The Denver Nuggets signed DeAndre Jordan to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, slotting him in as the primary backup behind two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. But as one of the least effective big men in recent seasons, why did they bring him in?
For the first time in the Jokic era, the Nuggets have surrounded their stars with functional depth, adding several wing stoppers to play alongside the scoring maestros in Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray. All of the moves make sense thus far, except for the Jordan signing.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Davon Reed, and Aaron Gordon are extremely versatile on the defensive end, often guarding players on the opposite ends of the positional spectrum. The Nuggets are apparently high on Christian Bruan’s defensive versatility and if they can find value in a rookie next season, that’s excellent value.
Throw in an improved Jokic on that end and this team can run different defensive lineups out there. Until you get to DeAndre Jordan.
This past season, DJ averaged 4.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 13 minutes a night across two different teams. However, it’s not the counting stats that fans need to be wary of, it’s the lack of effectiveness in his short stints.
When you’re backing up Nikola Jokic, you don’t need to play much, especially in the playoffs. DeMarcus Cousins proved that a ground-bound center can be effective in the current NBA by only playing spot minutes and he even had some flashes in the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors.
With the Philadelphia 76ers, DeAndre gave up 6.6 more points per possession on the defensive end according to Cleaning the Glass and opponents shot 9.9 percentage points better at the rim when he was out there. That’s the single worst mark among all big men.
Yes, it’s only a small sample size but even in his games with the LA Lakers, DJ was a league-average defensive center, sitting in the 66th percentile on that end among bigs. His offensive game wasn’t making up for the defense in LA but that was a very strange offensive setting with little-to-no shooting around him, it’ll be different in Denver.
One of the best rewards for playing a traditional big is that they can deter opponent’s shots at the paint. Consistent Defensive Player of the Year candidates like Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid not only defend the rim, but they scare away opponents from taking those shots.
Jordan has typically been excellent at keeping opposing players away from the rim, inviting less effective mid-range jump shots or floaters. In both Philly and LA, DeAndre Jordan was a league-average deterrent, keeping opponents to plus 0.1 percent at the rim with the 76ers and negative 0.1 percent with the Nets using Cleaning the Glass’ metric.
One of the silver linings of this signing is that DJ has maintained his rebounding figures. This past season, he pulled down 26.25 percent of defensive rebounds while he was on the court per PBP Stats, a figure that was up from his first few seasons with the Brooklyn Nets.
An offensive rebounding percentage of 13.45 across both teams this past season was an uptick from his previous stops and even better than some of his prime seasons with the LA Clippers. I’d expect these numbers to rise as he’ll likely be the sole big man on the inside with the Denver Nuggets, playing with a stretchy four-man.
When writing about the puzzling signing, Mike Singer, The Denver Post hopes that DeAndre Jordan can revert to his old self in a new situation:
"“Over the past two seasons, Jordan’s played for the Nets, Lakers and Sixers. None of those situations helped his cause, and if the Nuggets can remain drama-free, there’s a belief that he’s going to be a positive addition while playing limited minutes.”"
Asher Levy, Denver Stiffs asks similar questions:
"“[DeAndre is] not the backup center that fans were expecting, nor hoping for, but DeAndre Jordan is known as a great locker room presence throughout the league. He struggled to have consistent playing time, and to be productive in his playing time last season. Maybe he can turn over a new leaf in Denver though.”"
Even if you’re the biggest DeAndre fan in the world, this might’ve been too early to sign him. We’re seeing plenty of talented big men take a pay cut in free agency as their tools just simply aren’t as valuable as they have been in the past.
Which other big men were on the market for the Denver Nuggets?
I’ll start with the most obvious one: Boogie Cousins. DeMarcus is currently still a free agent and there have been several big men taken off the market before him, so it’s not looking good.
Out of the teams that still have their mid-level exception available, not many are in need of a traditional center so if he does sign somewhere, it’s looking like it’ll be on a minimum contract. If this is the case, Calvin Booth might’ve been better off waiting it out and re-signing Boogie.
A veteran rim protector like Bismack Biyombo (re-signed with the Phoenix Suns), Gorgui Dieng (signed with the San Antonio Spurs), or Andre Drummond (Chicago Bulls) all signed for minimum contracts and each has shown more in the past two seasons to warrant a contract over Jordan.
Other older big men on the market are Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, or Tristan Thompson. You’re splitting hairs when picking between these three and DJ but the fact that none of his peers are signed yet suggests that there’s merit in waiting.
An alternative is that DeAndre has signed as an aging veteran to hopefully mentor some of the younger big men on the roster. If he can handle the position, Zeke Nnaji would make for an exciting backup center in the NBA.
At the end of the day, whoever comes in behind Nikola Jokic is going to be playing that much in the regular season and won’t see the court at all in the must-win playoff games. I may be too picky on an overall excellent offseason but it’s a questionable signing right out of the free agency gate.