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Has Eric Gordon Lost Too Much Respect?

Admittedly, Gordon didn't have the year many had hoped, but our perceptions were altered by a reduced role, men in striped shirts and his ever-looming contract.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Through the course of this past season, one of the more common themes from game to game was why had the referees stopped blowing their whistles in favor of Eric Gordon? How many times can you recall either Joel Meyers or David Wesley making mention of it during a telecast? Check out these career numbers:

2008-09 2009-10 2010-11 2011-2012 2012-13 2013-14
Free Throw Rate .388 .381 .367 .464 .380 .273
Free Throw Attempts Per 36 4.7 4.8 5.9 7.5 6.3 3.9
% of total FGA 0-3 feet 33.2% 35.3% 27.8% 30.7% 28.1% 30.8%
Attempts Per Game at the Rim 3.8 4.5 4.7 4.8 3.9 3.9

Since the 2011-2012 season, viewers have been well aware Eric Gordon's athleticism hasn't been the same as in his Los Angeles Clipper days. However, that didn't prevent him from getting to the line with excellent proficiency in his first two seasons in New Orleans. So why did his trips to the line fall precipitously this past season? It's particularly disturbing when considering his shot selection still provided for a good number of attempts in the paint and the fact he's coming off the healthiest season yet while in the Crescent City.

A Past Issue

Over five years ago, Coach Mike Dunleavy went on record stating Gordon wasn't being respected enough in his sophomore season.

"It's my job right now," Dunleavy said. "I took one [technical foul] the other night for him because it was like, 'Come on, how did you miss that?' I have to help him out sometimes, at least bring some attention to it."

Although Gordon, 21, has easily solidified his position as one of the best young players in the NBA just one-third of the way through his second season, he has yet to earn much attention for it either in the public eye or in the eyes of the league's referees.

Gordon is averaging just 2½ trips to the free throw line per game, ranking 32nd in the league despite scoring 17.3 points a game. It isn't all that surprising considering he plays on a team that has gone 34-91 since he was drafted seventh overall out of Indiana, and he has the manners of a choir boy. But it remains an issue for a young player whose game is built on slashing to the basket, drawing contact and getting to the free throw line.

Take that part of his game away, the athleticism that makes him a budding superstar, and Gordon becomes a tentative jump-shooter.

"I think a lot of people around the league know how good he is," Dunleavy said. "I wish the referees did.

"We find a lot of times after the fact that the kid gets fouled, and he doesn't get calls for some reason. Which is really hard to figure out, other than he's just too nice and too quiet."

The article went on to point out that attempting to get noticed could help increase the frequency of whistles...

A Comparative Study

3.9 free throw attempts per 36. Care to know what company that places him among other shooting guards past and present? Since 2000-01 when shooting data was first available, the following sample of players had the same number of attempts from the line.

% of total FGA 0-3 feet Attempts Per Game at the Rim
2013-14 Wesley Matthews 18.8% 2.6
2005-06 Richard Hamilton 25% 5.2
2000-01 Allan Houston 10.3% 1.7
2000-01 Reggie Miller 10.7% 1.7

This past season, Matthews posted his second highest amount of free throw attempts per game, despite his percentage of shots 0-3 feet from the rim were easily a career low. Hamilton had a good deal of shots around the rim, but like Gordon, they didn't translate to a higher desired free throw rate. Both Houston and Miller barely ever sniffed the paint, but they managed to get to the line more than one would ever imagine.

Why all the variance? It's all about being positively noticed by the referees. Nobody would mistaken Matthews as a top 2 or 3 player for Portland, but his dogged personality ensures he'll steal the spotlight a good number of times. Houston and Miller were respected leaders in their advanced years, both in the locker room and statistically.

Initially, Hamilton seems like an anomaly -- he was the leading scorer on a very good Piston's team. However, I'd wager that Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace commanded the attention more often. Along with Tayshaun Prince, they were the backbone of that championship caliber defense. In 2012-13, Gordon was largely the only player who could create his shot; this season, the roster and many roles were obviously much different. And, as a last point, wouldn't you say Hamilton's reactions to missed calls remind you of Gordon? Instead of a stern face reflecting anger, we were left with a wide-eyed look and a pouty mannerism? Having watched basketball for the last 25 years, it's no secret referee's favor serious and strong arguments over whiny pleas.

The Stigma of Max Contracts

On July 11, 2012, New Orleans matched Phoenix's maximum contact of over $58 million. However, many fans were already questioning, or even negatively viewing Gordon upon the finish of his first season. He had appeared in just 9 games in the shortened schedule of 66 games (collective bargaining agreement). In his three years as a Clipper, he had missed a total of 50 games. Not a good start to a career. Not when our organization was contemplating on making him the franchise centerpiece with a balky knee that was shrouded in mystery.

