What would you say if I told you that ten days into the NBA season, the best big man on the Los Angeles Clippers isn't Blake Griffin? Or that the best center in Los Angeles isn't Dwight Howard?
At this early juncture of the season, the Clippers, not that other team from Los Angeles, lead the Pacific Division with a 4-2 record. Already the Clippers have decisive victories over the Grizzlies, the Lakers, the Spurs and the Trail Blazers and are looking like a team that could seriously contend in the Western Conference. And a big part of their impressive start has been the spectacular improvement in fifth year center DeAndre Jordan.
Jordan has always looked the part of the dominant NBA center. He's massive, he's impossibly long, he's athletic. As great as Griffin is at catching lobs near the rim, Jordan can probably go even higher. But until this season Jordan has been unable to do much on the offensive end beyond catching lobs or putting back misses. Each offseason he supposedly works on post moves, but when the season starts he's as limited as ever.
The Clippers would happily live with his offensive limitations if he could simply provide a consistent level of defensive effort. Unfortunately Jordan has also struggled with focus and has been unable to maintain any consistency through his first four NBA seasons. He'll have a great sequence or a great game, but then turn around and miss an assignment, or get hopelessly out of position foolishly chasing a blocked shot, or bite on a pump fake against a significantly smaller opponent. Far too often he disappears from a game, or worse appears only in negative ways like fouls and turnovers.
This season when the Clippers told the assembled media during training camp that Jordan had worked all summer on improving his post play there was no shortage of eye-rolling in the crowd. We'd heard it before. Then Jordan went out in the first preseason game and made a right-handed jump hook. Then he made a spin move. Then he made a left-handed jump hook: all things he literally could not do a season ago.
But was it all just a fluke? Making post moves in preseason is one thing. Would he be able to do it during the regular season, against real NBA defenses focused on stopping him?
This week, for the first time in his career, Jordan scored 20 points in consecutive games (20 against San Antonio on Wednesday, followed by 21 against Portland on Thursday). He also grabbed a total of 19 rebounds and blocked 5 shots in the two games, and he did so while making 18-22 from the field (82 percent) in fewer than 28 minutes per game. Against the Spurs most of his scores came as they always have, on lobs and dunks and putbacks, but he also opened the game with that righty jump hook. Meanwhile, against the Blazers, half of his field goals came on straight post up moves. In his first four seasons in the league, you might go a month or more before seeing a Jordan basket that was neither assisted nor the result of an offensive rebound, but the new Jordan had several both Wednesday and Thursday.
Jordan currently leads the NBA in field goal percentage making 75 percent of his shots. He is fifth in blocked shots. He may not really be the best center in the west as TNT's Shaquille O'Neal labeled him Thursday night (clearly trolling Dwight Howard again), but he is shooting a better percentage, blocking more shots and grabbing more rebounds per minute than Howard at this point -- so it's not as far-fetched at it sounds, at least based on his current play.
Against the Spurs Wednesday night Jordan had probably the best performance of his career. It makes some amount of sense that the hyperathletic Jordan should be able to run past and jump over the aging, relatively earth-bound San Antonio bigs like Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DaJuan Blair, but in fact the opposite has been true -- Jordan has always struggled against the Spurs. But Wednesday for the first time he put his athleticism to good use against them, running the floor, getting into passing lanes, blocking shots and finishing anything and everything around the basket. In a Western Conference increasingly lacking in true centers, Jordan will have a size advantage over his opponent most nights, and an athleticism advantage every night with the possible exception of the Battle of LA. In years past he hasn't had the skills or the confidence to press that advantage, but that appears to be changing.
The Clippers are clearly an improved team over last season. Eric Bledsoe is becoming a force off their bench, and they added a slew of veterans in the offseason to improve team depth, including the early favorite for the Sixth Man Award Jamal Crawford. But the improved play of Jordan may be a wild card in the team's progression. After four NBA seasons, most analysts probably thought that Jordan was more or less a known quantity and was not going to get a lot better. But if he can sustain anything close to the level of play he's achieved in the early part of the season, he could push the Clippers to a whole new level as well.