This is the first installment in a series of five player reviews penned by Charlie and Sumner Widdoes. In this piece, they take a look at Eric Gordon.
When the Clippers drafted Eric Gordon with the seventh pick of the 2008 draft, it appeared that the team had finally found the multi-dimensional perimeter scorer that it had craved for years. During his rookie season, Gordon rained from deep (almost 39 percent from beyond the arc) and disarmed defenders with a shockingly quick first step (one-third of his shots came in the key) proving that he could get his shots off and make them at a tremendously efficient rate. However in year two, when it was hoped he would expand on his offensive arsenal and include more playmaking and intermediate shotmaking, progress stalled: his repertoire remained limited to attempts from beyond the arc or straight line drives to the rim, all while revealing major deficiencies as a passer and ballhandler. Despite all that, Gordon’s efficiency numbers dropped only negligibly while his offensive role grew this season, leaving us with one question to be answered: Does the absence of improvement from year one to year two actually signify a regression?
There are few players that, with the correction of just one weakness, are almost guaranteed to improve spectacularly. Gordon’s deft shooting touch and ability to explode toward the hoop are unquestioned, but it is how he reacts to a collapsing defense off the dribble that remains a concern. Similar to Corey Maggette, Gordon’s primary option off the dribble has been to head straight for the hoop and finish right at the rim, drawing plenty of contact in hopes of drawing a foul along the way. We can expect that as Gordon’s career progresses, referees will show him more respect and put him on the line more often (he drew a foul on 15.5 percent of his field goal attempts last season, up from 13.6 percent as a rookie).
But there must be something more, and for Gordon those other options will only reveal themselves if he improves his handle. According to 82Games.com, Gordon posted a “Hands” Rating – a stat measuring playmaking ability in terms of offensive fouls, bad passes, and ball handling turnovers – of 13.0 last season. Compared with other top shooting guards, Gordon lags far behind the competition. Dwyane Wade (22.8), Joe Johnson (20.5), Kobe Bryant (19.4) and Brandon Roy (18.4) all have Gordon bested in this category by a large margin. Even many of the league’s mid-level two guards rank higher than Gordon: Rip Hamilton (19.6), Jason Richardson (15.1), Courtney Lee (15.3) and O.J. Mayo (14.4), being just some of the names. So many times this year it appeared as though Gordon was too quick for his own abilities, almost moving twice as fast as the ball. There is little doubt that Gordon can get his body to the places he needs to be on the floor, but too often he just can’t get the ball to catch up with him.
Gordon’s improvement as a playmaker has been a priority for the Clippers’ coaching staff since last offseason, which illustrates that it certainly is not an easy task. There have been plenty of great 3-point shooters in NBA history, but few that combined that with an explosive ability to get to the rack. Even fewer still had the aforementioned skills complemented by a killer handle and stellar court vision. Gordon has the foundation to add these new components, and if he does, he will make a noticeable jump in his third season.
Still, a concern that remains unsolved is Gordon’s rebounding. For those who contend that, as an undersized two-guard, he is simply ill-equipped to grab more than three boards a game, look no further than the 6-foot-1 Rajon Rondo. Compare Rondo’s 13.0 rebounding rate to Gordon’s 7.4, and then factor in that Gordon is two inches taller. Granted, Gordon is often matched up defensively against much bigger players, but it seems rebounding is less about size than it is about aggression and a keen understanding of how a round ball bounces off a round metal rim. Clipper fans got used to Elton Brand grabbing ten rebounds a game and may have forgotten that he often gave up two or three inches to his opponents. In his book “A Sense of Where You Are,” John McPhee described how Bill Bradley tirelessly studied the ways balls bounced off the rim and how he could position himself to catch them. It may be a stretch to ask Gordon to approach basketball the way a Rhodes scholar did forty years ago, but it certainly is not too much to ask your starting shooting guard to break the 2.6 rebounds per game threshold.
How he fits
Far more likely is the scenario in which Gordon continues to work on his playmaking skills and in-between game in an effort to take a leap forward in his third season, one in which the Clippers will again count on his improvement if they hope to contend for the playoffs. The front office can do its part to help Gordon, primarily by providing a suitable counterpart on the wing to open things up a bit. The search for the “glue guy” small forward led the team to Rasual Butler last season, but despite his occasionally proficient three-point shooting, he lacked the versatile offensive game to actually take any pressure off of Gordon. LeBron James is arguably the best player in the league and he plays the position of biggest need for the Clippers, but in the likely event that he signs elsewhere, the team would still be in the market for a wing opposite Gordon. Players like Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng appear to fit the profile, but only time will tell what it would take to acquire players of their caliber.
It’s hard to imagine Gordon’s floor being lower than his 2009 performance. His PER dropped from 14.98 as a rookie to 14.15, and his True Shooting Percentage from 59.3 to 57.1 in 2010. While we have grown cautious of assuming improvement with Gordon, thanks to last season, we also know one thing: no one believes his 2010 numbers inflate his value. If anything, his history indicates he is a better three-point and free throw shooter than he showed last year. Even without improving his handle and decision-making, it’s still hard to see him regressing from last year’s performance. A worst-case scenario could involve a new coach who fails to incorporate his strengths and exposes his weaknesses, but Gordon’s skill set makes it seem unlikely that he doesn’t at least maintain his performance from last year.
Like the college freshman who opts to return for his sophomore season, Gordon’s “stock” may have dropped slightly in 2010 by virtue of merely providing more film for teams to find flaws. In many ways he failed to live up to raised expectations, but he also battled injuries and more coaching turmoil. As a result, Gordon is entering this offseason with goals similar to those he had a year ago. The “sophomore slump” is commonly used to explain the tendency of the league adjusting to a player that may have benefited from lack of exposure as a rookie. Entering his third season, though, Gordon may be in position to use his experiences last year to make his own adjustments to the way the league has responded to him. If he does so, a return to the efficiency levels seen in his rookie season would not be surprising, and given increased involvement in a stable offense, you could reasonably expect Gordon to top 20 points and five assists per game for the first time in his career.
Aside from Blake Griffin, from whom we have seen the least but expect (or hope for) the most, the continued development and contributions of Eric Gordon may be the most crucial factor in the Clippers success for next season and beyond.