By Seerat Sohi
Last season, DeAndre Jordan was an athletic specimen on the brink. With five years under his belt, Jordan was still every bit the bumbling curmudgeon he was when he entered the league. He wasn't allotted crunch time minutes because he wasn't trusted to make free throws, and he lacked the consistency to bear the fruit of his athletic gifts which, up to that point, amounted to out-of-bounds blocks and botched rotations.
Today, Jordan is shattering as many records as he is rims. One of the foremost intimidators in the league, he owns the paint, thwarting isolation attempts with ease, deflecting even the most nuanced and calibrated of pick-and-roll attacks with his seven-foot frame and endless wingspan.
On a 57-win Los Angeles Clippers squad with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the core, it was Jordan who shined the brightest in seven games against the Golden State Warriors. Twelve months removed from his lowest point, he led the Clippers in minutes per game, averaging 12.1 points, 15.1 rebounds and four blocks.
Athletes, like the rest of us, are undoubtedly privy to the context of their environment. When freshly-minted head coach Doc Rivers arrived from Boston, his goal was to build a locker room that fostered progress. Doc didn't pull the big man every time he missed a rotation; he kept Jordan in crunch time lineups despite his abysmal free throw shooting. Rivers told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard that when Jordan's temper flared, he would whisper in his ear, "Get past mad. Get past mad." Little by little, Rivers instilled confidence in Jordan.
Jordan didn't finish in the top three in field goal percentage, rebounds and blocks just because Rivers let the reins loose, though. The most important thing Rivers did for Jordan was give him ample agency to explore him game, to feel okay about making mistakes. The impetus to fix them was always on Jordan.
Instead of settling for empty double-doubles, Jordan worked to master the less sexier components of his game. Improvement is like the best kind of nachos, though: layered and imperfect.
The botched defensive possessions of old still plagued the start of Jordan's 2013-2014 affair. Amidst general defensive confusion, Jordan was allowing a 60 percent conversion rate on attempted field goals at the rim in November, per SportVu. By season's end, though, his rotations became smarter and quicker. Not only did the Clippers' defense gradually funnel more shots toward Jordan at the rim, he finished the season allowing just an airtight 49.4 percent of them to go in.
That's the difference between a confused wanderer and a bonafide rim protector. Jordan's blocking technique saw improvement as well. Against Golden State, he timed his blocks near to perfection, whether he was chasing opponents downs in transition or knocking away second chance attempts.
Jordan utterly dominated the paint in the first round, contesting 12.1 attempts per game and allowing just 44.7 percent of them. The same rim-rattling blocks and chest-thumping behaviour that was once a point of vitriol -- a familiar charge: flash without substance -- is now a point of endearment. They are, after all, the reason he finished fifth on the NBA's Most Improved Player ballot.
In a sense, Jordan's trajectory follows the same fault lines as the Clippers. They've walked through hell and back, felt the pressure of heightened expectations and the brunt of cowering under them. They've dealt with Donald Sterling as their owner. They've twisted and toiled long enough to understand that success is an ongoing process; that before you win, you have to lose, over and over and over again.
After five wayward seasons in an environment that was built to rail against him, Jordan's triumph doesn't just captivate us by way of its fundamental dominance. What's alluring is the momentary catharsis of knowing this Jordan -- who went six-for-six from the field, notched 18 rebounds and blocked three shots in an elimination game -- is the same guy who played 24.5 minutes per game last season.
Jordan's ascent is as much about triumph as it is redemption. Those electrifying moments when Jordan takes a charge on one end and completes an alley-oop on the other, are realized potential -- in all of its chest-thumping, bumbling glory.
* * *
Seerat Sohi is an NBA writer for the ESPN True Hoop Network, living in Edmonton, Alberta. You can find her work at Hardwood Paroxysm and Clipperblog or by following her on Twitter at @DamianTrillard.