- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- DeAndre Jordan knows how close he was to not being a Clipper this season.
If it weren’t for David Stern’s “Basketball Reasons” Part II, an ongoing saga that seemingly always features the Clippers, Jordan would have been in Boston while Kevin Garnett would be in Los Angeles.
It was a side deal to the main deal that brought Doc Rivers to the Clippers, and a deal Stern nixed because such side deals go against league rules.
So Jordan remains with the Clippers on a technicality.
It’s a technicality, however, that could pay big dividends for the Clippers. In fact, if Jordan has it his way, this version of “Basketball Reasons” will work out almost as well for the Clippers as the last one did.
Jordan has heard it before. You look at his contract and then you look at his stats and you shake your head.
Perhaps the only figure that has weighed him down more than his free throw percentage over the past two seasons was the four-year, $43 million contract he signed before the 2011-2012 season. At the time of the deal Jordan was 23 years old and hadn’t been a full-time starter in the league but was suddenly being paid like an All-Star. Whatever learning curve he should have been afforded, quickly went out the window as soon as the ink dried.
“I don’t care what other people think about me to be honest with you,” Jordan said Wednesday at a “Call of Duty: Ghosts” multiplayer reveal event. “I know what I do. Nothing against them, but they’re not in the gym with me, they’re not running sand dunes with me at six in the morning. People can only go off of what they see and what they read but I’m working my (behind) off. I really don’t care about the contract. I’m trying to win a title. That’s the most important thing to me.”
Jordan became one of the highest paid centers in the league in an era when teams (and marketing departments) hang their hats on having a “Big Three.” He was being billed as the Clippers’ third star alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. When the three towers of the Figueroa Hotel were painted for the Clippers, Paul, Griffin and Jordan were featured and the trio was also plastered on T-shirts and posters advertising “Lob City.”
While Paul and Griffin have played in nine combined All-Star games and can make the argument for being the best player at their respective positions, Jordan, who turned 25 last month, is still trying to find his footing as a starting center in the NBA. That’s what happens when you play about 25 minutes per game and sit for the majority of the fourth quarter because of 38.6 percent shooting from the free-throw (which he did last season).
Jordan has been working on his free throws daily this offseason with shooting coach Bob Thate, and says it’s slowly becoming second nature. He worked with Thate last season too, but never got comfortable with the new mechanics of his shot. Griffin’s free throw percentage improved from 52 percent to 66 percent last season under Thate’s tutelage; Jordan’s dipped from 52.5 percent to 38.6 percent.
“I think it was such a culture shock last year of having to change my shot,” Jordan said. “But what I’ve been doing for the past however many years hasn’t been working so I have to change it. … I’ve been focusing on one shot now and I’m going to shoot that same way and I’m going to get ton of reps up and they’ll start to fall.”
Outside of his free-throw shooting, Jordan’s statistics overall have come under criticism since he signed his contract. Despite making improvements to his game each season, he’d be the first to say he’s not content with averaging 8.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 38.6 percent from the free-throw line. He expects each of those numbers to increase this season.
“People are always going to be tough on you. I feel like every year I’ve progressed and gotten better so if I can continue to do that and not go up and down or straight down, I’ll be OK,” he said.
When Jordan and Rivers spoke for the first time over the phone after Rivers officially became the Clippers coach, Rivers told Jordan how important he was to the team.
Whatever trade talks the team had been having for Garnett or Paul Pierce or anyone else on the Boston Celtics was finished. Rivers said he wanted Jordan to be his starting center and began to outline how he would thrive in his system this season.
The conversation lasted about 20 minutes and by the time Jordan hung up the phone, he remembers thinking to himself, “We’re going to win it.”
“I fit in great with what he wants to do,” Jordan said. “We’ve talked a couple times and he said my role is going to be even bigger than it was last year and I’m excited.”
Simply having a new head coach might do wonders for him.
Former coach Vinny Del Negro was critical of Jordan publicly and would routinely sit him at the end of games because of his poor free-throw shooting. It was understandable but still hard for Jordan to swallow as he sat at the end of the bench and watched his fellow starters for nearly half the game.
“He coached and I played,” Jordan said of Del Negro. “Whenever he put me in the game I was going to give it 110 percent but some things just don’t work out. It’s a business. Players move, coaches move, things happen but I’m just focused on who we have here now and I’m excited to work with Doc.”
Jordan has already been re-energized by conversations with Rivers and his new coaching staff, which includes former Clippers and Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry, Kevin Eastman, Armond Hill, Tyronn Lue and J.P. Clark.
“We have a new coaching staff and those guys are great,” Jordan said. “They work their butts off and they’re all super experienced so it’s not like you’re second guessing anything. I’m not saying we did that before but you can just tell the culture’s changing. We go into each year now saying we’re going to win a title.”
Perhaps the biggest leap Jordan took this offseason was last month in Las Vegas when he took part in a four-day mini-camp with Team USA and worked with Mike Krzyzewski. Jordan was like a sponge around Krzyzewski, running up to him after practices and asking him what he should work on.
“Coach K was great.” Jordan said. “We had a couple of individual conversations and he definitely taught me a lot of things. He taught me a few individual things that I can take back and bring here with the Clippers. That experience was probably the best offseason experience of my life.”
Krzyzewski spoke highly of Jordan’s athleticism and energy during the camp and told him to use both this season to separate himself from other centers in the league who can’t match him in either department. He also talked with him about being more vocal on the court.
“I’m really working on my leadership and communication,” Jordan said. “I’m not taking what we have right now for granted. We all have to continue to work and that’s really what Coach K is big on.”
Jordan’s time in Las Vegas also reminded him of how disappointing last season’s ending was for him and the Clippers. After winning a franchise record 56 games and the team’s first-ever division title, the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, losing the last four games of the series.
“I’m still a little messed up about it,” Jordan said. “Going to USA camp and seeing (Grizzlies point guard) Mike Conley made me think of it again. I love Mike. We were on the same team at the camp but when I saw him I said, ‘Damn, those guys basically swept us.’ We won the first two games and then they won the next four. If you ask anyone one the Clippers we felt like we got swept. That gave me some extra fire and motivation to work harder this summer and have a great season this year.”
At 25 years old, Jordan is the longest-tenured Clippers player. He’s the only one in the locker room able to tell stories of what the Clippers were like before they drafted Griffin in 2009. In other words, he’s the only one who remembers how bad the team was when it went 19-63 four years ago.
When he walks around Los Angeles now, the old Clippers jokes he once heard have been replaced by questions about one of his many dunks that have gone viral or, more importantly to him, talk about the Clippers winning a championship.
“The culture has changed so much,” Jordan said. “It changed when we got the No. 1 pick and everyone knew we were going to take Blake. And then it changed again when we got Chris. And it changed again when Doc came.
“For a coach like that who won a championship in Boston to want to come all the way to Los Angeles to coach this team, it’s humbling. I think it’s going to be great season and I’m looking forward to doing some big things.”
2dMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon