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FILM STUDY: Is DeAndre Jordan the Nets latest surprising success?

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

DeAndre Jordan was the ultimate shape-shifter in his 12th season, a fluid persona who bent with the wind during every turn of this strange year of Nets basketball. His introduction to Brooklyn was boisterous, full of merriment and laughter, winning over (some/most?) fans with a thinly-veiled jab at the cross-town rival.

“I only played there two months…,” DeAndre replied to a question regarding his experience as a Knick, a response that drew stifled giggles from the crowd at Brooklyn’s Media Day...

That preseason enthusiasm regarding the Nets’ newfound four-year contract quickly faded, replaced by general feelings of uneasiness during his first full month of play in a Brooklyn jersey. Pangs of disquietude and angst would erupt in my stomach following every failed box-out and half-hearted contest against stretchy opponents from the former All-Star center. Maybe the pundits were right, I thought to myself, maybe DeAndre Jordan was, in fact, washed, perhaps to an even greater extent than previously imagined.

But as the season changed from fall to winter, DeAndre Jordan’s poise followed suit; he grew colder, bolder, firmer, and his comfort level increased with every passing game. Towards the end of this suddenly abridged NBA season, DeAndre Jordan looked every bit the part of a stabilizing force at the center-point of a drop-coverage defense, retrofitted to suit the needs of modern-day coverage.

From a crack in the Flatbush and Atlantic pavement, Jordan bloomed, nourished by the waters of the Gowanus, transforming from former All-Star on his last legs to a steady veteran leader. (There’s definitely something in the water of the Gowanus!)

All in all, if you were to ask me to describe year-one of the DeAndre Jordan experience in a few words, I’d go with... a surprising success?

On both ends of the floor, Kenny Atkinson’s stripped down back-to-basics system worked wonders for the Defensive Player of the Year finalist-turned rotational big. On offense, DJ’s role was simple: roll hard, set screens and grab offensive boards when appropriate. And fulfill those needs, he did, doing a killer job as Brooklyn’s roll-man with 1.33 point per possession proficiency whenever he a set screen for any of Brooklyn’s ball-handlers. Should the defense fall into a malaise when guarding Brooklyn’s screen-and-scram sets, Jordan was more than happy to catch those silly onlookers on the other team by surprise and slip those screens at “excellent” 85th percentile efficiency, per Synergy; his slippery nature was largely how he and Spencer Dinwiddie formed such formidable chemistry in the lob-game.

(A quick aside: I use percentiles a lot in my articles, and I realize that not everyone is familiar with this specific form of statistical measurement. Think of percentiles as a data set on a number line, with 100th-percentile being “best possible,” 0th-percentile being the absolute worst, and 50th-percentile being right smack-dab in the middle –– the median, if you will. Anywho, moving on…)

Very rarely would Jordan be asked to post-up, recording just 11 possessions all season. In those instances, he flashed strong –– albeit basic –– around-the-basket finesse, blending powerful positioning and a reliable right-handed jump-hook, and scoring on 60 percent of his total post-up shots. And yes, “well, actually” guy in the comments, you’re right: technically speaking, not all of the clips below are post-up attempts, but they do provide a general gist for Jordan’s painted-area bag of tricks.

Once a prestigious rebounder, though his traditional box-score numbers may not show it. As his athleticism has waned, his activity on the glass has slowed along with it. I mentioned his box-outs as an early-season ouch-that-hurt-really-effin’-badly-thorn-in-my-side and, well, I’ll let the tape do the honors.

Far too often did it feel like we were watching the same movie on repeat. Its plot arc was simple: the shot would go up, DeAndre would watch, the ball would clank off the rim, DeAndre would continue to watch, the ball would fall into the hands of the opposition, and (you guessed it) DeAndre Jordan would continue to watch as if frozen in time, popcorn in hand, motionless as a statue. Just three seasons ago, Jordan finished as one of the three-best box-out artists in the game, averaging 9.4 per contest. Since 2017-2018, that number has fallen precipitously to 7.0 per game in 2018-2019 (15th in the league) to just 3.5 on average this season (36th in the NBA).

