The Mystery of Eric Gordon is Over

If such a thing exists as a fall from grace then the professional life of Eric Gordon has tragically encompassed the essence of it: exceptionalism followed by bad luck, injury, fate and suffering. The one and done player  from Indiana University, the All-Star in training, the prolific perimeter scorer, suddenly became known as the answer to an impossible, perhaps unanswerable question: how can so much turn into so little?  Quietly, and frankly overnight, Eric Gordon was a recalcitrant, moody and talented 6-4 shooting guard who once upon a time was supposed to be the foundation of the Los Angeles Clippers, the compliment for Blake Griffin’s athleticism. Now Eric Gordon was viewed through the lens of negative bias as perpetually injured, damaged and non-trustworthy. He became lumped in with the collection of shooting guards who overvalue themselves and by nature of the position are more arrogant than they are impactful.

On Christmas Day Eric Gordon will have a birthday. He will turn 28 years old. He will have been in the NBA the entirety of his adult life. Like a marriage, he will have seen ups and downs. punishment and sin, better and worse, sickness and health.  He will also know the scar of professional divorce twice in his career.

Who is Eric Gordon now?

He is ranked 6th in the league among shooting guards (Real Plus-Minus). The guards ahead of him are James Harden, his teammate, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Pistons), Lou Williams (Lakers), Rodney Hood (Utah) and Bradley Beal (Wizards). Coming off the bench for Mike D’Antoni, he is playing the second fewest minutes in his career. But he is at a five year shotmaking high, 6.0 shots per game. He has his second best percentage from three, 43.6%, a number Klay Thompson hasn’t reached this season. He has a five year high in scoring and the highest offensive rating of his career. He has become a feast or famine player. He connects on threes and drives to the rim and nothing else. His mid-range game is on life support, 30% averages. But that is the D’Antoni scheme and it has allowed Gordon to revitalize his career and his narrative.

The past is never dead. It is not even past (William Faulkner)

In 2007, when Eric Gordon graduated high school in Indianapolis, (Gordon was voted Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year) he was the second best player in the country, behind Michael Beasley.

Gordon first committed to the University of Illinois but then changed his commitment to Indiana after the Hoosiers hired Kelvin Sampson and hired as an assistant the former college coach of Eric’s father, Eric Sr.  Gordon tried to convince AAU friend Derrick Rose to come with him to Indiana but didn’t succeed. When Gordon changed his commitment to IU it left illinois in a bind, they no longer had a shooting guard. And because his mind change became social media trending gossip, Gordon began getting death threats from Illinois students. But being in the spotlight and being hated didn’t skew his game. Gordon set scoring records at Indiana and finished the year averaging nearly 21 points per game.

At the same time that Gordon was sinking shots and was well on his way to becoming Big Ten Freshman of the Year, on the west coast of the United States the Los Angeles Clippers were an average team seeking a scorer. They won 40 games that year coached by Mike Dunleavey. Their shooting guards were 31 year old Cuttino Mobley, 26 year old Quinten Ross and 36 year old Doug Christie. Doug Christie only played in 7 games that year. Quinten Ross only took 10 threes all year and Cuttino Mobley shot 41.1% from three. He was the workhouse. But they needed young talent.

They drafted Eric Gordon with the seventh pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.

He was Rookie of the Month in January, narrowly edging out Kevin Love. He had a 41 point game against OKC.  He had a 31 point game against Detroit, a 32 point game against Dallas, a 30 point game against the Knicks.

When Vinny Del Negro became the Clippers coach, Gordon was firmly entrenched into the L.A. Clippers ecosystem.

“He’s young, explosive, strong, and a great kid. He’s done a great job for us this year to date and I expect him to continue to improve. He has the ability to be a lockdown defender when he focuses on that end of the court. He and Blake will continue to take more leadership in the team as the season progresses.”

Gordon took advantage of being in L.A. where he wasn’t the best shooting guard in town, nor was he the best shooting guard anyone had seen. Kobe Bryant began and ended all shooting guard discussions. Gordon worked out with Bryant and with Chauncey Billips, two players he admired. Absorbing himself in their habits was critical to his career following his rookie season and illustrated how ambitious Gordon really was.

