Watching DeAndre Jordan, The Talking Point That Dunks

Because he is so bad at shooting free throws and so good at finishing lobs, DeAndre Jordan tends to disappear into one abstraction or another. We should look closer.

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Mar 29 2016, 1:25pm

Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Is DeAndre Jordan anybody's favorite basketball player? He must be somebody's, but it's difficult to imagine who that person is. This is not his fault, to be clear; Jordan does things that should have his jersey flying off of NBA.com's digital shelves. He protects his own rim with the strategy and pizzazz of an anti-ballistic missile system, threatens the structural integrity of the rim he's dunking on more than any player since Shaquille O'Neal, and stays remarkably healthy for someone who makes his living launching nearly seven feet and 265 pounds into the low mesosphere dozens of times every game. This is all a great deal of fun to watch.

But he also has a fairly narrow skill set that results in fairly repetitive duties and that sometimes has a hand in turning an otherwise thrilling game into a parable of professional ennui. His talent astounds, but his job description can get pretty depressing.

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Jordan's name reaches the loudest chambers of basketball discourse mostly in relation to the NBA's intentional-fouling problem and the merits of potential rule changes. He can't shoot free throws worth a lick, of course—at the time of this writing, his "FT%" column on Basketball-Reference contained only a hyperlink to some really impregnable Kant passage—and so teams send him to the line more than eight times a night. He functions as an argumentative stand-in almost as often as he does a flesh-and-blood center. Why doesn't DeAndre just practice free throws? says one fan, and Wouldn't you rather watch him dunk than go to the line? says the other. Anecdotally, he seems to come up more in relation to this phenomenon than, say, Andre Drummond does, and I suspect this is due to the relative thinness of his catalog. Jordan does about five things, give or take, on a basketball court, and shooting disastrous free throws is one of them. That makes him a pretty useful pawn in a Twitter debate.

What's lost in all this is how good Jordan is at what he does best. Well, that isn't quite right; everyone understands how his length and leaping ability make him one of the game's foremost alley-oop threats, how his rolls to the rim open up space for every other Clipper, how his rebounding and shot-blocking can nullify entire opposing frontcourts. But because his abilities relate to this moment in basketball history by way of reams and reams of pick-and-rolls, because he is relatively useless with the ball in his hands for more than a half-second at a time, and because Clippers games tend to end with Jordan marooned on the bench or making everyone nervous at the free throw line, what's lost is the pure momentary thrill of DeAndre Jordan's talent.

When did we start being bored by this, somehow? — Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last Wednesday, in a primetime loss to the Golden State Warriors, Chris Paul found a seam along the right wing in transition. He angled towards the hoop, beating his man and drawing the attention of Andrew Bogut. Bogut was wary of Jordan, who at that moment was cutting down the center of the lane, and so he only shifted his weight slightly in Paul's direction. That minimal lean was enough, and Paul arced a lob high over Bogut's head as Jordan leapt from a spot closer to the free throw line than the baseline. He caught the ball at full stretch and swept it down through the rim. The Warriors' center, feet planted and eyes only half-raised to Jordan's arms stretching over him, looked like someone ducking under a bridge to escape a storm.

Nobody else could have made that play. It required the ability to gather that 14-foot tall pass in the first place—this alone eliminates 99 percent of the league—and the reach to get it to the rim, as well as hands steady enough to keep it from spinning away or knocking off the back iron and enough airborne equilibrium and tensile strength not to go tilting off balance during the whole operation.

That last quality may be the most impressive, at least once you've gotten used to the sight of a human that big being that far off the ground. The demands that the Clippers make of Jordan have him catching lobs while turning half-circles midflight, dodging scrums of players to swat shots cleanly, and withstanding last-ditch shoves during his dunk attempts. They require, essentially, that he be able to revise his trajectory in the air, to anchor himself or dodge an obstacle. This is not any easier than it sounds, but Jordan tends to pull these plays off.

He pulls them off with such regularity, in fact, that they have become almost automatic. This puts Jordan in a strange sphere of appreciation. Viscerally, he's a dynamo, a total pyrotechnic spectacle. Strategically, though, he's a static ingredient. In much the same way his teammate J.J. Redick makes a defense choose between disrupting his long-range shooting opportunities and staying sound in the middle, Jordan makes it choose between preventing his rim runs and staying attached to perimeter players. For all his levitated stunts, he is a constant; other players call the creative shots.

Shout out to Dante Cunningham for at least smiling at how awesome this is. — Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

That reliability is sometimes misread as reliance. In the moments after Jordan brought his righteous thunder down on Bogut's noggin, the announcers covering the game rushed to praise Paul's pass, arguing that the All-NBA point guard deserves most of the credit for Jordan's league-leading field goal percentage. It is tempting, and pleasant, to divert attention to players who act as their teams' tactical foundation; this gives basketball a matching-of-wits component that makes for easier discussions and more liberal use of the telestrator. But while Jordan certainly wouldn't have the same success without Paul as his point guard, neither would Paul have such gaudy assist totals without Jordan wrangling everything he tosses up.

That is just one of the little dissonances that come with watching Jordan. No other player is so beset by context. He blocks four shots in the first half or grabs his fifteenth rebound in the third quarter, and there is still the question of whether circumstances and opposing strategy will let him see the floor in the final minutes. He throws down a mind-bending jam against the NBA's best team, and he also goes 5-for-10 from the line in a loss. Every bit of brilliance somehow contains its own undoing.

Even the basic footing of his career seems contingent. If Jordan had broken in 10 years ago, he might have been relegated to bench duty in a league that still valued back-to-the-basket post presences. A Jordan that debuts 10 years from now might have to spend all his time chasing around six-eight shooters.

As it stands, Jordan has a spot in the league all his own, however imperfect. He marks the collision of two of usually distinct traits, athletic futurism and routine toil. He gets spotty respect and provokes tired discussions, and he does things that, in an instant, make all the rest worth it.

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