[Editor's Note - Welcome Christopher Cucchiara to The Bird Writes with his first front page article.]
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a 21 year old in his third NBA season for the Los Angeles Clippers completed a strong 2010-11 NBA campaign in which he averaged 22.3 ppg, 3 rebounds and 4 assists per game. That player was Eric Gordon Jr., currently a highly overpaid guard for your New Orleans Pelicans. Our fans are somewhat spoiled when it comes to phenomenal seasons by 21 year olds, but Gordon had a stellar season and played a position that was short on supply of elite talent.
Fast-forward through three unfulfilling seasons and four even more painful games to start the 2014-15 Pelicans season, and a situation that seemed to only have the ability to go up, has somehow fallen off a cliff. Eric Gordon, playing on a max contract, has put together an unprecedented four game stretch to open the season and not in a good way.
Winter Comes Early
During this stint, Gordon is shooting 7-34 (.206) and 1-11 (.091) from three point range. In two of these games, in which he played 28+ minutes, he failed to make a field goal during the course of the game, going 0-6 in both instances. Gordon also had two or more turnovers in each of those games.
So, how historically bad has Eric Gordon been so far? According to Basketball-Reference.com, from 1985-86 to 2014-15 (a guard that has played at least 28 minutes, made zero field goals and added two or fewer assists) only five players have achieved this stat line three or more times during one regular season. Eric Gordon has already accomplished it twice.
So far through these four games, Gordon has a turnover percentage of 20.5%. This means that for every 100 possessions, Gordon will commit about 20 turnovers. Any team with playoff aspirations cannot have a player like this on the court for any significant amount of time. Pelican fans may have witnessed rock bottom during the Charlotte game however, when Gordon shot an airball from inside the three point line; no defender was within 5 feet of him.
Not Who Starts, Who Finishes
Thankfully, Monty Williams did Gordon, the Pelicans and Pels Nation a solid by not playing Gordon in the fourth quarter and instead, gave those minutes to Austin Rivers.
The Pelicans do not play again until Saturday night, when they travel to San Antonio to play the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Over the next three days, a serious discussion should take place between Monty and his staff on whether Gordon should continue to in his current role as a big minute starter for the Pelicans.
Should Gordon even remain a starter? Answering that question requires some discussion because who starts the game does not matter as much as who is finishing the game. As we saw during the Pelicans-Hornets game on Tuesday, Gordon did not finish the game. Who starts the game is also not as important as who plays the majority of minutes during the game. Just because Player A "starts" a game, if that player only plays 14 minutes but Player "B" comes off the bench to play 28 minutes, the fact that Player "A" started is fairly insignificant. The most important aspect of this decision should be based on which lineups are the most productive and give the Pels the best chance to win.
If the Pels were to make a change in the starting lineup, there are a few different options that Monty will have to choose from. The evidence is pretty substantial that Gordon needs the ball in his hands (as frightening as that sounds right about now) in order to maintain relevancy during the flow of the game. This is one reason why Gordon has struggled so mightily because Jrue and Tyreke are ball dominant guards, who are both better options at scoring and handling the ball than Gordon.
Option A - Dedicated Gunners
One option would be to start either Luke Babbitt or Jimmer in place of Gordon. This would add a shooter to the starting lineup that includes Tyreke (although he has been shooting well) and Asik. Those two play the best when spacing is created through shooters on the floor. Monty could probably play the matchup game here depending on who the opposing team starts that night, as neither player is good defensively, but Babbitt does give the Pelicans some more size.
Starting either Babbitt or Jimmer would allow for the second unit to include Ryno, Rivers and Gordon. Ryno can stretch the defense for Gordon's drives to the basket and Rivers can create open shots with his penetration and ability to get to the goal. This is a moot point, however, if Gordon cannot dribble the ball without committing a turnover or if he cannot make an open shot.
Option B - Austin Rivers Ascension
Another possibility that is making the rounds is for Rivers to start in place of Gordon. The starting lineup would be Jrue/Rivers/Tyreke/AD/Asik. Interestingly enough, the Pels have only played this unit for one minute so far this season. However, looking at the best two man combinations so far this season for the Pelicans offensively, there is one common element: Austin Rivers. The Pelicans top 4 offensive two man combinations so far this season (minimum 30 minutes) are AD/Rivers (125.3 ORtg), Jrue/Rivers (119.0), AD/Ryno (115.8), and Tyreke/Rivers (115.2).
Rivers has been making plays on offense, whether he is creating for himself or for others. Rivers would also be an upgrade defensively over Gordon and Rivers would not be a liability with the ball (7.3 TOV%). So inserting Rivers into the Gordon role would improve the defense, rebounding, offensive efficiency and turnover rate.
Decision Time Looms
Gordon's massive contract makes this decision tougher than other similar situations, but Monty is paid big dollars to make these types of decisions. Inserting Rivers into the starting lineup would require Monty to stagger lineups so that there is a ball handler on the court with Gordon because he is just too careless with the ball while dribbling. I propose that at a minimum, the Pels give Rivers 28 minutes (up from his 22 minute per game average) and drop Gordon to 20-22 minutes per game (down from his 32.8!) until he starts showing some semblance of the NBA player formerly known as Eric Gordon.
Many Pelicans fans were hoping for a vintage Eric Gordon season because of his proclamations of health, the fact that Gordon is entering a pseudo-contract year (he has a player option) and the possibility that if Gordon did have a good, healthy season, he may opt out of his final year of a guaranteed $15 million to secure a three or four year deal guaranteeing him more than the $15 million he is guaranteed next season. The fact that Gordon may have possibly cost the Pelicans one or two wins at the beginning of the season is not even the worst consequence of Gordon's early play.
It is the fact that, he WILL NOT walk away from the $15 million guaranteed he is owed for next season and this will likely prevent the Pels from putting that money toward another integral piece around AD. Maybe a team will take Gordon off of the Pelicans hands in the offseason or maybe Gordon's ego will be big enough that he can convince himself that he could get more guaranteed money, if he opts out. A question that may come up at some point is, would the Pelicans ever consider making Gordon a healthy inactive?
The Nuclear Option - Healthy Scratch
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the Pels deactivate Gordon for Saturday's game. I think they should change his role, reduce his minutes and take as much pressure off of Gordon as possible. I am merely suggesting that if taking those measures does not work, then deactivating Gordon needs to be considered.
An inactive Gordon could accomplish a couple of objectives. First, the Pelicans will be better on the court. Secondly, Gordon may think that the move is costing him future money because he is not able to showcase his "talents" for his next contract and this may lead him to opt out of his final year. Lastly, Gordon has never seemed too thrilled with the idea of playing in New Orleans, and deactivating him could be the last straw and he may request out of New Orleans as soon as possible. Again, this is a last resort option for the Pelicans.
There are other scenarios, such as buying out his contract, but if he keeps playing this poorly, the Gordon Era may last a year longer than Pelicans fans had hoped.
Let me know what you think. Should Eric Gordon remain a starter? If not, who should replace Gordon in the starting lineup? What kind of minutes should Gordon see on Saturday night? Would there ever be a time that you would consider making Gordon inactive while healthy?