DeAndre Jordan: Good player, but the right player?

The Dallas Mavericks, a forward-looking, and generally rationally-guided team, embraced the dictum of building around great players not exactly earlier than anyone else, but earlier than anyone might have expected. That is, more or less the minute after they won their first ring. And they decided to go that route rather than defend that ring.

It didn’t work, but it might have worked, and it didn’t work because of timing more than anything else. Had there been a big name FA waiting for them in the summer of 2011, who knows what might have happened, but there wasn’t. Top names from that summer include Gilbert Arenas, Andrei Kirilenko, Joel Przybilla and J.R. Smith.

Just bad luck, but the Mavs gambled on still being an attractive destination afterwards and that’s where things went south. There was a strike and then there was the Deron Williams summer, probably dodged a bullet there, and they went from a Finals starting lineup of Kidd-Barea-Marion-Dirk-Chandler to, on the first day of the 2012-2013 season, two years later, and thanks to a Dirk injury, Collison-Mayo-Marion-Elton BrandBrandan Wright.

The notorious stats website, 538, developed a stat, “ELO”–I have no comment on its efficacy–to evaluate what the most impressive dynasties have been. Basically, it’s what’s the longest teams  have gone, maintaining an ELO over 1500, the “long term league average”. The Mavericks, from 2000-2012, are 6th on that list, behind the current Spurs, the ‘77-‘92 Lakers, the ‘87-‘99 Bulls, the ‘56-‘69 Celts and the ‘79-‘89 Celts. It’s a heady list. That it ended in 2012 was no coincidence.

Long story short: very quickly the Mavericks needed another star much more than when they first decided to strike out for one, at the same time that they got too bad to have any reasonable hope of landing one.

But here’s the problem with dictums: sometimes they skimp on the particulars. This is mostly just bad luck and timing again, but the Mavs have never been able to both go after big name FAs and build around their strengths. When the big fish was Dwight Howard, they let Tyson Chandler go. It’s not exactly a lateral move, but if you have Tyson Chandler, it’d be nice to keep him and get a superstar at another position, which there wasn’t.

Now there’s a big name FA with verifiable interest in the Mavericks, and it’s DeAndre Jordan. And the guy they have is, once again, Tyson Chandler. And, once again, their weaknesses last year had maybe less to do with not having a good starting C than anything. The other guy on the wishlist, who as far as I know has not shown any reciprocal interest, is LaMarcus Aldridge. And, once again, what happens then? Does LMA play center? Does Dirk go to the bench?

And then there’s the other problem, which is that, while it’s not true for everyone, see Dwight Howard’s current team or for that matter DAJ’s, the dictum “build around a superstar” has taken some real bruising in recent years. Has Portland not built pretty good teams around LMA, so far? And the farthest they’ve gotten is the 2nd round, last year.

And what about the Clippers? Sure, they’re shallow as heck. But do the Mavs have even a realistic shot of building a team around DAJ that’s as good as the one he has now? Chris Paul will go down as one of the top three or so PGs in NBA history. Blake Griffin is probably the best PF in the league today. And while, sure, the Clips should have made it to the Western Finals, they also could have, as well recall, lost in the first round. And it’s not like they were making much noise before this year.

DAJ is a much better class of player than this, but the whole thing reminds me of the Matt Garza situation in Texas. Because what they needed so badly was pitching they made a really mediocre guy seem like a really high level talent. When he got here and pitched like a really mediocre guy, people felt betrayed and appalled.

This year, Tyson Chandler averaged 10.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and DAJ 11.5 points and 15 rebounds. In terms of their defensive rating, the number of points allowed per 100 possessions,  DeAndre’s was 103.1 and Tyson’s 102.1. DeAndre’s eFG% was 71.1 to Tyson’s 66.6, but because of his horrible free throw shooting, a very much non-negligible factor when it comes to evaluating the player, his TS% is 63.8 to Tyson’s 69.7. In “PIE”,  “player impact estimate”, what nba.com calls “an estimate of a player’s or team’s contributions and impact on a game,” Tyson scored 14.1 to DAJ’s 13.2. While I’m not qualified to judge DeAndre’s, we know all we need to know about Tyson’s intangibles.

This is not to say that Tyson Chandler is better than DeAndre Jordan. In fact, there’s a sense in which the most exciting thing about DeAndre Jordan is that he plays a bit like a young Tyson Chandler, and they could lock him down for years. He’s a much better rebounder, and that’s great because rebounding has been a bit of a problem.

But think of the team last year, and think of its needs. This is roughly a push in terms of current offensive and defensive production, with the exception of rebounding, but also with the exception that the hack-a-DAJ strategy would now be a feature of Mavs games. And I imagine it’s going to cost a lot more money. What does a 32 year old center cost these days? 8 million? 9? 12? Meanwhile, DAJ will cost around 20.

And meanwhile, the Mavs still won’t have three point shooting, or wing defense, or a PG who can match the rest of the West. And significantly diminished funds with which to take care of those problems. People always say the Mavs are really good at finding ways around that stuff, and they’re better than some, but discount buys are still always discount buys for a reason.

And that’s also not to say this is SUCH a bad idea. In two years, when the cap explodes, it may look like a really smart idea. In three years, when Tyson is 35 and DAJ 29, it may look even better. But in terms of next year, it is a marginal improvement at a position the Mavs could lock up with a player they love, who is basically just as good, for much less, when they have so many other needs.  If the Mavs have something like Dirk Nowitzki, DeAndre Jordan, Ty Lawson, and Chandler Parsons next year, I’m definitely going to be excited. But if all they do is add DAJ, and it costs them being able to address actual problems that they have, it’s hard to believe the marginal upgrade is worth it.

I’ve always believed in trying to make small moves rather than big splashes, so take this for what it’s worth. But for the last few years, the Mavs have blown up their team to go after the best guy on the market without thinking at all about whether he’s the best guy for them. And there are definitely times when this strategy makes sense. When you can get CP3 or Dwight Howard, maybe you just do it and figure it out after, although you can ask the Lakers if they have any regrets.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that DeAndre Jordan is not that class of player. It may still be worth it. But I’ve certainly got my doubts.