The Houston Rockets signed Eric Gordon for two fundamental reasons: 1) to create space for James Harden, 2) to prevent their high-powered offense from melting down whenever Harden needs rest.
ICYMI: Just about every personnel decision Houston made last summer revolved around their franchise player. He’s a bonfire, and acquiring players who accentuate that bonfire’s devastation is only logical. On paper, Gordon is a perfect fit, beyond qualified to thrive in what should be a career-resurrecting role.
Ideally, over the next few years, Gordon’s relationship with Harden will be more like Cuban Linx-era Ghostface Killah to Raekwon than every-era Memphis Bleek to Jay Z: A talented sidekick who takes advantage of the platform provided by his wildly talented colleague; he must stand on his own two feet when the opportunity to do so arrives. But that last part is much easier said than done.
Gordon’s statistical peak was six years ago. He was Blake Griffin’s 22-year-old co-star on a Los Angeles Clippers team that sat on the ground floor of yet another rebuild. His strengths then weren’t as sharp as Harden’s are now, but there are several similarities. Both are/were pocket-passing maestros who spliced crafty pick-and-roll play with fearless interior aggression. They manipulated defenders, shot threes and lived at the free-throw line.
Now, since Patrick Beverley returned from October knee surgery, Gordon is coming off the bench for the first time in his career, just in time to compete for a Sixth Man of the Year trophy that’s up for grabs (usual suspects like Lou Williams and Enes Kanter are jostling with C.J. Miles, Wilson Chandler, Zach Randolph, Marco Belinelli and a crap ton of other deserving candidates).
Even though he's still figuring out how to balance shot making with shot creation, Gordon probably enjoys being a spoke in Mike D’Antoni’s wheel. Half of his shots are above-the-break threes, his free-throw rate is a fraction of his career average, and it’s bombs away whenever he shares the floor with Harden and Ryan Anderson—lineups featuring that trio are outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possession.
But it should worry the Rockets as much as their opponents to note that Gordon hasn’t been as efficient as he can be—or that their offense is never more dominant than when he’s on the bench.
The 27-year-old launches 3.4 threes per game that are deemed “wide open” (meaning no defender is within six feet) by NBA.com, but he’s only connected on 32.8 percent of them. (He’s shooting 42.9 percent on the same number of attempts with a defender between four and six feet.) This from the same player who was more accurate beyond the arc than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson two years ago, when he shot a ridiculous 44.8 percent.
He’s an archer when healthy, and defenses won’t have a clue what to do when/if he starts hitting those open threes. But Gordon isn’t making “one-dimensional, spot-up shooter” money, even though he moonlights in that role. Even more significant than directly providing a wider court for Harden’s dance routine is his other job filling in as the offensive fulcrum on reserve units.
Gordon hasn’t had any difficulty running pick-and-rolls since he entered the league, and that’s continued in Houston, where he’s now asked to set the table in bench-heavy lineups.
It’s not easy to drift back off the ball whenever Harden is also on the court, but that’s what Gordon needs to do.
When he does have the ball, Gordon knows how to find open teammates, a necessary skill for those called upon to shoulder much of a second unit’s offensive responsibilities. He keeps his dribble alive, controls his body, and knows where his teammates are supposed to be.
He’s also unpredictable in the way professional scorers have to be. Sometimes Gordon will fake like he’s about to run off a stagger screen only to drive away from the pick and summon uncomfortable help rotations towards the baseline. Or turn the corner, plow towards the restricted area and then spray the ball out to a three-point shooter.
It’s a small sample size, but Houston’s offense has been lava over the past five games whenever Gordon is on the floor without Harden. He’s sustaining his True Shooting percentage despite a usage rate that spikes by nearly a dozen points, too. It’s promising, even though the overall numbers paint a much less inspiring picture. (Houston only scores 100.8 points per 100 possessions when they play lineups that feature Gordon without Harden.)
It’s still very early, and the signs for optimism outweigh any concern. Gordon’s shot selection is solid gold, and it’ll take some time before he can comfortably weave his way through contrasting duties that clash head on.
If he can be Diet Harden when the real thing isn’t available, and make life easier for Houston’s MVP candidate when they’re side by side, Gordon may soon become the scariest Sixth Man in basketball. And the Rockets will boast the most unstoppable offense D’Antoni has ever coached.