DeAndre Jordan Might be the Most Important Brooklyn Net – And That’s Fine
DeAndre Jordan has not been the most enjoyable watch during his Brooklyn career. There have been times it looks like, as our Nolan Jensen puts it, he’s playing in a pair of six-inch Timbs. Questioning the effort of a professional athlete is, on the whole, misguided. To say Jordan isn’t trying hard is doing a lot of guesswork, but that’s what it’s looked like. Whatever the case, there’s a reason Jarrett Allen had started to receive the lion’s share of minutes at the 5 before his departure to Cleveland. The Fro had been roundly outplaying Jordan, and head coach Steve Nash recognized it.
None of that is fresh news in Brooklyn anymore. I’m glad to get (most of) the negatives out of the way. Jordan’s value to the Brooklyn Nets, particularly the James Harden version of the squad, has been on full display for about a month now. His minutes are not coming as a result of friendships, politics, or a pinky-promise to Kevin Durant. Aside from one misadventure in Detroit (where, I might add, the whole team was moving in slow motion), Jordan’s effort has rightfully avoided any scrutiny.
Professional Take-Man Max Kellerman recently called Jordan the most important player on the Nets. Don’t let the guffawing that followed fool you, Kellerman was spot on. Jordan, as much if not more than any one Net, is responsible for Brooklyn’s defensive output. He’s also the offense’s primary, if not sole, roll-man or rim-diver. His broad shoulders are carrying serious weight. It’s reasonable to suggest Jordan may be the single biggest X-factor in crowning a 2021 NBA champion. Because while DJ might not land in the top 10 reasons the Nets are an elite team, his play could determine the final inches of their ultimate ceiling. That may strike fear in the hearts of Nets fans, but we’re in better hands than you might think. DeAndre Jordan is an excellent fit on this Brooklyn team, and I’m here to tell you why.
DeAndre Jordan On Defense
Let’s start on the defensive end, where we’ll find DeAndre Jordan anchored in the paint, playing drop coverage. Jordan isn’t going to match-up well with every team the Nets play – how many seven-footers would? We saw the defensive success Brooklyn had against the Golden State Warriors without Jordan, as they started Bruce Brown at center and eagerly switched every one of the million screens Stephen Curry darts around in one game. But players like Curry, and teams that start Draymond Green at the 5, are few and far between.
Brooklyn’s visit to the Sacramento Kings is the perfect case study on Jordan’s defensive importance to the Nets. The Kings started the night attacking the basket with ease and repetition. Layup, layup, drive and kick, layup. It looked like it was going to be another one of those nights for Brooklyn’s defense. Then, Jordan checked into the ball-game, and Sacramento closed out the first quarter with possessions that looked like this:
Even the Kings’ makes were cut from the same cloth:
Offenses take tougher shots with Jordan on the court. That’s the long and short of it. Ball-handlers see a monster truck parked in the lane, and decide they’re better off taking floaters and mid-range jumpers. Jordan has had this effect on the Nets’ defense ever since he arrived in Brooklyn. And while he’s not the NBA’s king of drop coverage, he has enough ability to skew a team’s shot selection.
When Jordan is on the court, Brooklyn’s opponents attempt 3.5% more of their field goals from the mid-range, an 89th percentile mark for individual defenders, per Cleaning the Glass. Shot attempts from more efficient spots on the court, including both at the rim and beyond the arc, decrease to compensate. This all adds up to enemy attacks posting an eFG% (accounting for the three-ball) 2.2% worse when Jordan is out there, a number that ranks among the league’s best. (Above stats per Cleaning the Glass.) Even though on/off splits can be a bit noisy, often overly context-dependent, the eye-test backs them up. Drivers penetrate the lane, and the Nets’ help defense is already waiting in the form of Jordan.
When Brooklyn opts for Jeff Green at the 5, it often forces their opponents into matching with a small lineup, praying to contain the Nets offense. But it means when perimeter players get beat off the dribble at the other end, rim protection has to arrive all the way from the perimeter. Late help in these situations allows for layups as the Kings were getting early on. But, perhaps more importantly, early or even good help means drive, kick, rinse, repeat. The Nets sans-Jordan are constantly in scramble mode; it’s hard to play 1-on-1 defense vs. NBA players. His presence cools down the floor, as less defenders are completely left on islands.
