With DeAndre Jordan back, Clippers must now learn to thrive without him

DeAndre JordanKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- Here's a quick guide to make sure you're up to speed with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Out: rehashing the saga of how the Clippers retained DeAndre Jordan this summer.

In: talking about how the Clippers will fare without him this season.

Sure, the Clippers are counting on an even better version of Jordan than the one who was plus-11.8 per 100 possessions while on the court last season. But they're also excited to see the options their improved depth and more versatile roster can provide when Jordan comes out of the game. In other words, they went to great lengths to keep their center while acknowledging the diminished importance of centers in today's NBA.

"I do like the fact that we can stay big when we want to and we can stay small when we want to," Doc Rivers said. "Staying small when we wanted to, we haven't had that luxury since I've been here, and now we do."

It's not that Jordan is inconsequential to the Clippers. There's a reason so many team members descended en masse upon his house to shepherd him into rejoining them after Jordan gave a verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks. He's the anchor of their defense. He was vital to their 3-1 lead in last season's second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, with the Clippers outscoring the Rockets by 74 points when he was on the floor in the first four games.

You saw the NBA Finals, though. You saw significant stretches played without a true center on the court for either team, and you saw the Warriors turn the series around by sending Andrew Bogut to the bench. But that didn't necessarily set Rivers off on an impulsive shopping spree this summer.

The previous season, when Alvin Gentry was still on his staff as an assistant coach, the two would often ponder what it would be like to be able to play completely different styles of lineups. Rivers even got a taste last season during Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs, well before the attack of the small ball in the Finals, when a Clippers lineup of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes scored 19 points during a 5½-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

However, that lineup sacrificed too much defense and rebounding. Now Rivers believes he can get the offensive potency without losing too much at the other end, thanks to additions such as Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and even Paul Pierce, who, it should be noted, gave the Toronto Raptors fits last season when he played stretches at power forward in his first-round series for the Washington Wizards. Stephenson can play as a guard or even a smaller small forward. Smith can play anywhere in the frontcourt.

"With the 5 position, I bring quickness," Smith said. "I'm long enough where I can not get backed down. At the 4 position, it gives me the opportunity to get the rebound and kick it out, find open guys at the perimeter. The 3 position, I can create mismatches, try to get the ball down low to force double-teams and kick it out to open teammates."

Maybe it all adds up to more rest for Jordan, who played the seventh-most minutes in the league last season. There's also a need to get more from Jordan offensively when he does play. The Clippers rarely if ever gave him the ball and asked him to go to work last season. So when they encountered situations such as a foul-plagued Tim Duncan in the playoffs they weren't prepared to have Jordan go at him to try to get Duncan out of the game.

The neglect of Jordan was part of the disconnect between he and Paul. After setting screen after screen for Paul without being rewarded with the ball, Jordan could tune out at times -- never more so than when Jordan failed to tip in a last-ditch layup by Paul with a second remaining on a clock against Portland. That led to that gif-able summary of their relationship, when Paul jumped up to scream in Jordan's face.

We'll find out exactly how much they mended their relationship this summer. At media day, Jordan did seem to be a little more tied in to Paul, such as when he nodded along while Paul said, "Doc is a great teacher in that he talks about the process," and nodded again while Paul said, "It's about continuing to build our team, our trust, making sure everybody in our locker room is on the same page and ignoring all the outside noise."

And don't forget that Jordan turned 27 this summer, and that's the age NBA players often reach their peak. Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are among the players who posted their highest PER at age 27. Maybe Jordan will be as assertive on the court as he was on media day, when he stepped into the void usually filled by Paul or Griffin and snatched a question tossed into the air at the three of them by saying, "I'll go. I'll start it off."

Griffin seems most interested in taking the lead when it comes to curtailing discussion of the emoji-filled sit-in at Jordan's house. (That subject will be unavoidable the first three weeks of the season, as the Clippers play the Mavericks at home on Oct. 29 and play in Dallas on Nov. 11). Griffin wrote an article giving his perspective on the day for the Players Tribune this summer and jumped in the discussion Friday by saying the false storylines about that day are similar to the narratives about the team.

"A lot of things are misconstrued," Griffin said. "A lot of things are blown way out of proportion."

He even cautioned about misinterpreting the on-court blowups that we see, noting that he is closer to his brother than anyone and they butt heads all the time.

"Wait 'til you get married," Paul cracked.

Teams can be like marriages in that time apart can actually make the relationship grow. We'll see if that's the case for the Clippers this season, whether the ultimate reward for their great lengths to get Jordan back will be a team that is better equipped to play without him.

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