LOS ANGELES -- When Doc Rivers talked about DeAndre Jordan during the offseason and at training camp, it was understandable to question his sanity, or at least how serious he was.
He talked about Jordan being a candidate for defensive player of the year, a game-changer and a player he never wanted to trade away for Kevin Garnett.
This was the same player who couldn’t get on the floor during the fourth quarter during the previous five seasons and was constantly in Vinny Del Negro’s dog house.
Perhaps Rivers was trying to build up the confidence of a player who had very little of it by the end of Del Negro’s tenure as the Clippers' head coach, but it seemed a stretch -- if not completely disingenuous -- to call the same player the “best defensive player in the league.”
As it turns out, there’s a reason why River is the highest paid coach in the league and tasked with handling the personnel of the team.
Jordan is not only having a career season but is living up to the lofty praise given to him by Rivers in the offseason.
On Monday night, Jordan had 14 points, 17 rebounds and 8 blocks in 31 minutes as the Clippers beat the Orlando Magic 101-81. As the team’s defensive captain, Jordan was more impressed with holding the Magic to just 34 points in the first half after giving up 70 in the first half of the previous two games.
“It’s a good feeling, especially with the performance we put on the other night,” Jordan said. “That wasn’t the type of basketball that we’re used to playing. But we had a good practice, everybody settled into their roles, and we came out with a purpose defensively.”
Even though Rivers lavished Jordan with more praise than most thought he deserved before this season began, he has lived up to the billing. He currently leads the NBA in rebounds (13.5), field goal percentage (.646) and is third in blocks (2.4). He is also averaging a career-high 9.4 points and 1.1 steals per game.
He is a candidate for both the defensive player of the year and the most improved player of the year awards, and he could possibly win both.
It has been a revelation for just about everyone except for Rivers, who was singing Jordan's praises to just about anyone who would listen this summer.
“I think he realizes who he was, and he’s doing it, he’s been great,” Rivers said. “I was on him the last four games. I was on him pretty hard over the last 48 hours, because he was getting distracted with all the other stuff. I thought today, he was back to way he started the year. Focused defensively, it allows you to do so many other things defensively when you get him playing like that.”
Rivers, who came over from Boston in the offseason, has gone so far as to compare Jordan to a Celtics great this season. Not Garnett, who looks like he should have retired in the offseason, but Bill Russell, who is Jordan’s idol and the reason he wears No. 6.
“DJ looked like that guy from Boston again,” Rivers said after Monday’s game. “I keep saying that if there is a better defensive player in the league, I don’t know where he is at. He was phenomenal tonight.”
Jordan’s best friend on the Clippers the past four seasons has been Blake Griffin. They are the two most tenured members of the team and Griffin noticed a change in Jordan over the offseason and during training camp with a new coach and a coaching staff that not only trusted him but believed he could be one of the captains of the team. When Rivers came to the Clippers he not only insisted that Jordan was in the team’s long-term plans, but made him a co-captain along with Griffin and Chris Paul and made sure his “big three” were on the cover of the media guide and programs. This was no longer a two-man team.
“His confidence really is the key for him,” Griffin said. “Playing quality minutes, the minutes that he feels we are trusting him with. You know, when he’s in the fourth quarter we tell him not to worry about getting fouled because his positive outweighs the negative that he might think he’s playing because of free throw shooting. He can affect the games in so many different ways: rebounding, blocking shots, alternating shots. We don’t need him to worry about anything else.”
Rivers’ vision for Jordan mirrored his own, and what is happening this season is the realization of that vision -- when the coach and player are on the same page and a common trust and mutual respect exist, which was hardly the case before.
"I mean, it’s a new season, new everything, so it’s kind of like a fresh start for everybody,” Jordan said. “[The coaches] definitely put a lot on us -- on me. It starts with me, like I said, and that’s something that I like. I like the challenge and I like when something goes wrong and 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 what was the breakdown defensively. I just feel like we’re getting better every game."
The Clippers aren’t only getting better every game, so is Jordan. The confidence he had to start the season has continued to blossom as he lives up to his coach’s lofty preseason billing as one of the best defensive players in the league.
"I’ve always wanted to be a good defensive player,” Jordan said. “Our coaches stress on that a lot more -- what they want from us, and I’m just really in the right spots defensively to be effective. They put a lot on me, and really I’m just embracing it, that’s really it."