In Game 4 of their first-round series, the Golden State Warriors dismantled the Los Angeles Clippers, a 118-98 drubbing that rarely felt that close. Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick's acknowledgement that the team's focus "wasn't in the right place" only confirmed the obvious: Since Friday night, when TMZ released the now-infamous recordings of owner Donald Sterling's racist editorializing, basketball had seemed peripheral for the team.
To coach Doc Rivers, none of his players appeared more affected than his young center, DeAndre Jordan. The longest tenured Clipper on the team, Jordan had been the first to respond publicly to Sterling's remarks, when he posted a filled-in black square on his Instagram, similar to the image some used as a social-media icon after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. It was an elegant statement, simple and unequivocal -- but also evidence of the mounting distraction Sterling's remarks had become.
"He's young, " Rivers said. "I thought DJ ... just got caught up in it."
It showed in Game 4. Jordan has his worst performance of the series, held scoreless in 25 ineffective minutes.
Late Sunday night, an exhausted Rivers was heading home from the airport when his phone buzzed. It was a text message from Jordan: That wasn't me. I'll be back.
Eight years earlier, Jordan had told basketball luminary Sonny Vaccaro practically the same thing. He had just finished a week at the Vaccaro-run Adidas ABCD Elite camp, and he had played well, according to Vaccaro, "beating up on guys, future All-Stars." But the moment that stands out for Vaccaro came after camp's final game. Most of the players had already cleared the gym when Vaccaro was approached by a big kid in a hoodie.
"I see it's DeAndre," Vaccaro said recently. "He had done well, played very well, but he came over to me and he said, 'I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna be a great player one day.' He wanted me to know that he could do better." Sonny pauses for a moment. "That's what made me think he would succeed. He cares and he wants people to know that he cares."
Jordan's dedication hasn't always seemed that clear. His single season of college ball at Texas A&M was a disappointment. Billy Gillespie recruited Jordan, then skipped town for Kentucky that summer. Gillespie's successor, Mark Turgeron, ran a slower, less offensively minded system. Coach and player often found themselves at cross purposes: Turgeron wanted Jordan to focus on defense and rebounds, while Jordan felt he needed the ball in order to showcase his talents for NBA scouts. Soon, there were whispers coming out of College Station that Jordan was unmotivated, with a "questionable attitude." His effort vacillated, especially when he didn't feel included on offense. Turgeron said DJ was "18 going on 12."
"There was a reason he came in ranked so high," an NBA executive told me. "And there was a reason he fell so far. He had real maturity issues coming out of college."
Vaccaro doesn't see it that way. "Basically," he said, "the problem with DeAndre Jordan and college was college. Life is harder for the big man. People look at him and they don't see an 18-year-old kid. He's expected to be stronger, faster, tougher than everybody else. [Big men] are always expected to do more than they can at the age when someone wants them to do it. ... The coaches [at A&M] wanted him to come in and dominate, but when he couldn't then they say, 'Ah, it's just another one of those big guys that can't play.' Immaturity comes with rejection."
Regardless, Jordan's stock plummeted in the weeks before the 2008 NBA draft. Mock drafts that once had him going in the top 10 now projected him to go in the bottom of the first round, at best. The night before the draft, Jordan told Vaccaro he wasn't sure he would even be drafted.
As David Stern announced the final picks of the 2008 draft, the Clippers' brain trust was trying to determine the fate of their second-round pick. It had already been a good day. Hours earlier, the Clippers had selected their prime target with the seventh overall pick, Indiana star Eric Gordon. The fifth pick in the second round was also theirs, and it was becoming increasingly clear that there would still be major talent available.
"We couldn't believe it," recalled Mike Dunleavy Sr., the Clippers' head coach and general manager at the time. "As it got down to it, it looked like we were gonna get [Mario] Chalmers or DeAndre Jordan -- guys we really liked."
Then the phones began to ring off the hook. "Teams were calling with specific guys in mind, offering us a lot of money, two, three million dollars for the pick," Dunleavy said. Given owner Donald Sterling's well-known reputation for frugality, it was an offer rival GMs must have assumed the Clippers would take. A second-round pick is a longshot at best, and $3 million is a lot of money.
