Doc Rivers is shaking up the roster by trading for his own son, the Clippers are lagging behind in the Pacific Division, skeptics are wondering whether the team is destined for another early postseason exit and DeAndre Jordan's first unencumbered free agency decision is on the horizon this summer.
Nevertheless, L.A.’s excitable, gregarious center does well to project an even keel, stressing patience when it comes to his team’s up-and-down season and speaking methodically when it comes to his own future.
Jordan saves his most animated moments – complete with swinging arms and head nods – for the truly important stuff, like weighing the relative merits of various superheroes. “Batman is just a regular dude with a lot of money,” he explains, with evident passion. “All these other guys have these powers. They can fly or they have laser eyes. If you shoot Batman in the head, he’s going to die. If you shoot Superman, the bullet is going to fall out and he’s going to kick your ass. Batman has always been my favorite.”
It’s clear that Jordan still views himself as a mere mortal in the NBA, even though his high-flying dunks make him look like a destroyer of worlds, even though his Ironman streak of consecutive games played dates back to the 2010-11 season, and even though he considers Shaquille O’Neal (Superman himself) to be one of his top basketball role models. That self-perception was forged during years as a role player who struggled with foul trouble, free-throw shooting, and the pace and power of the professional game. It is also regularly reinforced by Rivers, who empowered him with greater minutes and encouraged him to step up as the backbone of the Clippers’ defense, while also asking Jordan to stay in his lane on offense.
This summer represents a crossroads for Jordan, 26, who is quick to point out that he’s the longest-tenured member of the Clippers. How things shake out will depend in large part on his evolving identity. On one hand, Jordan is leading the league in rebounds (13.6), field goal percentage (71.5 percent), and dunks (119), and he is coming off a season in which the Clippers ranked No. 7 in defensive efficiency. On the other, he gets less than six shots a game, his offense is strictly confined to the basket area, and his team’s defense has regressed to No. 16 this season. He seems to be at the midpoint between the raw “project” stage that defined his early career and his potential ceiling as a fully-formed, two-way force that makes the most out of his elite athleticism.
That in-between state makes his upcoming free agency all the more intriguing. He stands to enter the market with fellow unrestricted free agent centers like Marc Gasol, Robin Lopez, and Tyson Chandler, while other names like Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert could theoretically join the party if they exercise options. Meanwhile, the Knicks, Lakers and Celtics, among others, could find themselves with max-level cap space and a need in the middle. Will the market view Jordan as the defense-first difference-maker that he is now or as the two-way cornerstone that he could potentially become?
In a sit-down interview with SI.com this week, Jordan discussed his thoughts on free agency, where the Clippers stand at the halfway point of the season, and a host of other topics.
SI: At what point did life become all about basketball?
DJ: I played all sports coming up in Texas. I played basketball, football, baseball, ran track. All through high school I did all of that. My brother Cory is a professional baseball player and my other two brothers are playing football in college.
Once I started getting recruited and offered scholarships to go to college, they were like, "Hey man, nothing else. You’re 6-foot-10. Focus on this thing that you’re going to have a professional career in." But after I’m done playing basketball, I might move to the gridiron as a red zone receiver or maybe get my Randy Johnson on.
SI: I wrote an article last year about which NBA players would be the best at each NFL position. A lot of people said I was crazy for suggesting that the transition is possible. Could that really work?
DJ: Blake [Griffin] could be a hell of a tight end. [Glen] Baby [Davis] could be whatever he wants. Jordan Farmar played quarterback in high school. Matt [Barnes] was an All-American receiver and led the nations in touchdowns his senior year.
SI: How long would it take you to get ready to be a receiver? Not an every down guy. They just throw you the fade.
DJ: I’d have to put on some weight. Those dudes train all their lives for that. I’d need like six months to put on some weight and then six months to learn the plays. Well, if’s it only going to be one or two plays, give me a few months to learn it. Maybe a grand total of 10 months, I’d be ready.
SI: Maybe during the next lockout. Who are the biggest basketball influences on your game?
DJ: Shaq Diesel. His personality and how he just dominated the game.
I was a huge fan and still am a fan of Dirk [Nowitzki]. Damn, this dude is seven feet tall shooting three balls. In high school, I was like, "I’m shooting threes if Dirk is shooting them."
[Kevin Garnett] came in the game super young. This dude is 18 or 19 and destroying guys. I always looked at his personality and intensity. He’s fired up at all times. You don’t have a choice but to be fired up. That’s why I’m really into the game when I play. One of my teammates might get a dunk or block and I’m screaming out there loud because I know it’s going to get us going. It fires me up.
Hakeem Olajuwon. The moves he had. He had post moves but he moved like a guard. His hook shot, the fadeaway jump shot. I’d always go in the backyard to practice that.
SI: I look at your numbers this year and they are almost identical to last year. Is it safe to assume you’re fully settled into your role in Year 2 with Doc Rivers?
