Eric Gordon's health will presumably hang over the New Orleans Hornets for the foreseeable future, a sort of modern era, vaguely French, sword of Damocles. You'd do well to keep those fingers firmly crossed.
The optimist, though, will be rather pleased with the events of the past month.
In the 11 games Gordon has started, New Orleans has posted a +2.64 efficiency differential. On the season, that would be a contender for a top-10 mark. In their 33 other games without Gordon starting, the Hornets have posted a -6.48 efficiency differential. That's a massive, massive difference that has ultimately been contributed to by a host of other factors, but Gordon's impact on the lineup has been unmistakable.
As Monty Williams said in December, Gordon's ability to put his teammates in more natural, comfortable positions on both offense and defense has transcended his individual statistical impact. And this is an especially important statement when you consider that Gordon hasn't been amazingly efficient -- or anywhere close to it -- offensively.
Gordon's usage sits at a career high 30.3% and his efficiency at a career low -5 points/100 possessions from league average. Some of that is due to the fact that Gordon is shooting a woeful 31.5% from distance. A 36.7% career shooter, he'll surely turn this around soon from a purely statistical point of view. But the Hornets hopefully understand that the 30.3% usage contributes to the decreased efficiency.
The usage-efficiency trade-off affects almost everyone; James Harden's definitely the best recent example, with his +20 efficiency on 22% usage in 2012 falling to +8 on 29.5% usage in 2013. Gordon's shot creation provides a lot of value to a team that lacks elite creative options, but New Orleans would do well to siphon off some of Gordon's possessions and redirect them towards motion sets that aid the development of Anthony Davis and others.
Nonetheless, the evolution of Gordon's game in Monty Williams is very promising.
When the Hornets first acquired Gordon, I wrote that the team should look into emphasizing Gordon in the pick and roll. In his last season as a Clipper, 13% of his offensive possessions were isolations (where he ranked 164th in league efficiency) and 27% were pick and rolls (where he ranked 14th).
Last year, the pick and roll count rose to 33% (where he ranked 1st overall in efficiency). So far this year, 16% of his possessions are isolations and 36% are in the pick and roll. The efficiency in P&R hasn't been fantastic yet -- he ranks 50th thus far -- but it's a fairly similar situation to his three point shooting; it's something he's really, really good at, has been really, really good at in the past, and will be really, really good at again in the near future.
The fact that the Hornets have significantly forwarded his P&R game while also depressing his total number of catch-and-shoots and off-screen looks (two areas he strangely struggles with) is encouraging. This is an area where Monty Williams clearly knows what he's doing. Even if the overall possession count needs to drop, the ratios are just about perfect.
While the turnover count certainly needs to drop, Gordon's ability to create for others has been on display again. He hasn't played enough minutes to qualify, but his 19% assist rate would rank in the top-8 of the league for starting shooting guards.
One area that might be unsustainable is Gordon's currently ridiculous fast-break play. On 33 transition possessions, Gordon's scoring 1.48 points per poss., the 4th best mark in the league. If this is a figure that does stabilize over the longer term though, the prospect of Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Davis, and Ryan Anderson on the break with Greivis Vasquez finding them is mouth watering.
On defense, we'll need at least couple more weeks of data before we can make strong statements about anything. Still, team defensive efficiency has increased by about 1.5 points/100 possessions (a relatively sizable difference) since Gordon's return. By the eye test, Gordon's hands are as fast as ever, and his ability to stay in front of quick guards looks surprisingly unaffected by surgery.
If there's one key to contending as a small-market team, it's this: if you can, be a dangerous lottery team. That can happen through a critical injury (the 1997 Spurs), the relatively slow development of superstars (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), even the compilation of an extensive collection of draft assets combined with smart management (the late 2000, star-crossed Blazers).
The Hornets remain on course to be one of the most dangerous lottery teams in recent memory. They have the league's active assists leader (post-Rondo injury), the league leader in made three pointers for the last four seasons, one of the top rookie prospects of this decade who's currently posting the 7th >20 PER rookie season in the last twenty years, and Eric Gordon.
That's surrounded by a good bit of young, cheap talent. Al-Farouq Aminu's currently the top non-big defensive rebounder in the league. Regardless of what you think of Robin Lopez -- and if you're the average Hornet fan, you think a good many things about him, heh -- he's been remarkably efficient on offense, ranking 6th among centers in PER and 5th in offense win shares. Jason Smith also exists.
Gordon's knees hang over us, sure, and they will continue to do so. But on the floor, the team's right about where we thought they'd be at this stage -- competitive and extremely fun. This is the rare team destined for the lottery since December that also happens to be eminently watchable against any opponent.
The Eric Gordon Hornets have been excellent, and Eric Gordon hasn't even been great yet.