With the No. 34 pick in the draft, the Miami Heat drafted Mario Chalmers. The phones were still ringing. The Clippers had a choice: cash in hand or DeAndre Jordan -- a 6-foot-11 leaper, long in athleticism and very short in proven results.
For a team with little history of developmental success, passing up the cash to take such a risk was difficult, but the Clippers were desperate for young talent with upside. With Shaun Livingston injured, and Yaroslav Korolev still being Yaroslav Korolev, they had little to show from recent drafts.
"He had great size and he had great athleticism and yet everyone was passing on him," Dunleavy said. "There were red flags."
Clippers assistant GM Neil Olshey had worked with DJ two summers earlier at ABCD Camp, and he was able to vouch not only for Jordan's potential, but also for his character. He persuaded Dunleavy that the potential payoff was worth the risk. The cash offers were turned down. With the 35th pick of the draft, the Clippers selected DeAndre Jordan.
"Typically," Dunleavy said, "it's a five-year process with big guys."
Why so long? The answer is complex. For one thing, they haven't always been big.
"Short guys have always been short," Jordan said. "Big guys are still figuring out their body."
They also need to learn and accept an entirely unfamiliar role at a professional level. Paradoxically, stunted fundamentals are a byproduct of the size (you can't teach it!) and athleticism that NBA scouts covet. When you're taller and faster than everyone else on the court, there's not much incentive to hone the nuances of post-play footwork or the subtleties of boxing out.
"The biggest challenge early on was [that Jordan became] frustrated wanting to score points. ... We'd try to throw him some bones, get him a lob," Dunleavy said, "but really we wanted him to think about fundamentals."
The Clippers staff worked to convince Jordan to put less focus on his scoring. They encouraged him to rebound, block shots and run the floor. At times, he was frustrated by the lack of touches, but big man coach Kim Hughes preferred to spend practice after practice honing Jordan's screens instead.
"I thought I knew how to set picks, but Kim said I was too slow, and didn't create enough space," Jordan said.
When Dunleavy put him in the game, Jordan's early results were predictably mixed. For every rim-rattling dunk, there seemed to be a bone-headed mistake. On one play he would show a lateral quickness that allowed him to get down in a crouch and defend opposing guards, then on the next, he would get caught ball-watching and allow a big man to sneak behind him for an uncontested lob. He seemingly bit on every pump fake and would turn the ball over at an alarming rate -- when he didn't foul he was frequently whistled for three-second violations instead.
The web-journal Jordan kept for NBA.com captures the combination of exuberance and good-natured ineptitude that characterized his rookie season. Stashed between entries about Kid N' Play, the invention of The Dougie and voting for Candidate Obama, it reveals an overwhelmed 19-year-old kid struggling to hang in a man's league.
Friday, December 12
Since the game on Monday, I've got 11 personal fouls in only 30 minutes of play. That's an average of one foul every 2 minutes and 45 seconds, which puts me on pace to commit 18 fouls a game. That's terrible. The coaches aren't putting me in the game just to commit fouls; I just always seem to be in a bad situation. By "bad situation" I mean going up against Dwight Howard, where the only thing I could do was foul or he would just dunk over me.
Still, Dunleavy liked what he saw.
"He had all the tools: great hands, great body," the former coach said. "Besides that, he was a good kid and he was smart. To me the thing you look at in whether they're gonna make it or not comes down to smarts. He's very witty."
When he coined "Lob City," Blake Griffin was reacting extemporaneously to the breaking news that Chris Paul had just been traded to the Clippers. The nickname was a marketing coup, but there was never an entirely comfortable fit between its suggestion of fun-first frivolity and the pointedly not-frivolous Chris Paul.
The spirit of Lob City was more fully embodied by the baby Clippers of the previous season who frequently played lineups in which 22-year-old DeAndre Jordan was the oldest player. They were prototypical League Pass darlings, dynamic but hapless -- they led the league in both dunks and turnovers.
