New Orleans' best-compensated employee and the first of a number of borderline All-Stars to join a fledgling roster, Eric Gordon has seen his stock fall steadily since departing Los Angeles.
There is a certain irony to the fact that Gordon's 2013-2014 season, which represented the player at his Pelican health apex, managed to be more disheartening than even the preceding pair of injury ravished years. Those seasons allowed for the possibility, however rapidly diminishing, of hope. But now, suddenly, Gordon, the real Gordon stands starkly before us. We may have no further illusions as to who he is: a 26 year old (next season) with an unfortunate injury history, owed 30 million dollars, who, to be frank, did not have a very good season at all.
But that said, all was not lost this season, regardless of Gordon's play. The optimist will tell you, rightly, that Gordon proved he may still provide some level of utility in a bench role. With the emergence of Tyreke Evans in the starting lineup over the last couple months, a scenario where Gordon and Evans swap the starting and bench roles respectively possessed at the onset of 2013-2014 is not wholly unfeasible. Optimally, it is one the front office strongly considers this summer because Gordon, in 15 minute bursts, can still trouble the strongest of defenses.
From Star to Sidekick
The standout characteristic of Gordon's first two seasons in New Orleans was his usage rate. 29.4% for two consecutive years (though this represented just 51 games in sum), Gordon necessarily carried a heavy offensive role during the Pelicans' triumphant lottery season as well as Anthony Davis' rookie campaign. Gordon had never exceeded a 26.5% usage rate with the Clippers, a figure he'd posted in 2011-2012 alongside a strong 112 offensive rating. Gordon's efficiency suffered, as we might have suspected, dropping to 101.7 at the 29.4% usage rate.
Even as those inefficient days played out though, most close observers were well aware that Gordon's high usage was more indicative of temporary necessity than long term design. That understanding was in part what made last summer's MSM chorus of "nobody on New Orleans has ever passed the ball, ever" particularly weird. Of course Gordon's usage was going to go down; it had been a lot lower previously and had been held artificially high. The real question was whether he'd see a return to his old levels of efficiency at lowered usage or whether injuries had sapped that aspect of his game.
The answer 2014 wrought placed us somewhere in between. Gordon's usage dropped to 23.2%, but his efficiency moved back only to a 105 offensive rating, a shade below league average. Particularly troublesome was the streakiness that characterized his game. It wasn't merely the hot and cold shooting and decision making that's often manifest amongst the league's most mercurial. Rather, Gordon's entire existence appeared to move through alternatingly electrified and desperately dour phases - his gait, his expressions, his posture on the bench. A quarter of wildly successful forays to the rim could quite easily be followed by three quarters of abject despair. Gordon was either pretty dang good or virtually did not exist.
In some sense, Gordon's projected evolution from star to sidekick hasn't really veered off course. From the moment New Orleans traded for him, it was relatively apparent that Gordon's starring role was to be temporary; the team was a superstar away from contention the day it traded away Chris Paul. The 2012 draft brought the team that superstar, but nearly as importantly, the team loaded up on the secondary-star type players Gordon once was -- Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holiday all fringe top-30 players.
That alone allows the Pelicans the freedom to cast Gordon into a bench role. We've talked often about how the longer term deals Dell Demps offered Anderson, Gordon, Evans, and Holiday don't hinder roster construction flexibility in nearly the terms most have tended to view the situation. An underrated aspect of that is the interchangeability of the non-Anthony Davis pieces; Anderson, Evans, and Holiday could all very easily be the second best, most impactful players on solid playoff squads. That the Pelicans have three such players on the current roster is heartening; that Eric Gordon can no longer be counted among them is mitigated both by that trio's mere presence as well as Gordon's own success in limited bursts.