DJ: Doc has helped me out tremendously. He lets you play through your mistakes so you don't think, "Damn, if I make a mistake I’m coming out of the game." He’s a player’s coach. He’s played before. He gets it. I’ve always been a fan of Doc’s. I would always watch him and he was always so competitive. I knew he was a defensive-minded coach with some offensive things up his sleeve. I could see how much his guys respected him.
When he got here, he gave me the opportunity. He came in with no ego and he kept it 100. He said, "I’m going to give it to you straight. I want you to be here. I want you to be a better player. I want you to be Defensive Player of the Year for multiple years. I want to help you do that." When somebody comes in like that, you can only respect him.
When I was told that was my job at the beginning of last year, it made me nervous because it’s a lot to handle. But now, and really since the end of training camp last year, I embrace it. I like it. Defense all starts with the ball and the rim-protector is the last resort, the last line of defense. I take pride in that. If two guys get beat, then they are depending on me to make a play or help them or take a charge. Now, my teammates know and trust that DJ is going to be back there to help.
SI: You went from averaging seven or eight rebounds at best during your first five years to more than 13 in each of the last two years. What went into making that leap?
DJ: I always think about the series that we lost to Memphis [in 2013]. They killed us on the glass every game, every game. Give the credit to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and guys like that. For two years, I had averaged seven rebounds and I thought back on that, about rebounding better in those games, not giving up offensive rebounds. Maybe if I had gotten a few extra offensive rebounds and created extra possessions for our team. You just start thinking about, "What if."
With my size and my athleticism, I should be at least double-digit rebounds every game. Being a better rebounder for our team was my whole focus. I tried to improve my positioning and preparing to bang for 48 minutes against whoever it may be. It’s about being relentless. I’m going to get a hand on this ball no matter what. You can send two guys to box me out, I’m going to get it still or I’m going to tip it to my teammates.
A lot of it also is timing. Being able to judge where the shot is going to hit, how it’s going to come off. I use that for blocking shots too. Some guys are pump fake guys. You have to look at the film to see if they do that. That’s timing too.
SI: Why do you think your team defense has slipped a bit this season?
DJ: I don’t know what it is. We have the same core group of guys that were here from last year. A couple of new guys, a couple of new coaches. Our philosophy is still the same. I think with it being 40 games in, we can’t use it as an excuse that we’re not gelled together or that we’re not used to each other. But we don’t want to peak too soon. We want to be on our way and then, once the All-Star break is here, we want to hit our stride.
SI: How do you respond to outsiders who might look at the defensive numbers and the standings and wonder whether there’s something wrong?
DJ: I hit them with the Aaron Rodgers. We can’t let people outside our core group of guys, our team, our coaches, anybody in that gym with us every day helping us become a better basketball club, we can’t listen to what outsiders say. Once you start doing that, you start thinking, "Is there something wrong with our team? Am I not getting the ball enough?" It just creates a cancer.
I think the mood inside is great. We have a lot of guys who actually like each other. We’ve got two of the top 10 players in the league on one team. We’ve just got to continue to get better. You look at San Antonio: they won it last year, they’re in seventh now, but nobody is saying that San Antonio is off. Oklahoma City is down too, they had a couple of guys who were injured.
You don’t want to peak now because everybody else is going to get better. We’ve got to continue to tough games out and get better as a unit so when the playoffs come we’ll be good.
SI: Why do you believe this Clippers group can get over the hump in the playoffs?
DJ: The playoffs are tough. It’s a different game. I’ve been to the playoffs three times and I've learned something new every time we got eliminated. Each year, you want to get better and better and go further and further. I hope last year’s experience triggers something in us. I know it was motivation for us the entire summer.
We learned from last year [against Golden State] that you can’t rely on home-court advantage. You’ve got to try to win four straight no matter where you’re playing. There were times when we got a little complacent. We thought it was going to be handed to us.
Doc always has preached that winning a championship is hard. That’s why guys start bawling when they win it, because they know how much hard work they put into it, how many ups and downs through that whole season.
SI: Doc got a lot of attention with the Defensive Player of the Year talk about you. How much does a recognition like that actually drive you?
DJ: I feel like that’s my job on this team and in this league. To be an elite defender. That’s up to whoever votes for that, but that’s definitely something I strive for. Our team defense will determine that.
SI: Speaking of voting, it’s All-Star campaign season right now. Do you think the voting process works, especially now that the ballot doesn’t include a separate category for centers?
DJ: That’s horrible in my opinion. I just don’t agree with that. We have legit centers in our league and there are always going to be a couple big guys getting snubbed because of the "Frontcourt" label for forwards and centers. There’s always going to be a couple guys who are supposed to be All-Stars but they’re not because of the category.
The West is so tough. I think the All-Star team should be a little bigger, maybe 15 guys instead of 12. A lot of guys deserve to make it who just don’t ever get in because the starting five is a popularity contest. There’s just seven guys for the reserves and that puts the coaches in a tough position.
SI: You've given this some thought.
DJ: Every NBA player thinks about the All-Star Game. I remember watching the All-Star Game coming up, the Dunk Contest. I knew Sunday night is going to be crazy: The first three quarters will be highlights and threes and dunks and alley-oops, but in the fourth quarter, people are going to go hard and try to win. You’re always thinking about that. But you can’t just play your season and try to make the All-Star team as your main focus. Everyone’s main focus should be winning a championship. If you make a couple of All-Star teams along the way, then that’s good.
