Unsung Sidekick is a series highlighting those NBA players who don’t get the due they deserve. They’re not franchise players and perhaps not even All-Stars, but they’re interesting enough and good enough to warrant more attention. Here, it’s given to them.
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Trivia question: who led the NBA in three-pointers made on January 1? You may have thought it would have been Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. Maybe it was Kyle Lowry or Kyrie Irving? James Harden would have been a good guess. Thanks to headlines and the above photo, you should’ve already guessed that the answer is actually Harden’s teammate, Eric Gordon.
It seems crazy that Gordon, who spent the last five seasons largely injured and overlooked on middling teams in New Orleans, has spent this season beating out All-Stars and franchise players in three-point production. Despite the injuries, Gordon still averaged above 38% from three each of the past three seasons. He’s only shot under 36% from behind the arc once in the eight seasons he’s appeared in over half his teams’ games. He’s managed to stay relatively efficient offensively, but he hadn’t been properly utilized…until Houston and Mike D’Antoni got a hold of him.
Gordon only plays 30 minutes per game this season, down from around 33 in the past three. Despite that, he’s scoring 18 points per game, his most since getting sent to New Orleans in the Chris Paul trade. His shot attempts are the highest since that time too, but his shooting percentage has actually gone up – which rarely comes with an increased workload. His 43% shooting this year is just below his 45% average in LA, back when 30-40% of his shots came in the paint. This year only 24% do. Backing up 20 feet has allowed Gordon to score more efficiently. Only in D’Antoni’s world does that make sense.
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Taken with the 7th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon was seen as someone who could fit into an NBA system right away. And that was true. He had the shooting range and the ability to slash into the paint. But the NBA Gordon came into wasn’t the one we see today. Before the LeBron-era Heat and Spurs promoted spacing, ball movement and threes, it was very still much a Kobe/McGrady/Carmelo/Wade/early LeBron iso-and-jump-shot-or-drive league. So that’s what Gordon did.
He was never spent much time in the midrange, which made the transition to the D’Antoni offense seamless. They’ve nearly cut those shots down to nothing this season. But in his Clipper years, Gordon drove and drove and drove. Anywhere from 50-60% of his points came either from inside the paint or the free throw line. It worked in the short term as he won Rookie of the Month in January ‘09 and was on the rookie 2nd team that year.
Despite standing only 6’3”, Gordon clearly loved taking it to the hoop and challenging bigger bodies at the rim. This wonderfully-2011 video set to an instrumental of Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” demonstrates that, and how good he was at it:
But that style of play was unsustainable in the long run, and no doubt contributed to the injuries that kept piling up. His games played went from 78 to 62 to 56 to finally just 9 his first year in New Orleans. This lengthy list only covers through 2013, and he missed another 78 games the next three years. It’s been the same story for the better part of a decade: when Gordon is on the court he’s good, but he just can’t stay there.
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That looks to be different this year (knock on wood). Gordon missed his first two games of the season last week with the same sprained big left toe that kept him out of three games seven years ago. Hopefully that’s an outlier, because Houston needs him. And the way Houston is using him makes it appear that he’ll continue to be healthy and play well. The obvious is he’s coming off the bench for the first time and playing fewer minutes than ever before. (Yes, the league leader in threes was coming off the bench, this isn’t talked about enough.) But the style of play is just as important.
His teammates create open looks from three he doesn’t have to work to create. This clever give-and-go between Harden and Ariza is started by a Ryan Anderson slip screen and helped by a Montrezl Harrell back cut, leaving the Grizzlies’ defense in shambles and Gordon wide open:
He also has other shooters around him that draw attention from defenders and clear the lane for his drives. JaMychal Green barely swipes at Gordon on the drive because he’s afraid to leave Trevor Ariza (38% from three) and Mike Conley won’t even step into the paint because Patrick Beverly (39% from three) is in the corner:
Gordon is smarter on his drives, too. He takes minimal contact from Marc Gasol and gets the layup up around him. Here, instead of challenging DeAndre Jordan at the rim (a silly idea for pretty much anyone) he gets a finger roll in the air before Jordan can even start to jump.
Limiting any kind of major contact with big men, especially at the speed he’s capable of driving with, and the amount of space he has to drive with thanks the three-point shooting from both himself and his teammates, seems to be keeping his body from any major breakdowns.
The emergence of Gordon this season is an affirmation of his skill set and abilities, to be sure. But it also highlights just how many other factors are involved in making a good NBA player a great one. The right coach, the right teammates, the right system, and the right style of individual play (in Gordon’s case: smarter, AKA less dangerous) all must come together to bring a player up to his highest potential.
Eric Gordon is living proof. So much so that the “unsung” label may not apply to him much longer, as this is his best opportunity to be an All-Star yet. With Chris Paul now injured, it’s possible. And there’s a Sixth Man of the Year award out there just waiting to be taken. If he stays healthy, don’t count him out for anything.
*All stats via nba.com/stats
*All clips via 3ball.io