Even in situations when Jordan did, you know, actually make an effort to pressure the glass, it wasn’t necessarily a home run in Brooklyn’s favor. In the second clip at the 0:18 time-stamp from the video above, notice how Jordan fails to orient his body toward the basket, allowing Utah’s Tony Bradley to shove him out of the way with an arm-bar in the back. In 56 total games, Jordan grabbed just 37.8 percent of his contested rebounding opportunities –– 68th of the 98 players who qualified.

To Jordan’s credit, though I may have many-a-qualm about his rebounding techniques, these tendencies didn’t have much of an effect on Brooklyn’s overall rebounding. In fact, per PBP’s awesome on/off stat-value calculator, the Nets were better with Jordan on the floor on both defense (+0.04) and offense (+0.02) in terms of rebounding. So, a collective Michael (duh) Jordan-shrug, golf-clap and hat-tip from myself and the rest of the DJ-doubters to the eldest member of the “Clean Sweep” crew.

One of the more pressing DeAndre Jordan questions –– to me, at least –– was his playmaking: Was he a good passer? Or just an overzealous one?

The answer to this question is found somewhere in the middle of these two absolutes. Per Fox Sports, Jordan’s 1.49 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 28th amongst the 92 centers listed (his center counterpart, Jarrett Allen, was 36th with a 1.18 AST-TO) –– essentially, Jordan’s a good-not-great creator for his size.

The highs were worthy of celebration; with a penchant for creating from the elbows and high-post, Jordan provided onlookers with old-school highlights a la mode, tossing lead-in passes to Brooklyn’s backdoor sneak-attackers to the surprise of defenders across the league...

The lows, well, perhaps the less said the better! Typically, these plays entailed Jordan starring straight at his intended receiver with uninterrupted eye-contact and perhaps a conspicuous head-nod, which provided the defense with the perfect blueprint to spring into the passing lane and pick off Jordan’s painfully telegraphed pass. Shrewdness is your ally, big guy, use it!

It will be interesting to see if the Nets can increase their usage of Jordan in the short-roll next season, as this is an area in which his passing instincts could translate almost immediately. Jordan tends to keep his head on a swivel whenever given the controls on the roll –– as opposed to just focusing on the man in between him and the basket –– and with this, he willingly located corner shooters with bullet passes this season. I don’t believe in a world of absolutes, but finding Joe Harris in the corner is always, always a profitable way to go.

Just over a year ago, the upstart 2018-2019 Nets fell victim to the jumbo-sized Philadelphia 76ers in five hard-fought games. Ultimately, the difference between these two teams was decided by the two largest starters on the floor: Despite Jarrett Allen’s best efforts, Joel Embiid cruised to a cool 24.8 points per game on 60.1 percent true shooting, along with 13.5 boards and 2.8 blocks in his 4 games played. In short, he man-handled Brooklyn’s slender youngster, tossing the kid around like a linen shirt in a heavy-duty laundromat drier.

Sean Marks didn’t have to dig deep within the crevices of the free agent market for reinforcements, hoping to stumble upon what some hoped could be the great “Joel Embiid equalizer.” He had help. His two superstars had a ready-made solution! On paper, Jordan would have the stoutness –– the thickness –– to wrestle and tangle with matchups that were well outside of 21-year-old Jarrett Allen’s comfort zone.

Good news. Jordan’s theoretical role as Brooklyn’s giant-stopper translated wholeheartedly to the actual physical realm. Per NBA stats, DeAndre held players 6-foot-10 and taller to just 43.7 percent shooting –– 6th-best of the 86 players who qualified. Though the sample was limited to just 24 total possessions, DeAndre did one hell of a job protecting the Nets from low-block lunch-money-stealin’ bullies, allowing just 0.42 points per post-up possession as a primary defender according to Synergy Stats.

To be clear, Jordan did more on defense than just shield his Nets from the league’s rudest, most thunderous back-to-the-basket bruisers. His full Synergy chart paints a very clear picture of just how impressive Jordan was as an individual defender.

DeAndre Jordan 2019-2020 Defensive Rankings:

You’d think that, considering Jordan’s loss in footspeed, smaller players would have had a field day against a slow-poke center –– especially if they could engineer a switch in the pick-and-roll setting to get Jordan stranded in space.