“Those are the guys I look at and watch what they do,” Gordon said. “When I was a rookie, they just told me to play hard every game, every possession. If you want to be good that’s the only way you can do it-playing hard on every possession.”

He did that. His first year he averaged 16.1 points. His second year he averaged 16.9 points. His third year he averaged 22.3 points. His fourth year was when things came crashing down, and Eric Gordon’s NBA life pivoted. It was a sudden, abrupt and humbling change. It was the fall of 2011.

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It was the fall of 2011. NBA Armageddon.  An intractable labor dispute producing vitriol and mistrust. The owners locked out players, the players went on strike, millionaires vs. billionaires churned the collective stomach of onlookers.  Aggressive and particularly bitter by the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh creation, the billionaire owners wanted justice. Suddenly they were the barbarians at the gate. Contextually, the players struck a nerve that pulled away rich white men’s privilege. Suddenly minority players had unchecked power; it rankled the owners sense of entitlement. The owners crafted a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would seduce the players with monetary gains, perceiving players as money whores first, greedy second, caring about winning third.

Not long after the lockout ended the owners were summarily chastened. Chris Paul debunked their economic theory of  got to get mine now. He wanted out of New Orleans. Yesterday. He didn’t care how much money the Hornets offered him because the Lakers was where Paul wanted to go. The league, however, had just left a scarring and hemorrhaging labor dispute that devalued big market teams, anointing them as villains. The Lakers were way off the table. The NBA had other plans, one that included the Los Angeles Clippers.

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“All you have to do is to take the man’s word and take that he said no one is going to go anywhere. To completely lie like that is something unprofessional.” (Eric Gordon)

It was Dec. 12. The Chris Paul trade was going nowhere. The Lakers whined and bitched but they were s**t out of luck. Clippers GM, Neil Olshey wanted to calm things down. There were rumors that the Clippers were suddenly in the driver’s seat. Olshey, who is now the Portland GM, called a meeting of players with guaranteed contracts, of which Eric Gordon was one. He promised all of them that no players in that room were going to be in the deal. Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman felt confident. They trusted him.

Neil Olshey said afterward, “I’m not deceptive enough to tell players something that isn’t true. And I can tell you from an ownership level, the president of our company, myself, we made a corporate decision Monday morning that when the deal didn’t go through on Sunday night we would no longer pursue the trade. And that’s when we notified our players, to get the elephant out of the room during our abbreviated training camp.”

There are three sides to every conflict. There is my side. There is your side. And there is the truth.

On Dec. 14, the Clippers traded Eric Gordon, their star shooting guard, to the Hornets for Chris Paul. Chris Kaman was in the deal too. Gordon found out on the team bus to a charity event for the Christmas holiday. Gordon: “They literally told me as an organization that they wanted to keep me, and [the trade still] went down?”

Was this Gordon karma being played out in real time? Years ago, he told Illinois he would be their shooting guard. And then he wasn’t. Was he getting a taste of his own medicine, words being retracted, live with the consequences? People change their minds when it suits their bottom line, only this time Gordon was the victim.

In New Orleans, Gordon was thrust onto a team beset by chaos and up for sale. He hurt his knee during the season opener, had to have arthroscopic surgery.

“There is a lot going on that people don’t see. Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s going on from coaches, the organization, and even the other players. There is more to it than just playing basketball. That is why you see a lot of teams that are trying to figure things out, they have losing. One decision can change everything and make it or break it, and as players, you are, you know, stuck with it.”

In the summer of 2012, when Gordon was a restricted free agent he visited the Phoenix Suns cautiously hopeful. His career was four years old. He was a veteran raised by the league, suffering all the knock downs and sucker punches no one talks about to young college freshman who only have dreams and are clueless about unintended consequences. Gordon wanted out of the rocky boat with holes in it that was the Hornets franchise. He loved that the Suns were quietly but eagerly moving past the Steve Nash era and were close to bringing in Goran Dragic. Coach Alvin Gentry was enthusiastically passionate about Gordon’s skillset.  To let the Hornets know how much he devalued them as an organization and didn’t want to return, Gordon said “Phoenix is where my heart is.”

