Let’s start with a modest consolation if you’re someone who believes that this season is largely about the maturation and long-term assessments of the team’s talent:
How much do the Clippers miss Eric Gordon when he’s not suited up?
The answer to that question gives you just as strong an approximation of Eric’s value as the advanced stats we’ve been examining the last day or so that show Eric to be indispensable.
Although Eric’s absence is evident, the Clippers first lose control of the game in the first quarter when they give up seven bombs from beyond the arc to the Hornets.
What happens? Slow rotations? Bad defensive coverage in transition? Let’s take a look:
- [1st, 9:25] Devin Brown/Right Corner: How much command does Chris Paul have over a defense? This will give you an idea. Paul pushes the ball up the left side, getting a quick screen from Emeka Okafor to his right that he passes up. He doesn’t need it because he leaves Baron in his tracks off the dribble, bursting into the paint in an instant. All five Clippers essentially collapse on him — including Rasual Butler who started at the help line (the edge of the right paint) and slid over upon Paul’s arrival. On the fly, Paul dishes to Devin Brown. 3PM.
- [1st, 8:14] Devin Brown/Right Corner: The Hornets earn this one in transition. They get out ahead on a missed Baron Davis layup. Paul races it up the right side, and Brown beelines to his spot in the right corner. Where’s Butler? As the first non-big back, he has to pick up Paul on the ball. Paul dishes it over to Brown. Both Butler and Al Thornton are late to close.
- [1st, 7:37] Peja Stojackovic/Left Side: The very next possession, the Hornets run a flex set. It doesn’t take much for Peja Stojakovic to lose Thornton. Al seems a little surprised by how quickly Stojakovic is on the move. Peja rubs Thornton off David West as he crosses along the baseline from the near side to the far side. For good measure, Peja curls around Brown on the left side before landing behind the line. Paul kicks the ball over to Peja, who catches and shoots in stride.
- [1st, 6:46] Peja Stojakovic/Left Side: After Thornton tumbles beneath the Clippers’ basket lurching for a rebound, the Hornets collect the ball and sprint up the court with numbers. The other four Clippers do a decent job of picking up their respective guy in transition. But Peja is the unaccounted for guy. He dashes to the left corner to receive the feed from Paul and drains the shot.
- [1st, 6:09] Devin Brown/Left Corner: Another easy three points in transition. With Okafor ahead of the field headed straight for the front of the rim and Butler the only body back, Butler gets between Okafor and the basket — only that leaves Brown to zip over to the left corner unaccounted for. Paul slings a skip pass from the right sideline to the left corner. Bingo.
- [1st, 4:16] Chris Paul/Left Wing: Three more in transition. This time Brown pushes the ball up. Again, the majority of the Clippers are quick on the backpedal. Baron is too, only he’s drifting back down the center of the court, not really accounting for Paul’s whereabouts. Paul pulls up beyond the arc and waits there, where he receives the kickout from a driving Brown. 3PM.
- [1st, 3:13] Devin Brown/Top Right: The Hornets generate this look out of a timeout in the half-court. With David West holding it up top on the left side, Stojakovic breaks from the right side, using a rub in the middle of the lane from Devin Brown. The Clippers respond to it well and switch. Butler now has Stojakovic while Ricky Davis, who was on Peja initially, stays with Brown … at least momentarily. Brown backs out to the area beyond hte arc. Meanwhile Ricky drifts low and left. Why? I have no idea. Peja is faced up against Butler on the left side. Even if Peja puts it on the deck and drives right, Marcus Camby is there. Theoretically, I suppose Ricky could help, but wouldn’t he rather stay home on the guy who’s already hit three 3-pointers? Ricky does neither. The funny thing is that Peja actually does what we wouldn’t expect him to do — he opts for the dribble-drive. But even though that’s what Ricky was presumably readying himself for, he’s actually late. Peja kicks it to Brown, who’s now all alone. Hornets by 10.
The Clips never make it a game, despite narrowing the lead to seven points. Once the defense adjusts, the offense begins to sputter. And it’s here where Gordon’s absence is truly missed.
Without Eric, the defense sags and the post guys never get the one-on-one matchups they want. Coming out of the half, the Hornets are particularly vicious collapsing on Kaman in the paint, at one point even doubling him off the ball down low. When entry passes go into Chris, he struggles to get the space he’s been able to procure for that jumper over the first seven games. New Orleans is simply all over him.
Both Baron and Chris need two shooters on the wing to perform at their full potential. Gordon and Butler stretch the defense, which allows both Baron and Chris to operate in the paint. Sometimes Baron posts his guy; sometimes it’s Chris starting in the post with the ball; sometimes they use the pick-and-roll together; sometimes Baron penetrates wtih a strong dribble-drive. Whatever the case, the defense can’t leave the wings, lest they risk giving Gordon or Butler an open look, provided Baron (almost always) or Chris (getting better) can make the kickout.
Without Gordon, the entire scheme changes.
This isn’t to pick on Thornton, but he just doesn’t demand attention at 23 feet. As Al’s defender, you can take side trips, so long as you know you can pick Al up at 15 feet if he gets the ball and slashes your way. Until that time, you can offer help on anyone who ventures into the paint with the ball. That makes life more difficult for Baron and Chris.
Prior to tipoff, both Gordon and Dunleavy expressed resignation that this groin issue might keep Eric out of action more time than they’d like. There’s a danger with this kind of nagging injury of coming back too early, before the body is fully healed. Even though the Clippers are eager to build some momentum, the feeling is that the best long-term course of action would be to keep Gordon sidelined until the groin is 100 percent.
You can’t fault that reasoning, but it doesn’t make the situation any less frustrating.