Nine games -- that's how long the honeymoon lasted between Eric Gordon and New Orleans. After being traded from the L.A. Clippers prior to the 2011-2012 season, he was seen as young rising star that was a decent consolation prize for losing the hall of fame bound Chris Paul. Gordon got off to quite a good start averaging 20.5 per game and even hitting a dramatic game winner.
Sadly, it was pretty much downhill from there, Gordon sustained a series of injuries that prevented him from playing in 113 of the Hornets/Pelicans next 164 games. Many questioned his toughness and willingness to play through pain. He would spend most of the next few years rehabbing, and no doubt listening to fans and analysts come up with ways to remove him from the Pelicans books. Despite all this, he always insisted that he would make a full recovery and return to the player he was before the rash of injuries.
Fast forward to the 2014-2015 season and Gordon seems to have made the recovery he so often spoke of. Sure, he ha missed 21 games this season, but that was due to a shoulder injury that is unrelated to the chronic knee problems that plagued him in the past. The commissioner (please make this a thing) is enjoying his best season since the 2010-2011 campaign. To be clear, he is still not the player New Orleans hoped they would be getting in the trade. That player was a much better on ball defender and a pretty good slasher on the offensive end. However, it's time we move away from this complaint and acknowledge Gordon is automatic in catch and shoot situations, a useful secondary ball handler, and has displayed some excellent passing vision.
Gordon has a player option at the end of this season, and he has played so well that many have begun to wonder if he might opt out of his contract at the end of the season. If I told you a year ago that the Pelican fans would even entertain the thought of Gordon returning after his deal expired or was terminated, you probably would have headed straight for the Crescent City Connection to take a dive into the mighty Mississippi.
After this season ends (hopefully following a playoff run) Gordon will have to make the biggest decision of his career. Should he opt out after having one of his best seasons in the NBA, or should he return to New Orleans where the team is improving and he is guaranteed 15.5 million dollars next season?
The NBA Players Association recently rejected a proposed plan for "cap smoothing." What does that mean? Well, the salary cap is based on a percentage of the revenue generated by the NBA. If you haven't heard the news, the NBA has a brand spanking new TV deal worth $24 billion over the life of the deal, $2.6 billion annually, which kicks in just in time for the 2016 free agency bonanza. Some estimates think the cap could jump from approximately 63 million dollars to as much as 91 million. If the player association had accepted the smoothing proposal, it would have prevented the cap from making an insane jump in 2016 and instead it could have been spread over time, say three years.
From a player perspective, being a part of the 2016 impending bonanza period is a much more enviable than the upcoming free agency. So, it is widely being assumed that Gordon will likely opt in for next season and try to join the fiesta in 2016. With almost any other player of his skill level, I might agree, but there is one ginormous caveat when talking about Eric Gordon. Injuries!
Eric Gordon's injuries are well chronicled and I don't think I need to rehash them here. He's worked long and hard to rehab both his body and his image as a injury-prone, malcontent guard who lacked the toughness to play through even the slightest discomfort. I've always thought the toughness part of that description was quite unfair, and I believe Gordon has proven that intuition to be correct. We've seen him play through a shoulder injury, and more recently, a chipped tooth. Ask yourself, how many minutes would you miss at your job if you chipped a tooth at work? OK then, moving on.
While i'm sure Gordon hopes his injury woes are a thing of the past, he's got to, at least in the back of his mind, think that it could rear it's ugly head again, and if it does, it would severely depress his value. So, while waiting until 2016 sounds like the right move in theory, it might be better for him to strike while the iron is lukewarm. When Eric Gordon and his agent sit down this summer to determine their next move, there is really only one question to ask, "Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?"
The Down Side
There are a few ways to look at this question. To make this easier, let's run through a couple of thought experiments. Imagine you are Eric Gordon. You've always been uber-talented, but your professional career has been marred by injuries. You are trying to decide whether to opt in or out of the final year of your contract.
You are suppose to call Wesley Matthews tonight to discuss what could go wrong in a contract year, but you start watching House of Cards. Fast forward and its 3:00 AM and you're just realizing that season three sucks. You decide to ignore this injury prone label and bet on yourself!! You opt into the final year and the tidy sum of 15.5 million dollars. In training camp, you start to feel some soreness in your right knee and go to the team doctor to get it checked out. You find out you have a meniscus tear and will miss most of the first half of the season. Stop me when this gets unrealistic. Now, you enter free agency as a 27-year old sweet-shooting oft-injured guard who teams have no reason to believe will give them more than a half season. Would you even give that player a Jodie Meeks deal (a little bit over $6 million per year)?
Maybe, but it's far from a lock.
If Gordon were to opt out after this season, he will be a 26-year old guard coming off his best season in years. He will have totaled 61 games, missing 21 due to a shoulder injury completely unrelated to his bug-a-boo knees. I can envision a GM missing out on a star player and convincing himself that Gordon is over his knee injury issues, especially after team physical comes back clean.
Much has been said about players angling for a big payday in the summer of 2016. If you are LeBron James or Kevin Durant, this absolutely makes sense. If either of those guys gets a season ending injury next season, they will still have teams lined up to give them record breaking contracts. For other players, it gets a little more tricky.
