No one worries about Eric Gordon. When he went through a shooting slump earlier this season, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni made it a point to leave him alone. Having 10 years in the league affords a player like Gordon his veteran respect, but it’s really a matter of trust.
It doesn’t matter if he starts or comes off the bench, plays off the ball or directs the offense, the Rockets assume that Gordon will figure things out for himself.
“Eric Gordon is probably one of the most underrated guys in the league,” D’Antoni said when the Rockets came through Boston in late December. “He just fills in a lot of roles. He’s a super, super player.”
Having Gordon on the court solves problems. He can hold his ground against ballhandlers and guard up or down positionally. He’s launching almost 10 3-pointers a game, but he’s strong enough to score in the paint.
It’s not an accident that the Rockets are really good when he’s on the court (they’re more than 12 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions), or that they struggle to break even when he’s on the bench.
Essentially, Gordon’s role is to play like a star, albeit in a supporting role to James Harden and Chris Paul. That makes him an ideal Sixth Man, which is the award he won last year.
Statistically, Gordon is having an even better season. He’s averaging 20 points a game for the first time since his Clipper days and he’s getting to the free throw line at a better rate than he has since early in his New Orleans tenure.
Still, Gordon’s role is a tricky balancing act for a player who is good at many things but rarely asked to showcase everything in his game at any given moment. That’s Paul and Harden’s job. The Rockets are asking Gordon to be what they need, and they leave it up to him to make the necessary adjustments.
“He just comes and plays,” D’Antoni said. “We just try to get him as many shots as we can. His teammates have so much faith in him and what he can do. Even when he was struggling, he was finding ways to get to the basket and his defense is always good.”
What the Rockets need from Gordon has been an ever-shifting target this season. First, he started alongside Harden early in the season while Paul was recovering from a knee injury. Gordon scored a lot, but not all that efficiently.
He found his stroke when Paul returned in December, but he was still searching for his game. With Paul and Harden splitting the primary playmaker duties, Gordon moved off the ball and needed to find his own space and opportunity to attack.
“The thing is, I don’t have to have the ball to score a basket,” Gordon told me back in late December. “I can catch-and-shoot, and I can also put the ball on the floor and make plays. You just got to be ready at all times when both [Harden and Paul] are on the floor because they’re great playmakers.”
Just as he was figuring out how to play with two superstars, Harden went down with a hamstring injury and Gordon went back to the starting lineup. This time he was next to Paul where he averaged better than 21 points and five assists during a seven-game stretch. Thanks to Gordon and Paul, the Rockets held their ground, going 4-3 during that span.
When Harden returned earlier this week against the Wolves, Gordon returned to the bench and knocked down 30 points in an impressive victory against one of the league’s hottest teams. That’s the role he’ll ideally play for the rest of the season as the Rockets get healthy and make a push to challenge the Warriors in the West. Either way, they trust that Gordon will figure it out.
“I want to play well every single game and play hard on both ends,” Gordon said with a shrug. “That’s why no one really worries about me.”