But the arrival of Paul marked an abrupt end to extended timetables. When you acquire a top-five player in his prime, the future is now. The conversation pivoted from the progress Jordan had made to how far he still had to go. As a second-round pick, Jordan reached restricted free agency after his third season, but his four-year, $44 million contract -- signed as an offer sheet with Golden State but matched by the Clippers -- proved to be a mixed blessing. For Jordan's doubters, the contract was an occasion for hand-wringing: far too much money, far too soon for a player who could "only" dunk, recorded the third-highest turnover rate among centers, still bit on far too many pump fakes and frequently found himself in foul trouble.
First you make your reputation, then your reputation makes you. Jordan continued to make progress, cutting down on fouls, leading the league in field goal percentage and posting a career-high 17.2 player efficiency rating in 2012-13, yet he was never able to earn coach Vinny Del Negro's trust. In the '12-13 season, his third under Del Negro, Jordan started every game but averaged fewer minutes than every starting center, save Koufa Koufas. Del Negro frequently called the game's first play for Jordan, a carrot intended to coax a committed defensive effort. But the fourth quarter usually found him relegated to the bench -- he played in only 30 of 82 final frames, averaging a paltry five minutes when he did -- and made VDN's opening play look almost patronizing.
When pressed, Del Negro blamed Jordan's struggles at the line. "Whether in the regular season or the playoffs, you've got to be able to get up there and make the free throws," Del Negro said. Despite a mass of lineup data suggesting the Clippers were a better team with Jordan on the court, the talking point was picked up and repeated by fans and pundits alike.
"It was frustrating," Jordan said, "but what can you do? I felt I was always ready to play more, but if coach wanted me cheering on the bench, then I would sit on the bench and cheer."
Appropriately, the bench is where Jordan spent the final 16 minutes of Del Negro's Clipper tenure. After a foolish goal-tend in the third quarter of what would prove to be an elimination game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Jordan had been yanked in favor of Ronny Turiaf and never returned. It was a fitting ending for an uneasy relationship between player and coach that had been marked by mistrust, frustration and a lack of communication.
Doc Rivers is on message. He knows that the words themselves can forge identity, belief. Surrounded by the scrum of media, Rivers is relaxed and engaging, but his charm belies his relentless repetition. You could chop up one Doc media conference and play bingo at the next: process, trust, avoiding mental highjacks, understanding your role. During the Sterling mishegas, Rivers acknowledged that behind closed locker-room doors, the team struggled to find a consensus on how to react, but he praised them for showing a unified front to the public, speaking with one voice. Rivers knows that message isn't spin -- it clarifies, unifies.
Consider Rivers' performance in September at the team's media day, a master's class in public relations. "You don't have to do much on the offensive end to be a star," Rivers said. He claimed Jordan had the potential to be defensive player of the year, comparing his disruptive abilities to Bill Russell's, before quickly noting that Russell also struggled from the line. Under Vinny Del Negro, Jordan's struggles at the line were a deal breaker. Doc framed them as secondary.
Rivers insisted that Jordan was part of the Clippers "new big three," insisted that he share the media day podium with Griffin and Paul, insisted he join them on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." At the team's first practice in La Jolla, near San Diego, Rivers gave his center a piece of paper with a list of names that included Dennis Rodman, Tyson Chandler and Ben Wallace -- All-Stars and champions who affected the game almost wholly with their defense.
"The onus is on me," Jordan said. "I like that challenge. When something goes wrong they yell at me, because that's my end of the floor. ... Sometimes it may not even be my fault, but I need to know what happened."
And then the switch flipped. There were fewer defensive breakdowns, then hardly any at all. After the All-Star break, DeAndre Jordan was one of the league's elite centers. He contended nearly 55 percent of opponents' shots at the rim, second only to Roy Hibbert among starting big men. ESPN's newly introduced Real Plus Minus (a plus-minus variant that attempts to isolate individual contributions) estimates that Jordan has made a larger per-possession impact than any other center. He joined seven other men who have pulled down 1,100 rebounds and swatted 200 shots in the same season, a list that shares some names with the ones on Doc's list: Bob McAdoo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Elvin Hayes, Dikembe Mutombo and Wallace. With seven blocks -- seven! -- in a mid-April game against the Sacramento Kings, Jordan became the eighth.
