Kristian Winfield: Inside DeAndre Jordan’s NBA purgatory: ‘It is a tough position for him to be in’

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Imagine you’re a starter for a championship contender, a big man who has made a career for himself as a rim protector, rebounder and finisher at the rim.

Now imagine you’re relegated to the bench in favor of two mid-season additions, neither of whom have historically been the rim protector you have proven yourself to be. You remain on the bench even though one of those new additions has abruptly retired. You continue to remain on the bench for weeks on end, ultimately through the first round of the playoffs, a trend still active through Round 2.

Now imagine your coach just might call on you to play important minutes in the third round against a team that poses the biggest threat in-conference to those championship dreams.

Welcome to DeAndre Jordan’s NBA purgatory.

Jordan is in the second season of the four-year, $40 million deal he signed the same summer as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, yet he has not played since May 8 and has been largely outside the rotation since LaMarcus Aldridge played his first game as a Net on April 1.

And on the off chance that Nets head coach Steve Nash calls on his soon-to-be 33-year-old center in the Eastern Conference Finals to deal with the league’s heaviest load that is Joel Embiid, Jordan must be ready.

After more than a month on the bench.

“Yeah, it is a tough position for him to be in,” Nets head coach Steve Nash conceded ahead of Game 1 against the Bucks. Nash said Jordan would be “in play” against the Bucks after Jeff Green’s strained plantar fascia in the first round against the Celtics, but the veteran center has been a DNP-CD, and the Nets didn’t need him through their first three games of the second round, which means they likely won’t call on him this series.

Jordan is caught between a rock and a hard place. Despite his contract, he does not fit into the Nets’ game plan. He’s a physical presence and a voice orchestrating the defense, but the Nets want to switch everything on pick-and-rolls, and Jordan has struggled defending smaller guards and perimeter playmakers. He has been inconsistent with the energy and effort required to compensate for those visible shortcomings. And he’s not an offensive threat outside of lob passes and second-chance opportunities on offensive rebounds.

Nash says he doesn’t believe the NBA has reached a point where slow big men are unplayable. He points to both the league’s current MVP Nikola Jokic and the runner-up Embiid as lumbering big men franchises are built upon.

Jokic and Embiid, however, each are threats to score 30 points per game on any given night. Jordan is no such threat, and does not rebound at their volume, either.

“No, I don’t think we’re there yet,” Nash said when asked if big men who can’t switch are unplayable. “I mean, there are circumstances where it makes it more difficult. But I think you see centers still left in these playoffs for almost every team, some that can defend on the perimeter, some that can’t but all bring different things to the table. So it’s not I think all-or-nothing, black-and-white. It’s dependent on the team, the schemes, the skillset of the player and what they bring up both ends, kind of their net rating and the makeup of that team.”

The makeup of this Nets team makes it near impossible for Jordan to see playing time, and Nash has too much respect for his veteran center to throw him in in garbage time, like the fourth quarter of the Nets’ 39-point victory over the Bucks in Game 2. Jordan’s activity comes in practice with the stay-ready group, and in pregame warmups.

His new role is largely one as a spiritual leader of this Nets team. Jordan is one of the team’s biggest personalities, as evidenced by the new cooking show he hosts outside of basketball. He has had to stay ready, committed to his fitness in the hopes that one day his name will be called in a game.

But he still has basketball left in the tank.

Jordan has had to stay ready, committed to his fitness in the hopes that one day his name will be called in a game. That day looks less likely as the Nets battle a second-round series against the Bucks with Jordan on the bench, unless he’s standing to cheer his teammates.

Nash has opted to rotate Green, Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton at the center position after Aldridge retired in mid-April due to a heart condition. He didn’t call on Jordan in the first round against the Celtics, either, despite Tristan Thompson’s presence as one of the NBA’s most ferocious offensive rebounders.

“So we’ve asked him to do a job for his team even when he’s really not playing,” Nash continued. “We understand the difficulty of the situation. And that’s just the nature of our season and our roster and trying to plug some of those holes as we go along here. So DJ’s in a tough spot a little bit with all the parameters that we just mentioned, but I don’t want him to feel any crazy outsized responsibility for the outcomes of these games.(If he plays) I just want him to have fun, be a great teammate, play his butt off and do what he can do to help the team.”

Jordan has done his time with the Nets’ Stay Ready group, the same practice squad that helped Bruce Brown crack into the rotation earlier this season; the same practice squad both Kevin Durant and James Harden played with to ramp up from their nagging hamstring injuries; the same practice group that helped Landry Shamet break free from his early shooting slump.

It’s the group the Nets hope keeps Jordan ready for what could be the most important minutes of his season.

“He’s been working out, staying in condition,” Brown said of Jordan. “After every game he goes on the treadmill and does his running and then he plays in the stay-ready group and he dominates. So he’s gonna come out here and play the way we know he can play and we’re confident in him.”

Brooklyn’s success will undoubtedly hinge on their Big 3′s ability to generate offense — for themselves and their teammates — and on that same trio’s insistence everyone commits to the defensive end, with those stars leading the charge. The success will hinge on doing the little things, winning the 50-50 balls, crashing the glass, minimizing turnovers and forcing Milwaukee giveaways.

But the Nets’ success will largely hinge on their ability to prevent Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo from bullying his way to the paint, with which Jordan has proven capable in his attempts. The Nets have proven capable of keeping Antetokounmpo in check, but Jordan’s presence will be needed in a seven-game series against Embiid and the 76ers, provided both teams advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Both teams look poised to advance to the next round, and Nash could very well call on Jordan to bring his size, strength and IQ to the floor.

Nash hasn’t made that call in the second round, or the first, or in the latter stretch of the regular season.

The only question left to answer: If Nash does call his number, after more than a month on a bench, will DJ ready?