- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- DeAndre Jordan has always been there.
While the Los Angeles Clippers have had 12 players miss a combined 156 games and have been forced to juggle 12 different starting lineups this season, Jordan has been the one constant presence on the court.
He is the only Clipper who has started every game this season and has played in 237 straight regular-season games, the longest active streak in the NBA.
The fact that this will come as a surprise to most is not really a surprise at all.
Through it all, Jordan has controlled the paint, captained the defense and given an unstable lineup some semblance of stability.
"My job doesn't change," Jordan said. "If Chris or Blake go down it's not like, 'Oh, we're going to feature D.J. tonight.' It's not like that. My job is going to continue to be the same -- set screens, get guys open, rebound the basketball and play defense. Anything I can give us offensively is a plus. I just have to pick it up defensively when guys get hurt."
Jordan is the Clippers' defensive captain. It was a responsibility Doc Rivers gave Jordan as soon as Rivers became the team's head coach and senior vice president of basketball operations in June. But he not only wanted Jordan to be the defensive captain, he wanted Jordan to be one of the Clippers' three captains, along with Paul and Griffin. He told everyone that he left one "Big Three" in Boston for another "Big Three" in Los Angeles.
"It wouldn't have been important if it wasn't true," Rivers said. "It wasn't something I was making up. I wasn't trying to create a big three. If you don't have a big three, you don't have a big three. I just felt like we did. It was a fact and I wanted to make that fact known to D.J. more than anybody else. He deserved to be in that group. If D.J. wasn't that, I wouldn't have done that."
Rivers went out of his way to talk about Jordan whenever he talked about Paul and Griffin. When the Clippers were shooting photos for the cover of the media guide and programs, he made sure Jordan was in every shot. If the Clippers had any chance of winning a championship, they needed a three-headed monster and Jordan needed to be that monster on defense.
"It's always good to hear that from your coach," Jordan said. "That was big."
It was big because Jordan hadn't heard that from his coach in a while or at least didn't feel that type of trust. Jordan and former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro didn't always see eye-to-eye, and that would often result in the 25-year-old center sitting at the end of the bench during critical moments in the game and scowling in the locker room postgame, regardless of the result.
Rivers knew he had to change that if the Clippers had any chance of winning this season. He knew the kind of player Jordan could be and let him know that when they spoke on the phone as soon as Rivers arrived in Los Angeles.
"I really saw that and went more off of last year and two years ago where I saw D.J. when we played them, and I said this guy is the best defensive player in the league when he wants to be," Rivers said. "So I kept an eye on him because at that time we were thinking how can we get him? Not that I'd be coaching him. Last year he didn't have a great year, but you knew it was in there and I thought it was important that he knew that."
Before training camp started, Rivers said his expectations for Jordan included him winning the awards for defensive player of the year award and most improved player. Those who have covered Jordan through his first five seasons looked at one another and laughed. There's no question Jordan has always had a high ceiling, but he's always been like a child trying to jump up and touch that ceiling. It didn't seem possible. That, however, was before Rivers.
Under a new coach and new system, Jordan is finally beginning to fulfill the potential many saw in him when he entered the NBA at 20 in 2008. He is leading the league in field goal percentage (.674) and rebounding (13.8). He is third in blocks (2.46) and is averaging a career-high 10.4 points.
"You talk about so many different awards for so many different people," Paul said. "I think D.J. is a guy who should be up for most improved, who should be up for defensive player of the year, all that type of stuff. He's got to get something."
Take a closer look at Jordan's career season and it's easy to see why Rivers, Paul and Griffin have been campaigning for him to get some kind of individual hardware.
With only three games left in the regular season, Jordan probably will finish leading the NBA in both field goal percentage and rebounding. Only Dwight Howard and Wilt Chamberlain have finished a season atop the league in both categories, and only Howard has done so in the past 40 years.
Jordan has had the third-largest improvement in rebounds per game from one season to the next in the NBA since 1951-52, and earlier this season had a streak of 22 games in a row with at least 10 rebounds and one block. He surpassed Hakeem Olajuwon for the second most such consecutive games in NBA history. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did so 24 straight times in 1976-77.
The one part of Jordan's game that hasn't improved much is his free throw shooting. He's still shooting 43.9 percent from the line, which is only a slight improvement over his career average. And while he's leading the league in field goal percentage, all but 10 of those shots have come in the paint. Rivers, however, doesn't believe any of that should deter Jordan from being considered the best defender in the league.
To his credit, Rivers has kept Jordan in the game even when teams start using the "Hack-a-Jordan" tactic by intentionally fouling him and sending him to the line. Against Minnesota and Houston recently, Jordan blew up those plans by consistently making at least one of his two free throws and raising havoc on defense by blocking shots and getting offensive rebounds.
"There will be games where he plays and there will be games where you have to take him out but he always has to be ready to shoot them," Rivers said. "I think he's gotten better as far as his confidence. I don't know if the results are much better, but I just want him to be in there. He's so important on the other end. We can't let them take our best defensive player off the floor because of his offense. I just don't know how much sense that makes."
As he stands in front of his locker, Jordan smiles when asked about the possibility of winning one of the individual awards for which he's currently being touted. He has become accustomed to being overlooked for individual awards and accolades, which is fine by him as long as he's helping his team win.
"I don't know. I'm going to continue to be the defensive player that my team needs me to be and the real basketball people will get that," Jordan said. "It's not just about your name. It's about what you do for your team and your value on the defensive end of the court. That's all that matters."
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
15hMatt Walks, ESPN.com