Clipper fans might remember following the 2008 Rookie of the Year contest in microscopic detail. It was quite a sweepstakes. Derrick Rose and OJ Mayo jumped out to an early lead, both starting and getting big minutes and big usage. Around this time two years ago, between 10 and 20 games in, Russell Westbrook started to make a name for himself, getting minutes on a struggling but promising young team, scoring points and grabbing a whole lot of rebounds for a point guard. Local UCLA fans knew that Westbrook was an amazing athlete and hard worker who was just beginning to grow into his talent. And at same time Cuttino Mobley was traded by the Clippers (subsequently retiring), and Eric Gordon moved into the starting lineup.
With the gaudy, consistent production of Rose and Mayo, and the turnaround of the Thunder that was happening with Westbrook at the helm, it was hard for Gordon to get attention in yet another troubled Clipper season. But Eric Gordon kept plugging away, and he was consistently good, and frequently spectacular. His efficiency numbers were astonishing, especially by comparison to Rose and Westbrook, and Mayo most of all. Rose got assists, Westbrook rebounded, and Mayo could shoot fairly well. Gordon, forgotten and ignored as the season progressed, was scoring, shooting 3s, and his own gaudy stats were TSP or AFG, where he was among the league leaders. On top of that, he played great defense. Clipperblog’s own Kevin Arnovitz eventually sat David Thorpe down at a Clipper game, to read him the gospel of Gordon. Thorpe became a convert. Rose never relaxed his tight grip on the Rookie of the Year, and he went on to show his worth in an exciting playoff series against the Celtics. But the race, such as it was, was fun while it lasted.
The next chapter in the story came when the four guards showed up at Team USA tryouts, where they were joined by Chauncey Billups and Rajon Rondo. Mayo didn’t make the cut, and Rondo elected to go home. The story is well-known how Eric Gordon went from being a likely cut to a Coach K darling, as he and Westbrook became dynamic defensive subs, with Gordon providing his shot-making and Westbrook his energy and athleticism.
Rose, Gordon, and Westbrook returned stateside with gold medals and a new level of excellence and confidence, and all three players are tearing their way through the young NBA season. The trio stand at 2nd, 6th and 7th in the league in scoring, respectively, averaging 26.2, 24.3, and 23.8 ppg. Westbrook and Rose are at 7th and 8th in assists, at 8.6 and 8.2 per game. Gordon, a shooting guard who is handling the ball more than ever before, is at 4.9 apg, double his previous average.
One stat that jumps out is Russell Westbrook’s free throws. He has taken 162 of them in 18 games, and made 147, 89% (He plays on a team with another guy who has made 130 out of 142). Westbrook’s rate of 9.2 free throws per game is extremely high: compare it to Rose’s 6.1 per game (66 for 85; 78%). But guess what: Eric Gordon is getting to the line even more. His rate is 9.3 per game, and he has made 117 out of 149, 78%.
Eric Gordon is also catching up in the rebounding department. Compare Westbrook’s two year totals of 399 and 401 and Rose’s 317 and 293, then look at Gordon’s 201 and 160. Thus far this year Westbrook has 92, Gordon 79, and Rose 64.
The absent party is Eric Gordon’s 3 point shooting. He got off to a shocking slow start, and was below 20% in his first 10 games. After 18 games he has still only made 19 threes, in 82 attempts, 23%. Gordon made 131 threes in 337 attempts as a rookie, 39%. Rose succeeded in part by laying off the three, making just 16 in both of his first two seasons, and shooting 22 and 27% in those campaigns. This year he’s at 33%, 18-55, a new career best after just 14 games. Westbrook has helped himself by reducing his attempts. He was 35-129, 27% as a rookie, 23-104 22% last year, and he is 6-21, 29% so far this season.
Actually, the absent party is really O.J. Mayo. If excelling on Team USA boosted Gordon, Rose, and Westbrook’s confidence, getting cut apparently didn’t do much for Mayo. Nor did drafting another shooting guard, Xavier Henry, and signing Mike Conley and Rudy Gay to extensions. Kevin Love, another 2008 rookie, has gone from riding Team USA pine to setting a torrid rebounding pace, leading the league, and the draft day trade of Love for Mayo looks better for Minnesota as time goes by. Mayo is the one coming off the bench now, falling out of the Grizzlies’ starting lineup.
So what will happen as the season goes on? It’s important to note, of course, that Chicago is 9-6 and Oklahoma City even better, 12-6, which is even a little disappointing based on preseason excitement about the Thunder. But nothing is more disappointing than the Clippers 3-15 record, which disguises and diminishes Gordon’s achievements. One guesses that Rose will stay about the same, his scoring coming down a little bit as Carlos Boozer joins the Bulls, who will probably remain a second-tier, solid playoff team in the East. Westbrook’s heroics will continue and the Thunder will improve and compete at a very high level. His scoring and free throw shooting will cool off a little bit, but the leap in his productivity will remain, and he will prosper and compete in big games and in the spotlight.
In the next few games Eric Gordon will leave behind the Clippers U23 team and the Griffin and Gordon show will get some help from Chris Kaman and Baron Davis. It will be interesting to see what these additions do to team success and the amazing recent productivity of Gordon and Griffin. One thing that will certainly happen is that Eric Gordon’s 3 point percentage will continue to rise, and it would be shocking if it ends up below 30%. If he can hit his increased rate of free throws at a slightly higher percentage, that will add points as well. That’s the amazing thing about Gordon’s 24.3 ppg and his string of 13 games over 20, 9 at 25 or better, and 3 at 30 or more: he’s not shooting that well, and he can do better at the line. So look for Gordon to keep rising and pass Rose and Westbrook in scoring. But the main thing we’re waiting for is the strong play of Gordon and Blake Griffin to turn into Clipper victories.