In some well behaved, color-by-the-lines parallel universe, Eric Gordon, on account of being the league's most talented young 2-guard and, equally importantly, if redundantly, 23 years old, is signing off on a maximum extension today. Our universe, where teams exist without owners and losing is the best form of winning, is not that one.
Yet Gordon could well be signing a long term deal here too, even if both player and contract are ultimately diminished by the health of Gordon's right knee.
The deal on the table today is for four years; its consummation would represent not only the official arrival of the team's first post-Paulian star but a significant step towards long term stability for basketball in New Orleans. Of course, the restricted free agency provision of the rookie scale contract assures that today's worst case scenario - failure to agree terms of an extension - doesn't necessitate long term doom. But signing Gordon in advance of an RFA season that will surely see at least one aggressive overture from the Indiana Pacers carries with it rather obvious advantages.
What, then, is a healthy Eric Gordon worth?
Eric Gordon the Scorer
In 2010, when Blake Griffin first began his ascent up the NBA ranks, Eric Gordon was right there beside him. Gordon's 26.5% usage rate essentially matched Griffin's 27.3%, and his efficiency (112) was equal to Blake's (111). It was Griffin that received the majority of subsequent plaudits and Kia sponsorships, exacerbated after Gordon fractured his wrist in January, but the disparity between the two in terms of overall offensive production was never especially remarkable. That Griffin performed his acrobatics as a rookie is a legitimate piece of evidence in his favor of course, but in another sense, less than three months separate the players in age.
It's tough to decide exactly how much stock should be put into Gordon's 2011 season. While the injury that took his total game count down to 56 from 80 was a freak one with minimal long term recurrence potential, playing productively for 56 games is obviously easier than doing it for 80, even before the probabilities of a statistically anomalous performance are considered.
If we take it at face value, Gordon's season was remarkable. Before 2010-2011, ten players in the modern era had posted seasons with usage rates over 25% and offensive efficiencies over 110 - Chris Paul, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Terry Cummings, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Michael Jordan. Every single one of those players was a multiple-time All-Star selection. Gordon proved that he could maintain high efficiency while shouldering heavy offensive responsibility, the best way to define, despite Carmelo Anthony's ostensible protests to the contrary, an offensive NBA star.
Gordon was, depending on your optimism or lack thereof, either on the cusp of stardom or had already just passed it, only to be yanked away by his wrist injury. It's why Clippers fans' desire to retain him extended beyond simple sentimentality; Gordon didn't represent distant possibility, but rather already realized potential, however fleeting.
His strength as a scorer lay both in his efficiency and his versatility. The play he's arguably been most associated with since his arrival in New Orleans, the isolation, was only his third most utilized half-court possession type in 2011. Gordon was remarkably efficient at running the pick and roll; per Synergy Sports, Gordon scored 0.94 points per P&R possession, a shade lower than the 0.97 mark of the Hornets' Chris Paul.
He scored efficiently off of cuts and screens and even showed a reasonable off-ball post game, pinning small defenders deep in the post before catching.
A healthy Gordon fits the +6 paradigm perfectly, especially in the sense the Hornets appear to be building. Even if he doesn't develop into an elite, All-Star starter type scorer, he's almost certainly a strong secondary scorer already.
Last season, Gordon produced 112 points/100 possessions, a differential of +4.7 from league average, over 20% of total team possessions. Over a full season, that comes out to (+4.7 x 20%) a +0.94 on the +6 scale. A healthy Gordon's offense, assuming zero improvement, takes you a sixth of the way to a title. These players aren't as rare as the Chris Pauls and Dwight Howards of the NBA, but they're certainly critical building blocks. And in this current Hornets' setup, where at least a +3 or +4 defense along the lines of the team's peak a year ago is the ultimate goal, that offensive +2 to +3 juggernaut (Paul, LeBron, Nowitzki, Durant) is less necessary.
Eric Gordon the Defender
I'm more excited by Eric Gordon, the defender, than I am by Eric Gordon, the scorer. This was, a year ago, a chillingly strong individual defensive player on the perimeter.
Gordon's strongest aspect of isolation defense was his hands. Opponents turned the ball over to Gordon on almost 25% of the 97 instances that he was isolated defensively. Gordon's a gambler in this sense, but in a very different fashion than we've been accustomed to. Where Chris Paul gambled for steals at the expense of penetration, Eric Gordon very rarely swiped unless he was completely set in front of an offensive player and able to react laterally if he missed. His gambling came more in the form of personal fouls; while his overall foul count (2.3 pf/36 minutes) was tiny, the majority of his more egregious fouls came in this setting. Ultimately, Gordon's rate of a foul and a half per steal was a tradeoff worth making, even if it's worth keeping an eye on in late shot clock situations going forward.
