He’s started less than half of the 145 games he’s played in the past three seasons, and he’s only played in 71% of the games his teams have played in that span. He’s averaged 7.1 points and less than 20 minutes per game. The Sixers are his sixth team in four seasons. He’s 33 years old.
So, why was signing DeAndre Jordan so important? Why might the Sixers’ postseason fate lie in Jordan’s ability to give Joel Embiid 12 minutes of quality rest?
Good questions. The answers started coming Monday night, when the Sixers hosted the Bulls – answers that sort of hide in the weeds, either under the boards or on the end of the court where dirty work gets done.
There, Jordan played well. He pushed two offensive rebounds into three-point makes. He blocked a shot. He gave Embiid 10 minutes of quality rest, with a plus-minus rating of zero. He scored two points in the 121-106 win. Perfect.
Jordan did his job.
Despite the deadline acquisition of James Harden, a three-time scoring champ; the dominance of Embiid, the NBA’s current scoring leader; and the emergence of second-year guard Tyrese Maxey, who averaged 26.8 points per game in Harden’s first four starts, the Sixers don’t try to drown you with points. They thrive when they defend well.
And they defend best when Embiid is on the court. They challenge perimeter players with the knowledge that Embiid will protect the rim. He’s 7-foot-2, with a volleyball player’s agility and explosiveness. There have been few players in NBA history with his combination of instinct and athleticism.
Besides, the other good teams boast size that comes in waves.
The Cavaliers, who entered Monday in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and 2½ games behind the Sixers, have athletic big men Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. The Heat, who hold first place, have Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedman. The West is loaded with quality big men, should the Sixers reach the Finals.
Paul Millsap, at 6-7 and 37 years old, was just not going to cut it.
Really, there are few players whose absences are as sorely missed as Embiid’s. That’s where Jordan comes in. They hope.
DeAndre vs. Andre
The Sixers signed Jordan because they had to ship Andre Drummond in the Ben Simmons deal that landed Harden. He could be an upgrade.
Drummond served well as Embiid’s understudy, but, while he is a respected defender, he’s made his living as a transcendent rebounder. Jordan, a two-time member of the all-defensive team and a three-time All-NBA player, has shut teams down. Can he still do it?
“As long as I’m setting screens, as long as I’m rebounding the basketball, and adding some defensive intensity on the floor,” Jordan said, he’ll be doing his job.
Of course, Embiid does a lot more than block shots. Like Jordan in his prime, Embiid alters shots and even deters players from even taking shots from inside of 10 feet. From Drummond, they got about 50% of what Embiid gave them. From Jordan, they might get more.
Jordan averaged 4.1 points in 12.8 minutes on an oddly constructed, poorly-functioning Lakers team this season. He played in just five of the their last 27 games, scored a total of 10 points, and, in his final game, overthrew a teammate by 20 feet.
To be fair, it was his first game in three weeks but ... 20 feet?
Jordan isn’t in Philly to drop dimes or dunks. He’s here to take up the space that Embiid commands when Embiid cannot command it. He sees this as a sort of salvation from the purgatory he suffered with a club living on the fringes of the playoffs and unlikely to play past early spring.
“I’m familiar with Doc,” Jordan, said, and this “was a chance to come here and play a little more and have a chance to go further in the postseason.”
Also, there isn’t much Jordan hasn’t seen.
Between brooding union chief Chris Paul and erratic, volatile Blake Griffin, Jordan served as a steadying force in Clippers locker rooms. Rivers coached him for the five best seasons of his career, so he is devoted to Doc, and Doc knows him best. There are a few people in Joel Embiid’s career who have earned his respect. DeAndre Jordan is one of them; “Joel and I are cool,” Jordan said.
“We need a lot of help when it comes to rebounding, and especially when I’m off the floor, defensively,” Embiid said Saturday. “That’s what he does, so I’m excited.”
Should Embiid temper his excitement?
The Nets benched Jordan last year during the playoffs. In fact, hasn’t taken the court in a playoff game since April 30, 2017 – which, for perspective, was more than three months before the fatal Charlottesville protests. That afternoon he played 39 minutes in a Game Seven, first-round loss to visiting Utah. It was the last game for the disappointing Lob City trio, which forecast the end for Rivers in LA, too (Doc got fired in 2020).
The Clippers traded point guard Chris Paul to Houston. Blake Griffin signed an extension to stay in LA, but by January of 2018 he’d been shipped to Detroit. Tobias Harris was part of that trade, and he played with Jordan for the rest of that season. The pair will likely see time together on the floor again, since Harris, now a Sixer, often fills a primary scoring role when Embiid sits.
It’s a lot to ask from a confirmed journeyman. Since the beginning of 2018, Jordan has been a Maverick, a Knick, a Net, and a Laker. Now, he’s a Sixer. It might be his last stop. He’s rusty, but he’s ready.
“I’m only 33,” he said. “I feel great.”
Will he play great? Or even good enough?
“I don’t know what DJ is gonna bring us,” Rivers said last week. “He hasn’t played a lot over the last couple of years, but I know he’s big.”
Monday, Rivers was no more effusive.
“He’s a big,” he said, “and he’s gonna be big on the floor no matter what.”