The fact is no one cares about where your heart is until you are an unrestricted free agent. Restricted free agency is a business delivery system with talent up for sale at a specific cost. It is too cut and brutally dry to be emotionally driven. Gordon was repudiated on social media for the stunt that everyone knew was going to fail and yet in all of it Gordon was, in a way, a victim of the business side of the NBA. Against his will he was taken away from the Clippers without warning because of Chris Paul and dropped in a situation with little structure or plan for the future and Gordon wasn’t even sure he was wanted in New Orleans. He had no taste for rebuilding. He was tired of the losing.

Rebuilding is hard in the NBA, because you never know what is going to happen. It doesn’t mean it is going to work. You can hope it is going to work , you can load up on draft picks and hope those young guys get better each year. But when you are going to start over, you better hope those guys are superstars and not just regular role players. Or it is just going to continue. Another rebuilding situation, that is really hard.” (Eric Gordon)

It was rocky in New Orleans with the team always throwing Gordon’s name out in trades. Nothing ever happened because why would you give up draft picks, which now were more valuable than ever because of the CBA, for a player who was consistently injured and may have an attitude playing for your team? Gordon was a veteran. He wanted a veteran team with playoff possibilities. He had enough with the losing but he couldn’t stay healthy either. Trades were not viable as he wore the invisible label as selfish and damaged.

No one paid attention when Gordon, two winters ago, refused shoulder surgery and played through the pain and was quietly successfull too, 16.5 points, 50% from three.

“I took that initiative to be a floor-spreader and try a lot of 3s and knock them down. I made some adjustments in my shot and when I came back from the injury, I wanted to do something different that helped the team.”

Deciding not to opt-out in order to take advantage of the 2016 summer money was a leap of maturity. Eric Gordon played his last year in New Orleans in 2015-16. It was never a love story in the Big Easy. It was a forced marriage. He never wanted to be there. He went through excrutiating means to leave. But while he was there, he played as hard as he could and developed into a perimeter scorer complimenting Anthony Davis, despite what the critics said about Gordon as a malcontent. But the Pelicans weren’t a contender. If it wasn’t Gordon’s injury curse it was Anthony Davis’.

“Last year (2014-15), I was a playmaker also, but what made a lot of noise was my 3-point shot because I was second in the league in 3-point percentage”

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Mike D’Antoni loves a perimeter scorer, a player who doesn’t hold the ball in his hand, a player who doesn’t need to dribble to be effective. Eric Gordon was the perfect player to bring off the bench to continue the scoring drive of the first unit.  D’Antoni ball gets ridiculed but it is D’Antoni ball that the entire league is playing in some form. Everyone has three point shooting.

The Rockets take the most threes, nearly 40 a game. They make the most threes, 14.7. They are not efficient like Cleveland and San Antonio who rank first and second in percentage with a 40+% three point efficiency but being sixth in 3-point percentage is one of the reasons the Rockets are tied for third in the west.

It’s hard to think of the Rockets as true contenders with everything we know about playoff basketball and defense. The Rockets are a bottom-10 points allowed team. They are a bottom-10 three point defense team. D’Antoni has been here before with shooters, in the Western Conference and thwarted by the Spurs, a better defensive team. The Rockets, though, are doing their part in the regular season. They are winning games, scoring points and causing matchup nightmares.

 Eric Gordon has been in the playoffs only once, as hard as that is to believe. Two years ago he played in four games, was swept by the Warriors who would be champions that year. The Pelicans had that memorable fourth quarter meltdown, up by 20, and lost the game, only to be disheartened for Game 4 and the sweep. Gordon had a good playoff run though, 40.6% from three, 18.8 points. It may be history repeating itself with Gordon going up against the Warriors.

When he played the Warriors this year he had 23 points, shot 44% from three and had five assists in a Rockets overtime win. The Sixth Man of the Year Award is looming in the spring. That will be Eric Gordon coming full circle, surviving the worst of everything, here for the best of everything.

It has taken Eric Gordon nine years to realize his potential which seems like an eternity and for sure it is not the quick start that most expected. Only the rare few have the perfect NBA life, seamless from beginning to end. For most, there are starts and stops and a lot of mess in the middle. In a way it is a hunger game. How much are you willing to sacrifice. How willing are you to start over?

I’ve always been a guy who is motivated each year. As long as we win and I am able to play at a high level… Winning is first and foremost.”

photo via llananba