"They haven't done anything to change him as a physical player," a rival GM said. "Consider how long it had been since a coach had been dedicated to utilizing DeAndre's skill set. You have to embrace what a guy does well while they're developing the other things you need them to do, and I don't think anyone got DeAndre on board with that until Doc Rivers."
According to Rivers, it was simply Jordan's time: Year 6 of the original five-year development plan.
"He bought into his role from Day 1," Rivers said. "We had one talk. One talk doesn't usually convert a guy. DJ realized early on that, 'Hey, this defensive thing is pretty good. I could make my name doing this.' I think it was just time for DJ."
When Jordan is pushed on the differences between this season and last, he just shakes his head.
"Doc just wants me out there," Jordan said. "[Last season] I'd shoot free throws and it'd be like, 'Damn, I have no chance.' Now when I get fouled and I have to go to the line, my teammates say, 'All right, DJ, knock 'em down like you always do.' Day 1, Doc told me I don't care if you air mail them to the 300 section, as long as you go back down and get me a stop on the next possession."
As Jordan's game matured, so did his disposition. He has shelved the exaggerated reactions to bad calls that Rivers calls "mental hijacks." A squared-off pharoah's goatee adds a menacing grace note to a souped-up physique shaped by an increased offseason weight room regimen and a strict gluten-free diet. Even his Twitter feed seems more focused. Last season, a team plane ride was sure to result in a new installment of #gotem, in which Jordan would snap and post pictures of slumbering (preferably droolin) teammates. This year, those hours are more likely to be spent watching game video.
"I still have as much fun as possible," Jordan said, "but I've been so locked in to what we're trying to do here that I haven't had much time for anything else."
Game 5 of the first round at Staples Center was unlike any other in Clippers history. Hours before tipoff, Adam Silver handed down a lifetime ban to Donald Sterling. Black banners reading "We Are One" hung from the rafters. Release and renewal were the night's go-to metaphors. It was a long-awaited exhalation, a breath of fresh air. One read: "It's the first day of the rest of our life." Another: "12 Years a Clipper." Hours earlier, there had been discussion of protests outside Staples Center -- instead, the crowd was ebullient.
A weight had been lifted, and it was only appropriate that the night belonged to the gravity-defiant Jordan. With Blake Griffin limited by foul trouble, Jordan played the signature game of his career, putting up 25 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. He was relentless, protecting the rim on defense, attacking it on offense. His blocks triggered fast breaks that he finished with lob dunks at the other end; his shot chart looked like an ink-blot splotched over the rim. Roaming the paint on defense, barking out plays, he was the actualized dream of every coach he had ever had -- in October, the media day assemblage had shared a collective smirk when Rivers compared Jordan to Bill Russell -- by the end of Game 5, TNT color man Reggie Miller was drawing the same comparison.
Jordan dominated again in Game 7 to seal the victory with what Rivers called the play of the game: a wind-milling, left-handed block that turned a possible go-ahead lay-up by Steph Curry into a Clippers fast break and a lob to Blake Griffin on the other end. Freed by a Draymond Green screen, Curry had split his defenders, left Griffin swiping in his wake, and had a clear run at the hoop. Jordan rotated off David Lee and followed Curry down the lane, shadowing just behind his right flank. As he went up, Curry shifted the ball into his left hand and leapt. Jordan leapt with him, arms spread like the Vitruvian Man to cover both sides of the basket. Curry teased right, tried to sneak the ball through on the left, and Jordan smothered the ball against the glass. It all took a few seconds, but it reflected six years of learned intuition, split-second cognition borne of endless repetition. Thirty seconds later, DJ punctuated the victory by punching home a rim-rattling dunk off an offensive rebound.
Griffin regularly affects a stoic deadpan at his postgame interviews, but he couldn't contain a grin when he talked about the game his good friend had played. "From start to finish, offensively and defensively, he was great. When he plays like that, it takes our team to another level."
Jordan Heimer writes for Clipperblog and co-hosts the Clipper Podcast on ESPN LA.