SI: Hasn’t the world waited long enough for DeAndre Jordan in the Dunk Contest?
DJ: I always think about the Dunk Contest. I want to be a Dunk Contest champion sometime in my career. But I’ve always told myself that I don’t want to do it until I am an All-Star. No disrespect to the Dunk Contest, that’s just a personal goal I set for myself. My family, my brothers have all told me, "You need to do it. It would be fun. You would win it." It’s just something about that deal I made with myself. If that time happens, I’m in.
DJ: Yeah, but we have five guys on our team who could average 20-25 [points] if they wanted to. Blake, [Chris Paul], Jamal [Crawford], J.J. [Redick] has been a high scorer in our league. My role on our team isn’t to get us 18 a night. Would I like to? Hell yeah. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not why I’m on this team to help us win. That’s not what I’m supposed to be doing.
SI: This next contract that you sign could carry you until you’re 30. Where do you want your game to be at that point of your career?
DJ: I want to be a better player. I want to be more rounded. Defense and rebounding is something that I’m known for. When you get older, you want to expand your game, become an offensive player and threat for your team. Whenever and however old I am, whenever [my contract is] up again, I want to be more of a threat offensively for the team that I’m playing for.
SI: You were a restricted free agent in 2011. The Warriors made you a four-year offer but the Clippers matched. Does that experience impact your approach to this summer at all?
DJ: This time is different. Last time I was restricted. You sign with somebody and that could or could not be the team you go to. This time it’s your say.
It’s always tricky. Obviously I’ve been here for seven years and I’m used to the Clippers and our team. It’s crazy that I’m the one who has been here the longest. It’s cool to think about. You get used to things. I’m used to Los Angeles. With that being said, I’m not thinking about it too much, Doc has been great, but whenever it comes to that point, I’ll cross that bridge. As of right now, I’m focused on trying to win here, a championship for our team.
SI: What are your top priorities when it comes to weighing your options in free agency?
DJ: Obviously, great weather. I’m spoiled now. Coming from Texas and living in L.A. I’ve never had to have a coat.
SI: A lot of guys try to downplay the weather factor. Are they fronting?
DJ: I think so. I don’t want to be freezing every day. But if the team is great, then you have to make a choice. And they have heaters.
I play for a great coach, a great point guard here, a great forward. You definitely look at things like that. The group of guys you have, you want to be able to be around when you’re not at practice and not at the games. You want to be around a lot of guys who have high character and are on the team for the same reasons.
SI: You’re talking a lot about camaraderie. I’m wondering whether it would be hard to picture yourself on a team that is going through a big time rebuilding project. You don't even know who your teammates would be.
DJ: Stability is something that you want in a team and an organization. If there’s no stability, it’s like being on the freeway with no lanes. It’s chaos.
The NBA is a business. That’s always the tough part about it. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much you get paid, there’s still a chance you can get shipped out somewhere. That’s it. You don’t have any control over that.
SI: The salary cap is expected to jump significantly in 2016-17. Some players are considering shorter deals this summer so they can maximize their earnings with the new cap in mind. Does that idea enter your thought process?
DJ: I don’t think about it in that way. Like, "I should only sign a one-year deal." I don’t want to a free agent [over and over]. All of this stuff could be taken away in one second [with an injury]. When you have the opportunity, I feel like you need to do it, get it done, get it over with, so it’s not another year [of the same]. People say they don’t think about it, but in the back of your mind, you kind of think about it. I’d rather not stress two summers in a row.
[Owner] Steve Ballmer, he’s been great. I have faith in Steve and Doc. Whatever we talk about when free agency comes, I feel like it will be good. Hopefully we’ll both do the right thing.
It’s going to be a good summer. It’s going to be fun. I’m not going to be stressing myself out about it. I’m going to see what happens. What happens, happens. I’ll love it wherever I’m at.
SI: What’s the secret to your durability?
DJ: I’ve got the same bone structure as Wolverine. I’m 26, I’m somewhat young. I give a lot of credit to that, and being fortunate.
SI: Speaking of superheroes, I saw on Instagram that you're really into Batman. Why Batman?
DJ: Deep down, I think we’re related. I’m a regular guy. Batman can’t fly, but he can glide. I feel like that’s me. Batman defends and protects everybody, that’s my job. I feel like we have a lot of things in common. You’ve never seen him and me in the same place at the same time.
I’m a huge Batman fan. Probably one of the biggest. He’s always been my favorite. The cars, Batman’s girls, whatever it may be. The new Batman movies: Christian Bale had it GQ. It was cool. I’m a huge fan of Tim Burton’s -- with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
I have a couple of Batman action figures. I have Batman paintings. Somebody got me this Batman bust head. It looks like kinda creepy. It’s something that I have right when you walk in my house.
SI: I’m putting this all together. You’re in the Batman costume in the Slam Dunk Contest…