Overall, Jordan’s rim protection does leave something to be desired. He doesn’t vaporize attempts within five feet of the rim like a Myles Turner, refusing or unable to leave the ground to contest shots as he did in his prime. When put in code-red situations, Jordan has a tendency to bailout the offense by swiping for the ball when going vertical is preferable:
In fact, opponents are shooting nearly seven percentage points better at the rim when met by his former teammate, Allen. Yet, Jordan’s on/off splits aren’t affected much by whether he’s being substituted for Allen, or, post-Harden trade, Jeff Green/Bruce Brown. This speaks Jordan’s defensive anticipation and understanding of Brooklyn’s schemes. He is consistently able to goad opponents into less-efficient shots, plays that rarely leap off your screen but result in added value throughout the course of a game or season.
Here, Jordan hangs back by the basket after De’Aaron Fox comes off a ball-screen. Once he senses Fox has fallen into the trap of settling for a tough, 12ish-foot floater, he springs into action and unfurls an elastic arm to make that shot even tougher. He’s not a huge rim-protector, but more of a rim deterrent. And affecting a team’s defensive shot profile alters success more than affecting individual shots.
Above is a hastily made and by no means summative graphic detailing how various big men fare contesting shots. Rudy Gobert and Turner have contested tons of shots (DFGA), while allowing few of them to go in the basket (DFG%). Very good! Tristan Thompson on the other hand, very bad! We can see that despite being less effective at the rim, Jordan’s DFG% is close in company to the elites, even besting Allen. And it’s a relatively low workload that reduces the quantity of shots he’s contested; his per-minute defensive numbers are strong. The those tough floaters he forces ball-handlers into show up here. They’re a large part of his ascent up defensive metric leaderboards, such as DPIPM, over the last two seasons.
The main question around DeAndre Jordan’s defense is, what happens when the offense goes five-out? Does his value still hold? So far the answer has been a resounding yes. Imagined fears are often scarier than what’s right in front of you. That is to say, most big-men (and teams almost always counter Jordan with a seven-footer to take away his offense, more on that soon) are incapable of raining hellfire from deep. For every Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Vucevic, there’s ten bigs that can, sure, make threes; they’re just not scaring defenses that way.
Jordan has shown himself capable of contesting adequate shooters, such time and time again. For example, when facing the Bucks, his close-outs on Brook Lopez looked like this:
It’s a decent contest, and Brook Lopez certainly has room to fire. But ultimately, that’s a look for a decent-at-best three-point shooter. It resulted in a miss. There’s no laziness from Jordan, but an understanding of where the Nets defense wants shots to come from. And it’s not like there aren’t counters Brooklyn has pulled out to entirely prevent those semi-open looks:
Here, late in the shot-clock, Harden and Jordan switch to force a step-back three from Marvin Bagley. A clear win for Brooklyn. The only situation that’s really given Jordan some trouble this season is an elite pick and pop center. There aren’t many around, but the screen and pop concept remains the most effective combatant of drop defense. Below, Durant tries to switch off of a curling Terrence Ross at the last minute; he gets lost on the way, and there’s an open three.
And occasionally, offensive rebounders will sneak behind a Jordan contest on a floater, as Montrezl Harrell does here. Joe Harris is simply no match:
Those plays, though, aren’t frequent enough to weigh down the defensive value Jordan provides. Another unheralded aspect of his drop coverage is that it allows the Nets guards to apply more consistent ball pressure. Irving, Brown, even Landry Shamet: Brooklyn’s smalls can really move their feet out on the perimeter. It’s easier for them to harass their matchups knowing they have a behemoth behind them.
The story Jordan tells on defense is a simple one. He will be standing near the rim, and offenses are just going to have to deal with that. A lot of the time, they won’t even bother doing so. Brooklyn has found a way to maximize Jordan’s defensive capabilities by playing him in drop coverage. He’s an excellent fit on the roster, and not just because he’s the only true big man they have. His deficiencies, namely high-level shot blocking, aren’t fatal flaws, but incentives for Brooklyn to continue their search for a complementary big man. Javale McGee is more of a pogo-stick rim-protector. Andre Drummond is an elite rebounder, whereas DJ is merely satisfactory. Sean Marks isn’t done adding to Brooklyn’s defensive repertoire. But he and Steve Nash have a foundational piece in Jordan.
Now, onto the fun part. Dunks, lobs, hard screens for the hoops fundamentalist, and other assorted eye-candy. You probably needed convincing of Jordan’s defensive prowess, particularly as the only big man left on a team that’s been poor on that end. The side where Jordan’s impact can’t be measured by just the eye-test, or just the numbers. Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the floor, DJ’s impact is crystal clear: He creates space.
