Eric Gordon’s Renaissance Key to Pelicans Playoff Hopes

The trade David Stern vetoed involving the Lakers, Rockets and the at-that -time New Orleans Hornets in 2011 changed the fate of several of the league’s most recognizable players. Had Chris Paul joined the Lakers, Kobe Bryant would have spent the last years of his career next to the league’s best point guard and Dwight Howard; the Rockets would have paired James Harden with Pau Gasol and would look completely different; Blake Griffin would have continued to be a league pass darling as he toiled away in a bad Clippers team; Anthony Davis wouldn’t be a Pelican.

Overshadowed by the marquee players involved was Eric Gordon, the guard the Clippers sent to New Orleans in exchange for Paul after the Lakers deal was nixed.

At the time of the trade, Gordon was arguably the best young shooting guard in the game. After a successful stint with Team USA in which he showed his defensive chops, he truly seemed like a star in the making. In 59 games with the Clippers, Gordon averaged 22.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1.3 steals in the 2010/11 season. An injury cut his year short and then he was traded. He missed almost all of the following year with the a knee injury and when he became a restricted free agent, he asked the Hornets to not match an offer he received from the Phoenix Suns.

The Hornets, soon to become the Pelicans, matched the offer anyway and retained him, even while aware of his chronic knee problems. Gordon played just 42 games in the 2012/13 season as the Pelicans floundered. The next year, he played 64. Having an injury-riddled max player put the franchise in a strange position. With Anthony Davis looking every bit the dominant player he was touted to be, the front office decided to surround him with talent immediately instead of building through the draft and soon all their cap room and assets were gone. Gordon became an afterthought during the overhaul, sixth in the pecking order behind Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Omer Asik and obviously Davis coming into this season.

NBA: JAN 11 Pelicans at Mavericks

Yet other than Davis, Gordon remains the team’s most important player. Since he has a high contract that runs for a year after this one and a history of injuries, he is untradeable. He’s also the team’s only perimeter threat in the backcourt. If the Pelicans, currently sitting in ninth place in the West, are going to make a playoff push they need him to contribute, if not like a star at least like a solid two-way player.

It wasn’t happening to start the season. In his first 12 games, Gordon was averaging 9.5 points in 40 percent shooting. The team was winning but not thanks to Gordon. Then a torn labrum kept him out for all of December. The Pelicans went 10-11 without him during his absence, showing that they were mediocre with or without Gordon. The playoffs looked like a pipe dream, as the Thunder started to climb up the standings. And then something unexpected happened: Eric Gordon started to produce like an above average player once again.

In 34.4 minutes a game, Gordon is averaging 15.5 points, 5.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting a crazy 46.7 percent from outside since his return in early January. The Pelicans have won seven of their last nine, including victories over the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Mavericks and Hawks. He scored a season-high 28 points against his former team and 20 against the Hawks in the team’s last two wins and logged seven assists in each game. Gordon is thriving on a bigger role, which is fantastic news for New Orleans. After looking tentative for most of his tenure there, he’s finally looking like the player he was in Los Angeles, if not in the stat sheet then at least in terms of confidence.

So what changed? Well, Gordon is letting the ball fly. After averaging a little over three three-pointers in his first 12 games, Gordon is averaging five in his last 15. It’s impossible to overstate just how important his three-point shooting ability is for a starting lineup in which he’s the only threat. The Pelicans shoot more threes and convert them at a higher rate when Gordon is on the court and opponents have to account for one good sniper. Here, four Hawks converge in the paint, including Gordon’s man, and he makes them pay with a long three.

Jrue Holiday’s injury, while problematic at the time, could have been a blessing in disguise. In Holiday’s absence Gordon’s ability to create for himself and for others became a necessity and being able to handle the ball more has unlocked his passing and court vision. Gordon’s ability as a pick and roll ball handler combined with his rediscovered shot makes him a perfect running mate for the bigs on the roster.

If Holiday comes back healthy, it’s possible for Gordon to revert back to deferring too much. What coach Monty Williams could try then would be to have Gordon run the second unit, where he could have the ball in his hands to make things happen while retaining his aggressiveness. Bench scoring is a huge problem for the Pelicans, and Gordon could help solve it by creating looks for shooters Ryan Anderson and Jimmer Fredette.

There’s another hidden benefit from Gordon’s play, one that has nothing to do with his on-court production but could be as valuable to New Orleans. A good second half of the season could prompt Gordon to decline his player option of $16 million and look for a long term deal. Whether he returns to the Pelicans on a smaller contract or leaves, the team’s cap flexibility would be greatly improved. And even if he opts in, his huge contract suddenly wouldn’t be untradeable since the front office would have a productive year to point to when negotiating and he would be on an expiring deal.

It’s obviously hard to say if Gordon will be able to maintain this level. 15 games is too small of a sample size to draw definitive conclusions and even a small injury could derail his progress. But at least for now, Gordon is filling exactly the role the Pelicans need him to fill. He’s not playing like a max player — that ship has sailed and it’s not coming back — but he is an above average wing on a team in desperate need of contributors to flank Davis. It took four years since the trade that sent him there but Eric Gordon is finally finding his way in New Orleans.

Not a moment too soon.

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