The Los Angeles Clippers’ 2013-2014 season has been overshadowed by the Sterling saga. Far more positive was the performance of the team.
Undoubtedly, center DeAndre Jordan had a breakout season. He led the league in three of its main categories: rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage. He started and played in all 82 regular season games on a Clippers team that owned the third best record in the NBA during the regular season. He finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Not to be discounted, Jordan’s dunk on Pistons’ Brandon Knight is surely the dunk of the year; and, just as classic, is his post-dunk grimace. Playoff performance notwithstanding, has Jordan taken the reigns as the best center in the NBA?
The center position has always been at a premium in the NBA. A low-post presence on the offensive end allows for a higher proportion of high-percentage shots and second-chance points, while simultaneously reducing those opportunities for the opposing team on the defensive end. Historically, the sum of this equation always translated into wins. To this day, there is a prevailing scarcity of agile, skilled and durable big men with superior hand-eye coordination, body control and awareness. Teams that employed these types of centers have been among the best in the league, if not the very best of all time.
Through 2007, 34 of 60 NBA championship teams started a dominant center, with the likes of Mikan, Russell, Kareem, Wilt, Olajuwon, Duncan and Shaq leading the way. In the mid-2000s, however, the pool of dominant centers seemed to have dried out. With the emergence of “small-ball,” featuring 6’8’’–6’10’’ guards or forwards adept at bringing the ball down the court, playing the wing and shooting 3s, centers were becoming obsolete.
In high school or AAU, big men no longer look to lurk around the basket for put-backs; they want to dribble, drive and shoot like the rest of us. As a result, the center of yore may forever be gone. But, as D’Andre Jordan’s season has demonstrated, a center proficient at both ends of the floor can, in the right role, still propel a team deep into the playoffs, if not the championship.
Statistically, only five centers deserve to be in the current conversation for the best in the NBA: DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah and Jordan. Objectively, the value of a center can be measured in their contribution to the team’s scoring, rebounding, defense and wins. A center also actualizes his value through leadership abilities, his capacity to stay on the court as well as his cap hit on the team’s books.
Out of the five candidates, Jordan averaged the least points-per-game scored on the least field goals attempted. At 10.4 PPG, Jordan contributes to approximately 10% of his team’s scoring (Cousins and Jefferson both hover around 22.5%). Out of the five, Jordan is also by far the worst free-throw shooter, pushing the 40% range. Clearly, this category is Jordan’s Achilles heal.
On the other hand, Jordan’s scoring efficiency is unassailable. At 68%, the highest in the league, Jordan is eight percentage points better than Howard, boosting the Clippers into the top-3 shooting team in the NBA. In each of his six years in the league, Jordan has steadily improved his scoring average, more than doubling his rookie average of 4.3 PPG. The Clippers, as a team, own the highest scoring average in the NBA (107.9/game) and, as such, do not rely on Jordan’s scoring for wins. A center’s free-throw shooting futility is also not dispositive, as demonstrated by Shaq and Howard. In all, Jordan’s efficiency, combined with his consistent improvement and role on the team, mitigate his lack of scoring.
To further mitigate his lack of scoring, Jordan averages four offensive rebounds per game, giving himself and his team additional scoring opportunities. Jordan led the NBA in total rebounds, the true hallmark of a center. Jordan is particularly proficient at rebound positioning, leading the NBA in rebounding opportunities (i.e. number of times a player was within 3.5 feet of a rebound, according to NBA.com).
On a team like the Clippers, filled with competent guards, shooters and wing players, dominating the boards is of even higher value. Jordan is responsible for 35% of the team’s rebounding, doubling the rebound average of Blake Griffin, the second-leading rebounder on the team. Even among the rebounding centers, Jordan is clearly the best in the category.
By all measures, Jordan is one of the best defenders in the NBA, if not the best. He led the NBA in blocks, deflecting 75 more shots than Howard. A consummate weak-side defender, fully adept at team rotations on defense and the owner of a 7-6 wingspan, Jordan has altered more opponent shots than statistics are able to record. The Clippers are ranked in the top-5 for opponent’s field goal percentage. Among centers, Jordan is also in the top-7 in steals.