As with everything defensive, it all starts with foot speed, evident here against the Suns' Steve Nash.
He shifts Nash towards one side, presumably the one from which help is scheduled to arrive, but even when it doesn't, he's easily able to keep Nash away from the rim.
Follow that up with one my favorite defensive sequences by any player ever:
When he was healthy last season, Gordon routinely matched up against the best opposing perimeter players - Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, and so forth. Gordon was as close to becoming a lockdown, first choice perimeter defender last season as he was a top-level scoring option. In isolation situations, opponents shot 15 for 60 (25%) and in spot-up scenarios, they shot 47-161 (29%).
And that's what makes the 2012-2014 New Orleans Hornets so damn intriguing defensively if they can land a game changing big in the draft. In Gordon and Trevor Ariza, the Hornets potentially have two lock-down perimeter defenders in the starting lineup. If they can pair Emeka Okafor with a strong defensive presence this summer? That currently impossible looking jump to +6 suddenly becomes a lot more realistic. Jarrett Jack, sizable enough to be switched off regularly, can easily be hidden in the presence of two elite isolation defenders.
Eric Gordon the defender is equally as valuable as Eric Gordon the scorer; for players seeking max deals coming off rookie contracts, it's a rare trait.
Eric Gordon the Max Player?
The answer to this question, minus injury, is "yes."
Each marginal win in the NBA, over replacement level is worth about $2.2M. You can find a longer winded version of this here.
Last year, Gordon's produced somewhere between 5 and 6 wins - 5.3 by Basketball Reference's WS metric and 5.7 by Basketball Prospectus' WARP statistic. Propagating those numbers out to a full season puts him somewhere around 8 wins above a replacement level player. So assuming Gordon's development as a player stalls at this point (unlikely), he'd be worth somewhere in the region of $17M to $18M. And I'd contend this would be undervaluing and underpaying him for his true defensive impact.
A four-year max contract would pay Gordon $16M a year, below value at full health, which brings us to the importance of today, extension deadline day.
If Eric Gordon returns to the Hornets this season and plays well, Indiana will, without a shadow of a doubt, throw a full maximum deal at him over the off-season. Other teams like Cleveland will have this opportunity as well. Assuming Gordon would want to stay in New Orleans long term, the Hornets have matching rights, and the suitors themselves wouldn't be an issue as much as the loss of contract value to the team.
Small market teams need to maximize their wins per dollar above all else; a superstar player is vital not just for his talent but because the NBA salary scale prevents superstars from earning true market value. LeBron James and Chris Paul regularly outperformed their maximum contracts for Cleveland and New Orleans, and it allowed both franchises to (theoretically) spend the money they didn't need to pay for additional wins created by James and Paul on additional talent.
Eric Gordon, for all his talents, isn't in that class. Could he grow into it? Sure. For now, even if a max contract might fairly approximate his value at full health, Gordon represents a significantly lower chance of "free" wins above and beyond his yearly contract. It's why the NBA's initial stance in disallowing Dell Demps from working on an extension with Gordon was so disheartening - it forced a sort of lose-lose. If Gordon came back and played excellently, the Hornets would be forced to pay market value. If Gordon came back and played poorly, it would be an entirely different sort of failure.
By allowing the Hornets to negotiate a 4 year deal with Gordon today, Stern opened up the third possibility - getting a healthy Gordon for below market value. Of course, the third possibility also implies the existence of a significantly less pleasant fourth option - paying tens of millions of dollars a year to a player that can't play any more, and it's up to the medical staff to determine Gordon's long term injury prognosis. But yesterday's news, an independent New York doctor calling his knee "structurally sound," was a clear step forward.
If the Hornets have ultimately determined that Gordon's knee will present no long term issues, a prerequisite, one might imagine, for any sort of contract extension offer, anything around the 4 year, $48M mark is a steal. In fact, only a deal in this range really makes much sense. Even with Gordon arguably worth the max, the team ultimately owns matching rights this summer. If Gordon's camp sticks firmly to the max, they'll still be able to receive it after the Pacers (or someone else) officially put it forward in the summer. But if there's any middle ground to be reached, today's the day.
Momma, cook a breakfast with no hog.