Obviously, players would rather be a free agent when pretty much every team has a ton of cap space, but that doesn't mean potential free agents won't have other things on their minds. A player like Eric Gordon should value additional dollars and years above all else. He needs to lock in as much money for as long as possible while his knee injuries are on hiatus.
This decision will probably come down to what Gordon's agent is thinking. While free agency is months away, it would be naive to think agents aren't probing NBA front offices to see what kind of market there might be for their clients. There will be plenty of teams in need of deadly 3-point shooting that will have cap space this summer (Charlotte, Philly, Denver and Gordon's home state Pacers.)
If Rob Pelinka thinks he can get Gordon more years and money, even if it is less annually, the decision becomes a no brainier, regardless of the 2016 salary cap numbers. My best guess? 3 years and 25-30 million sounds about right. For Gordon, getting an extra $10 million and hitting free agency again before his 30th birthday is a nice hedge against his unreliable knees. From his perspective, he would still be allowed to bet on himself while having some upside.
Now, if Gordon were to opt in to his contract and play say 70 games next season while continuing his improved play he would absolutely set himself up to hit the jackpot. Tons of teams will have plenty of cap space, and assuming he continues his torrid 3 point shooting, he would be by far the best available long range shooter in a league which is leaning more and more towards the long ball every season. In my estimation, Gordon could probably net a contract somewhere in the range of 4 years $40 million, with a team option after the third year. Depending on the way the deal is constructed (declining over the contract term), this might not be a terrible signing for some 3-point hungry squad.
The only problem? He's never played more than 65 games in a single season! According to probabilities, his upside scenario has a very small chance of occurring.
It Only Takes One
Judging from some of his recent comments and a generally more likable demeanor, Gordon seems to have warmed up to NOLA and the Pelicans organization. He knows what the Pelicans are building around Anthony Davis and I think he wants to be a part of it. Unfortunately, he probably won't have the option of staying with the team beyond one more year. From a basketball perspective, Gordon simply does not fit with the Pelicans. That could always change with a few other personnel moves, but as it currently stands, I can't see a future for Gordon with the Pelicans.
If he's got smart people around him, they should see this too and push him to make the first move. In addition, Gordon's camp knows that the Pelicans have tried desperately to trade him in the past. While it's likely that he won't be moved, the Pels might be tempted to move him for something of value if he opts in before letting him walk for nothing in the summer. If you think about it, how many teams would love to trade for dead-eye shooting for the stretch run of the 2016 season? Is that worth a late first or perhaps a young player from some Eastern Conference team desperate to make the playoffs? Maybe.
The Right To Choose
An under-appreciated side of this story is that Eric Gordon, like many players at this point in their NBA careers, have never had the option to decide where they want to play or live for that matter. Imagine if you had never had the chance to decide where you want to make a living or a home. Once you got the chance to do so, you might even pass up money in favor of deciding your own fate for once in your life. For NBA players this is probably less about city itself. Amid a grueling season, they're hardly there to enjoy anything, and most players spend the off-season either travelling or stay in some other off-season home.
For professional athletes its much more about fit. Being able to decide what type of scheme you play in, what kind of coaching you will be getting, what type of players you would enjoy playing with, and having the role that you desire on a team. So often players are drafted or traded to a place where they have to be shoe horned into a style of play that they don't like nor does it fit them. This is why we see players sometimes leave a team where they under-performed only to look reborn in a new locale (See Al-Farouq Aminu). It's not because the old team stunk, it's because the player ends up on a team that fits his skill set better. Trade that same player back to his old team and you'll likely get the same results as before.
Gordon has had an over-sized role on the Pelicans this season due to the rash of injuries. With a healthy Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson to go along AD, Gordon would not be getting nearly as many shots. We witnessed that at the beginning of the season when Gordon looked lost playing with the other core players. He was basically relegated to being 3 point shooter shuffling around the perimeter. He probably envisions a bigger role than that for himself in what should be the prime of his career.
To be fair, the core of the Pelicans hasn't played together long enough to really know if they can fit. It's possible they would've worked out a happy coexistence given enough minutes, but if you're Gordon, do you stake a new contract on it?
All these data points, along with the fact that the only player shooting better from long rang than Eric Gordon this year is Kyle Korver, leads me to the conclusion that over the next few weeks we will be watching the last of Eric Gordon in a Pelicans uniform (so now is the time to star short selling Gordon jerseys).
The marriage between the Eric Gordon and Pelicans has come full circle. It started with so much hope, was rocky at best in the middle, and now will hopefully end on a high note. However all divorces are not bad; sometimes both sides are genuinely better off after separating. For Gordon, he will likely be able to blaze his own trail for the first time in his professional career. For the Pelicans, they will receive some much needed cap space to fill the numerous holes on roster and finally fix their leaky defense.
In the Batman movies, Commissioner Gordon always seemed to know what was best for Gotham. He would do what was right for the city even when it hurt him personally. To be clear, I don't think Eric Gordon will opt out because he thinks it will be best for the team. Rather, he'll realize he simply isn't a great fit for this team, he is living on borrowed time regardless, his career might be able to blossom in another Metropolis, and most of all, his creaky knees are not a smart bet.