NBA.com’s ranking for defensive impact – accounting for blocks, steals, and opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim – lists Jordan second only to OKC’s Ibaka in the regular season. Of the five top centers, Jordan is the least turnover-prone player, averaging 1.5 TPG (while players like Howard and Cousins are in the 3.5 TPG range), further minimizing scoring opportunities for opponents. Although Noah came away with the Defensive Player of the Year trophy, a sober analysis would put Jordan on top of the podium for defensive efficacy.
Since Jordan’s rookie year, the Clippers have increased their regular season winning percentage in each of the six seasons. The team went from 19 wins in 2008 to 57 wins in the most recent season, a progression that was well underway prior to current stars Chris Paul (2011) and Griffin (2010) joined the franchise.
The Clippers have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons with all three stars. Still, Jordan ranks in the top-10 for win shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player) with 11.1 wins, ranking higher than either Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. With his win-share contribution, Jordan’s team won more games than any of the other five centers.
Durability of a player generally, and a starter specifically, is essential to the flow and consistency of a team. Large players have a particularly difficult task of staying healthy, as the mass of a big man weighs down on the joints when exposed to a significant amount of running (see: Yao Ming). This is in addition to absorbing a higher rate of contact on both ends of the floor. As a player most often situated in the paint, a post player has an elevated risk of injury.
In the last two years, Jordan has clandestinely played a large part in the success of the Clippers by becoming a stable part of the rotation. Jordan has managed to stay on the court for all 82 regular season games, as well as all playoff games, for the second year in a row. He is the only center in the NBA with that distinction (Robin Lopez has played two full seasons as well, but his Blazers did not make the playoffs in 2013). None of the other five centers can claim this type of durability, as only Noah played more than 73 games this season. During that stint, Jordan averaged 35 minutes per game, good for the top-3 among centers.
Jordan, in the prime of his career, is only 25-years-old. Considering his durability as well as skill improvements, Jordan is likely to have an increasingly improving career for the remainder of this decade. Jordan’s four-year, $43 million contract, which concludes following the upcoming 2014-15 season, is considered a comparative bargain. Out of the five top centers, whose contacts range from $14 to $23 million in annual salaries, Jordan is paid the least. Jordan will remain undervalued as his contributions to the team remain surreptitious. Scoring makes most highlights, bringing exposure, and he is not an established scorer.
Perhaps more importantly, by the time of expiration of Jordan’s current deal in 2015, he will have fully-earned Bird rights. As such, the Clippers will be able to trump any other team's offer to Jordan – no other team will be able to offer him as many years on a deal without a major cap hit. By then, however, the Clippers will have the third largest cap figure in the NBA. With two other stars to retain, it is doubtful the Clippers will be willing to extend a full Bird rights offer to Jordan, further limiting the ability to maximize his earning potential.
This perfect storm may result in a team, Clippers or otherwise, being able to retain or obtain Jordan’s services for less than what his market value should be. Whether undervalued or practically restricted from signing a big contract, Jordan’s cost will be comparatively lower than the top centers in the NBA.
With the exception of Noah, Jordan is the most important player at his position with respect to team chemistry. As one of the veterans on the team, Jordan sets the tone in the locker room, the court and beyond. He is the co-creator of the “Lob City” gimmick which has provided the team with a merchandising bonanza and, really, an identity. While other top centers are relatively quiet (Jefferson), immature (Cousins) or new to a team (Howard), Jordan is an established emotional leader that provides stability for the team.
In the age of the non-dominant center, teams will reap the benefits of a skilled big man utilized in a particularly specialized way. Emphasizing the traditional advantages of size, centers that can dominate defensively, along with high offensive, rebounding and turnover efficiency, translate into increasing team success. The best centers will also add value to a team by being durable, adding to team chemistry but without straining the salary cap. Jordan has proven to fit the bill on all counts in 2014.