the Clippers.
Jordan's main job on offense is to cover the rim and stay in the lane as a deterrent for as long as possible. He probably gets away with defensive three seconds quite a bit more than he should, but certain centers just happen to find their way into some type of observation loophole when it comes to this call. On this play, he's calling out switches with Griffin to keep himself close to the basket.
Once given the opportunity to switch big men, Jordan calls for Griffin to move to Hasheem Thabeet, and he checks Nick Collison as he rolls into the lane. Collison clears but Jordan's switch has give the Clippers' center enough time to camp out a little more before making the decision to help Reggie Bullock on Kevin Durant. The result is a blocked shot.
There is still plenty of consistency the Clippers need out of Jordan on defense. He can't over challenge shots to the point where they get shredded on the offensive boards. This is a problem for the Clippers, as they give up the fifth highest offensive rebound percentage in the league.
Ultimately though, the defense will come down to clutch situations in which Jordan is asked to protect the paint and be the anchor to a defense desperate for stops. This season, the Clippers allow sixth lowest field goal percentage and have the 10th best defensive rating in clutch situations. It's not ideal yet but it's a massive improvement over their clutch defensive situations last season when they had the third worst defensive rating in the NBA and allowed the highest opponent field goal percentage in clutch situations.
Jordan's improvement, and hopefully continually growing improvement, defending the rim is a big part of that, and could ultimately determine how we remember this Clippers' team's legitimacy.