Space is such a general term, and it’s often applied to players like Joe Harris, who stretch the floor with shooting ability. But basketball isn’t played on a 94×50 floor, it’s a rectangular prism with (at least) ten feet of vertical space. Jordan stretches the floor upwards; not only do defenses have to worry about the corners and the top of the key, but they also have to wall off the area above the rim. Because if they don’t, Jordan is going to throw it on someone’s head. If the camel’s back wasn’t already broken, DJ stomps on it with his ability to finish plays. He’s technically in the ‘dunker spot’ right here, but starts the play 12 feet from the rim, needing zero dribbles to finish this one off:
I don’t want to give the impression that Jordan is only useful to the Nets because he is tall and can jump high, although those attributes certainly help. Norvell Pelle might be averaging 15 and 10 for Brooklyn if that were the case. No, Jordan has ability to set himself up for these dives to the basket. Not unlike his best defensive attributes, Jordan’s rim-rolling comes from vision and anticipation, as well as mobility at the top of the key:
Although DJ misses the dunk here, he ensures hard contact on his screen, propelling Justin Holiday out of the play. And he and Harden have already developed a telepathic connection on these lob passes, although it’s probably not too difficult to sync up with The Beard. But Jordan isn’t just the beneficiary of playing with all-time offensive talent across the board. I mean, he is in part, but here’s him executing the same principles with (no offense) Tyler Johnson:
The Nets supernatural three-point shooting and Jordan’s burst at the rim work to complement each other. To take away a DeAndre Jordan dunk you have to be there early, and to recover to a sniper in the corner, you have to be fast. Most defenders simply don’t choose in time, getting caught in the middle, as Harrison Barnes does above. It’s not simply the plays, Jordan finishes though. The mere threat of a lob over the top scrambles defenses just long enough for one of the greatest passers of all time to make the next read:
Above, Jordan’s jaunt to the rim pulls James Ennis off KD for a split-second, and it’s all the time the Nets need to disembowel the Orlando Magic. Sometimes, though, the next read is to score. Irving and James are deadly operators by the outer-edges of the paint, around 10-12 feet out. It’s unfair to pair those guards with a vertical threat like Jordan – floaters and lobs are impossible to distinguish between until it’s too late. Here, DJ’s screen and roll to the rim drags his defender with him, and opens up a lefty dumpling we’ve seen a few times before:
DeAndre Jordan’s dynamic rim-diving ability shows up heavily in his advanced numbers. Per Synergy, 108 Nets possessions have either ended with a DJ cut to the basket, or off his pick and roll. Brooklyn has scored a total of 154 points on those plays, or 1.43 points per possession, an individual mark that ranks near the 90th percentile. It’s not merely a result of who he’s playing with. The Nets have used Brown in a similar role, yet his numbers are nowhere near as efficient. Brooklyn only scores 1.13 points/possession with him in the same spots. Using Brown and his 6’4″ frame as an interior scoring presence hamstrings the Nets offense in ways that disappear with Jordan on the court:
Jordan’s offensive IQ, obviously accentuated when playing along side offensive talent, has nonetheless been an asset in 2021. He doesn’t need to do much to boost an offense with Durant, Harden, and Irving into ‘unstoppable’ territory. But there’s enough guile in his game to chip-in and add flow to possessions. This impromptu flare screen that DJ creates certainly helps do that:
In addition, the ball-skills and overall passing ability DeAndre Jordan flashed last season has opened up more offensive sets for the Nets in 2021. He can wheel around the top of the key looking for handoffs that turn into pick and rolls. He can also hit cutters through increasingly tight windows, painting a corner with this bounce pass to Johnson:
DeAndre Jordan, of course, still has his warts on offense. He’s shooting 52% from the free-throw line, although he’s posting a career-low in attempts. Defenses can barely swivel their heads around in time to watch him dunk the ball, much less foul him before that happens. It’s still a liability at the end of games, though.
However, Nash and Mike D’Antoni have decided to almost completely excise Jordan from the clutch-time rotation. Not due to his poor free-throw shooting, but instead prioritizing a five-out offensive scheme with Jeff Green at the 5, pushing the Nets offense into maximum overdrive (which I detailed, here).
DeAndre Jordan fits like a glove on this Nets team. You just won’t see him in many fourth quarters, and perhaps vs. certain matchups. And Brooklyn still needs another big man on the roster. That doesn’t diminish his contributions or worth on the floor, to speak nothing of his well-documented, vocal leadership abilities. It’s clear Jordan understands the game, and what’s needed of him on a nightly basis to get Brooklyn wins. It’s all he’s been doing for the past five weeks.