The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.
I want to talk about Eric Gordon because more people should and not enough do. How many players in the entire league—who have his talent and pedigree—would be happy occupying the intricate space Gordon does, in the collective shadow of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, and even P.J. Tucker? The more I watch him this year, the more I appreciate how he feels like the personification of an overlooked albeit crucial cog; a barometer for the Houston Rockets, which also makes him a pivotal character in the narrative of this season.
Fighting through an early-season slump that he’s determined to burn through with the help of his own comically short-term memory, the Houston Rockets need Gordon to be so much more than an accessory from here on out. Pre-Chris Paul, he was James Harden’s right-hand man in a situation that inevitably provided little oxygen for anyone but James Harden. Gordon won the Three-Point Contest, claimed Sixth Man of the Year, and ended his first year in Houston with more threes than everyone except Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and his own bearded teammate.
Since then, he's comfortably shined outside Harden’s orbit, punishing defenders who want nothing more than a moment to catch their breath after the ball gets swung his way. What they get instead is a mental breakdown. His self-reliance—Gordon has no conscience and knows he’s good enough to get where he wants without a screen—is their worst nightmare. He’s a pugnacious, perma-green light who’s happy to launch a picturesque jumper whenever a defender starts tap dancing at the sight of his jab step (or ducks under a pick 30 feet from the basket).
Gordon's pressure is relentless. He’s a one-man salvo of between-the-leg dribbles that seemingly have no purpose until they magically catapult him into the paint. According to Synergy Sports, the only players who’ve been more efficient on at least 30 isolation plays are Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal, and Kemba Walker. He can hit Capela with a pocket pass and lull defenders into a panic as part of Houston’s devastating Spanish pick-and-roll; every once in a while he tries to end someone’s life by exhibiting a genuinely sneaky athletic burst above the rim.
The Rockets can’t function properly for 48 minutes on either end without Gordon, but they’d especially struggle to master the switch-everything defense he’s built to thrive in. Like, how many guards who do all the stuff Gordon does on offense can also switch onto a bear and not get mauled? His low center of gravity is appreciated, but he also understands how to shrink the floor after that initial switch, so whoever then defends his assignment doesn’t feel like they’re on an island.
Gordon is currently shooting 35.4 percent and the first few weeks of this season featured a four-game stretch in which he launched 67 shots and made only 18 of them, but all in all he might be the single biggest reason I'm not worried about the Rockets. We know his splits will course correct—his True Shooting percentage is 57.5 in the last five games—because his struggle doesn't affect his shot selection. Gordon lives without brakes. He’ll miss a layup on one play and then jack up a quick three the next time down. If it's an airball, he'll take an even deeper shot 15 seconds later. When the defense gives something, he takes it.
Contrast that audaciousness with his expressionless demeanor and what you get is Gordon’s own brand of fortitude, a resiliency that makes you wonder how high his numbers would soar as the first option in Orlando or Brooklyn. When he’s on the floor, Houston’s offense scores 13.6 more points per 100 possessions than when he’s not (from second best to the third-worst offense in the league). Nobody could even attempt to play quite like Gordon does without losing minutes. He's two steps to the left of the spotlight, with a mentality so daring it borders on reckless. Gaudy, stone-faced, and even more threatening outside the parameters of Houston’s system while quintessentially representing what Mike D’Antoni wants it to look like, Gordon is not a perfect player. But watching him steer his skill-set beneath the general NBA fan's radar, on a team that's all in to win it all, is a pleasure to behold.