Yet, Dell Demps didn't have much a choice so Gordon's physical heart was kept in New Orleans. During the 2012-13 campaign, Gordon didn't participate in his first game until December 29th, the Pelicans 30th game. For the remainder of the season, his minutes were monitored and back-to-backs were off the table. The front office was probably doing the right thing -- ensuring as best as they could the health of their 15 million dollar man. However, this didn't sit well with the fans. Our most expensive player, the one that wanted to escape to Phoenix, was being coddled and his performance was down right poor. His field goal percentage hovered around 40% every month and he was consistently closing out games by some negative manner.

Hidden Improvement

Coming into this past season, Gordon's remaining fans were hopeful he would finally be able to reveal his true colors. He'd be able to hit the ground running with his conditioning and skills before the start of the regular season. Moreover, the arrivals of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans would alleviate some of the responsibilities of needing to carry the team on a nightly basis. Yet as Rohan mentioned in his player recap:

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.

For 2013-14, Gordon's usage was the 4th highest on the team. Before the injuries decimated the roster, he felt like the 5th best player many a night. Often, I was left wondering if an injury were to hit, would the team even remotely miss him?

Then, as luck would have it, everyone around him started going down and he responded with his two most efficient shooting months. In January and February, he respectively put up a 54.2 TS% and a 56.9 TS%. Among starting shooting guards, he put up the 6th highest amount of points in January and 7th in February. During this span, he was much more efficient than oft-coveted players like Klay Thompson, Aaron Afflalo and Joe Johnson.

He hit a wall in March, but there was an explanation. It's often mentioned that rookies suddenly bottom out due to fatigue over the course of the long NBA schedule, but is it an exclusive club? Gordon played a total of 310 minutes in his first season in New Orleans. He followed that up with 1264 minutes in 2012-13. Before March, he was up to 1784 minutes. Those type of increases are not allowed on baseball pitchers for fear their arms will break down due to massive jumps in workload. Why aren't repaired NBA knees viewed similarly? Gordon averaged 2.2 miles per game and tallied the 3rd highest mileage among Pelicans. We should perhaps be amazed that he merely developed tendinitis in his 'healthy' knee.

The Future

Now, it's quite commonplace to read that our front office should take a very proactive approach in casting him off our roster: trading him for anyone that still has a pulse, perhaps a buy-out, or hoping that removing him from the starting lineup will lead him to thoroughly evaluating how he should best handle the remaining year on his contract, a player option.

In 2012-13, he was the 43rd most efficient shooting guard for the month of February. A year later, he jumped up to 14th. The knee injury that he sustained in his first season was serious, so much so that the dreaded microfracture surgery was a legitimate option. However, headed into a contract year, could anyone honestly blame him for opting for a lesser arthroscopic procedure? Although he was under 25, he was conceivably looking at his last big pay-day.

Everything comes full circle to Gordon's contract. Yes, his yearly performances have not lived up to it, but among all the disdain (which I fully admit I was party to at times), his improvements have completely flown under the radar. A career best three-point field goal percentage. An overall field goal percentage that approached his career numbers, despite lacking the athleticism of old. And what issues he had were not around the rim, but rather concentrated in the 3-10 foot range where he shot an abysmal 28.6% on 126 attempts. This 'floaters for guards' area isn't a skill he lacked as recently as the season prior, where on 114 attempts, he managed to shoot 39.5%.

Did you know had Gordon simply averaged several more shots a game, equal to his Per 36 numbers in prior years, and maintained his efficiency, his Hollinger PER numbers would have finished in Tyreke Evans territory, somewhere in the 18's? Back in late January, once Holiday, Anderson and Smith were reduced to modeling the latest fashions, he claimed he could do more:

"Individually, I think I can give more, do more," Gordon said after practice Monday, one day after his 14 points helped the Pelicans win for the third time in four games. "People here think I should be this big-time 20-point (per game) scorer. This is more of a team game here, this system here. It's a different adjustment. For me, now it's all about playing as many games as possible and getting my body back to being used to playing an 82-game season, because I haven't had that in almost two to three years now."

Gordon did do more, more than he ever had in a New Orleans uniform. Due to an onerous contract, our lenses were only able to focus on the bad, yet there was plenty of good we missed. More than a year ago, Gordon looked to be a shell of his former self in 42 games. A player that was completely unable to summon first half performances with anything similar in the second halves of basketball games. This season, that stamina advanced, but it was hard to acknowledge the improvement, as Rohan and many others have correctly pointed to his far too numerous disappearances within games.

I'm of the frame of mind that Eric Gordon's steady climb from his very deep fall doesn't get enough recognition. If he is able to grace the floor next season, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised his conditioning takes another step. That experiencing another season glued closer to the ground, like most mortals, results in a wiser player. Lastly, if he plays his cards right, the referee's just might return some of that lost respect. In turn, some or all of these subtle improvements could have a significant impact on the glorified statistics, and along with it, many a fan's appreciation too. Even if he ends up wearing a different uniform in the near future.