The Los Angeles Clippers returned from their longest trip of the season in February having lost five of their eight games. But DeAndre Jordan posted some of the best numbers of his career over the stretch, including a 22-point, 27-rebound, 3-block effort in a win at Dallas to finish the trip.
The core of the team had been together for more than three years, and tempers were wearing thin. Jordan and Chris Paul had gotten into it more than once, which led Jordan to start seriously contemplating what it might be like to play elsewhere in 2015-16.
He was tired of Paul's constant barking and petty gestures, like distributing high-fives to the three other guys on the floor following a timeout but somehow freezing out Jordan. Optics aside, the biggest issue for Jordan was that, despite the leaps and bounds he made to be named first team all-defense, the Clippers always treated him like the player he was when he arrived in the NBA, and never like the player he'd become.
From the moment he arrived on the campus of Texas A&M in 2007, Jordan was tagged with a red flag. He was labeled a head case whose physical gifts would never translate into on-court production. Once a potential top-10 talent, he sank to the second round of the 2008 NBA draft, where he was taken No. 35 overall, though some in the Clippers organization wanted to select Mike Taylor.
When Jordan arrived in Los Angeles, he was the consummate "project" big man, regarded as a slow learner with confidence issues to boot. During those first couple of seasons, the Clippers made more outgoing calls than incoming ones on Jordan, who saw little playing time.
But little by little, Jordan became a more confident offensive player and, much more notably, a rim protector who began to grasp the nuances of pick-and-roll coverage and back-line defensive rotations. When Doc Rivers arrived in Los Angeles in 2013, he immediately anointed Jordan a member of the Clippers' big three and declared Jordan's candidacy for defensive player of the year.
Yet for as much confidence as Rivers' "Don't worry about your touches, just defend like hell" shtick inspired in the young center, Jordan still wanted to expand his offensive role. This belief intensified during Blake Griffin's absence in parts of February and March, when Jordan felt as if he proved he was an honest-to-goodness offensive threat, routinely putting up 20-plus points without sloughing off any of the dirty work on the glass and on the defensive end.
At Jordan's request, he and the Clippers began to have more substantive conversations about how he might expand his role, both on the offensive end and in the team's marketing campaign. All the while, a few teams around the league started to quietly send out signals that, were Jordan to entertain the idea of playing somewhere other than with the Clippers next season, they'd be interested in his services.
Intelligent people can debate whether Jordan was truly worthy of an all-defense nod this season, but his production never waned. He logged 16 points, 17 boards, four steals and three blocks in Game 7 of the Clippers' devastating Western Conference semifinals loss to Houston. Jordan's exploration of free agency began in earnest soon thereafter.
There was considerable interest in Jordan but also a challenge. Many of the early suitors couldn't offer him the expanded offensive role he coveted. But there were a few that could, namely Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. Of course, there were still the Clippers, where Jordan had made his mark, and played alongside his closest friend in basketball, Griffin. And though Rivers might not have always been successful giving Jordan the kind of post touches he wanted -- and one could argue Rivers' vision of Jordan's role in the offense was spot-on -- the coach had been a catalyst for the center's development.
Yet when the recruiting process got underway, the Clippers were off-key. Jordan gave the Clippers the first shot at choosing a time slot, according to sources, but scheduling the meeting was a chore. All the while, the Mavericks, Lakers and Knicks each gave compelling basketball presentations about how their respective offenses could accommodate Jordan with nifty pick-and-roll sets and, in the Mavericks' case, play calls that leveraged Dirk Nowitzki's range to give Jordan baseline seals and duck-ins. It was everything Jordan had envisioned: a Dwight Howard-size role in an NBA offense.
The Clippers came in and told Jordan he was central to their team success, but in contrast to the other suitors, their message was shrouded in ambiguity. The marketing piece from president of business operations Gillian Zucker was compelling, but the basketball pitch offered few of the particulars he saw in the other meetings. Still, that wasn't the biggest beef.
Jordan is a very impressionable guy who was tarred first as immature, then as an underachieving athletic freak, then as a convenient scapegoat for Paul and others whenever things became wobbly. And now the Clippers' primary rival for Jordan, the Mavericks, couldn't do enough to convey their love for him. Nowitzki interrupted his vacation to fly to Los Angeles to join Chandler Parsons to take Jordan out. Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle wined and dined him. The full-court press was on and, for the first time since high school, Jordan was an object of desire.
Meanwhile, the Clippers' meeting didn't include a single player. Griffin, of course, was in constant touch with his confidant, but Paul was off in the Bahamas with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Paul made only half-hearted attempts to reach out to Jordan late in the process, according to sources close to the situation. At a certain point, the balance of affection tipped, and there weren't enough dinners at Katsuya or testimonials to Jordan about how much he'd flourished under Rivers' development to keep Jordan in Los Angeles.
Jordan's departure represents a cruel irony for Rivers. Had he not been so successful at emboldening Jordan as an all-world defender, he might not have had to fight as hard to keep him.