Once again, as is the trend with most things 2019-2020 DeAndre Jordan, the guy frankly exceeded expectations. Holding pick-and-roll ball-handlers to 456 points on 539 possession is one thing, but to actually stymie smaller players into scoring just 0.69 points per possession on pick-and-roll switches is downright bewildering. Again, teams scheme to hunt for guys exactly like DeAndre Jordan –– a blast-from-the-past center –– on switches, so for him to hold his own when left alone on an island is one hell of a victory for his Brooklyn Nets.

Oddly enough, it’s against pick-and-roll bigs that Jordan had the most trouble, merely “average” in this regard according to the chart above. For those of you who paid close attention to the Nets this season (round of applause to those that have, by the way… it wasn’t exactly the “funnest” — is that word yet? — of NBA seasons), it should come as no surprise to learn that DeAndre was a bit of a wild card against centers who could “pop” to the arc and detonate at will, defending these possessions with solid 57th-percentile efficiency.

Hidden deep in Atkinson’s drop coverage, at many points this season, Jordan wouldn’t take a step –– not one! –– outside the painted area in pick-and-pop scenarios, giving his matchup all the time in the world to clip treys from downtown. From there, it was a simple game of chance.

…and then, in the few and far between moments when Jordan did close out to the arc, his declining athleticism worked against him, leading to slow-mo blow-bys that made my joints creek just looking at them. (Apologies due to Marvin Williams for catching strays from this admittedly unnecessary shade.)

His performance against more traditionalist pick-and-roll bigs was far more harmonious than the rest of his individual defensive metrics; against centers who took zero dribbles, Jordan allowed just 0.78 points per possession, at 82nd percentile efficiency.

Before I skedaddle, one quick footnote: You may notice Jordan performed admirably in defending spot-up shooters. Don’t worry, I noticed it too, and that stuck out like a sore thumb. Further research produced even more incredulous findings: per Synergy, Jordan defended jump-shooters in the 88th percentile. In my best Scooby Doo voice, “RUHUUUH??!?!”

Jordan’s catch-and-shoot defensive stats may hold the answer to this conundrum of all conundrums. As an 81st-percentile overall catch-and-shoot defender, 102 of Jordan’s 127’s total C&S possessions were qualified as “unguarded.” Basically, Jordan allowed his matchups to barf up threes at will, completely uninhibited…. and that bold strategy worked, Cotton, at least according to the numbers.

In a lot of ways, this is in line with what to expect from any Markinson (RIP, sad face) defense; the Nets “played the percentages” by allowing larger players to take long-range shots and forced smaller players to launch from the midrange and floater territory –– all of which, by the way, are analytically favorable attempts from the perspective of a numerically-inclined defense.

DeAndre’s impressive statistics against jump-shooters may have been a byproduct of Atkinson’s strategy. Or perhaps, dare I say it… perhaps the guy got a tad bit lucky this season with guys missing holy-hell-those-are-open shots. (Mentioning “luck” as a form of analysis? Cue the gasps! The boos! How dare I?!?!)

Thanks to his unbreakable relationship with the Nets’ two superstars, I’m willing to bet that DeAndre’s in it for the long haul as a Brooklynite. Given how things played out in early March –– the firing of Kenny Atkinson after Jordan mopped up measly bench-minutes for the first four months of the season, and the subsequent upgrade to the starters by new interim coach Jacque Vaughn –– I’d also bet Jordan remains Brooklyn’s starter throughout next season to appease the Nets’ superstar figures.

After all, in Zach Lowe’s words from his March 7th Lowe Post podcast, “these three guys came to play together… and DJ coming off the bench limits how much they get to play together.”

And you know what? If that’s the case, I’m at peace with it. DeAndre Jordan was the latest example of the growing line of successful reclamation projects under the watchful eye of Sean Marks.

Potentially on his way out of the league, Jordan transformed into a serviceable center that could lead the way. Will he be able to replicate yet another fine season in the following years? We’ll see, though questions surrounding his athleticism, dedication as a rebounder, and limitations against stretchy offensive players could spell doom, and there’s a good chance Jordan’s 2019-2020 season was a just hair or two fluky. Lowe talked about that in his latest “Five NBA Things I Like and Don’t Like.” And of course, his fate will ultimately be decided by whomever Marks picks as the Nets next coach.

Until then, let’s rejoice and celebrate the twilight years of DeAndre Jordan and hope his effectiveness rages on.