Nobody has made more three-pointers so far during the 2016-17 NBA season than the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry. That's no surprise: Steph has led the NBA in treys four years running, and it's more likely than not that he'll continue to do so for as long as he's able to lift his arms over his head. The surprise is who is second on that list. Not Klay Thompson or Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum or James Harden or Kyle Lowry or Kyle Korver or J.J. Redick or anyone else who has finished in the top five in made threes in any of the past five seasons. It's Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon.
In terms of sheer volume and hit rate, Gordon is sniping from three this season like Steph did during his first MVP campaign. (In other words, at a rate previously unheard of before 2014.) Gordon's launching from deep 8.2 times a night, and he's knocked down 43.9 percent of those attempts so far. Compare that to 2014-15 Curry, who connected on 44.3 percent of 8.1 attempts a night. They obviously came to those attempts in different ways: Gordon plays primarily off the ball and Steph almost always has it in his hands, so 67 percent of Gordon's attempted threes have been of the catch-and-shoot variety while the same was true of only 43 percent of Curry's attempts two years ago. But yeah, it's been that kind of start to the season, and we're now almost a third of the way through.
Several factors are contributing to Gordon's uptick. First, there's the fit. Watching a Rockets game, it would be hard to blame you for feeling that Gordon wasn't so much born back in 1988 as he was constructed in a lab with the express purpose of having him play for Mike D'Antoni one day. Gordon has always been at his best when allowed to be aggressive and when given the opportunity to attack if he has an advantage on his matchup. There isn't a more aggressive or attack-minded coach than D'Antoni. Gordon must have recognized this on some level, because when he hit true free agency for the first time in his career (the Pelicans famously matched a max contract he signed with the Suns in restricted free agency in 2012, even after Gordon publicly stated that his heart was in Phoenix), he made sure he got himself down to Houston to play for Mike D. It's been such a good fit that Gordon has even willingly moved to the bench, something he scoffed at in New Orleans.
That brings us to the second factor: Gordon's bifurcated role. Early in the season, while Patrick Beverley was still working his way back from injury, Gordon spent most of his time on the floor playing off the ball, next to James Harden. Gordon started nine of the first 11 games and he fared quite well: 16.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in 32.4 minutes per game with a 42-40-85 shooting line that translated to a .567 true shooting percentage.
Gordon has been even sharper coming off the bench, though. He's chipped in 18.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 29.6 minutes per game, with a 46-47-75 shooting line that translates to what would be a career-high .625 true shooting percentage. And he's done it while being asked to create more of his own looks: 43 percent of his baskets since moving to the bench have been unassisted, compared to 26 percent as an early-season starter.
The key has been his work during the 11 minutes a night he now plays next to Beverley rather than Harden, shifts during which he acts as the primary ball-handler and top scoring option. In those minutes, Gordon is carrying a monstrous 35.1 percent usage rate, per NBAWOWY, and an utterly absurd .703 true shooting percentage as well. That work has helped Houston go from getting outscored by 22.1 points per 100 possessions with Harden off the floor through their first 11 games, to annihilating opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions in Harden-less minutes over their last 13 contests. That'll go a long way toward turning a ho-hum 6-5 start into a scorching 12-2 push featuring wins over the Blazers (twice), the Jazz, the Warriors, the Celtics, and the Thunder.
The flexibility to be one kind of player when Harden is on the court and another entirely when he leaves has made Gordon a key swing player in the Rockets' three-guard rotation. His shooting and gravity when he plays off the ball make him a perfect fit for the Harden-led offense. For stretches, he's another in the army of shooters surrounding the endless series of pick-and-rolls the guy with the Beard navigates. He slides from one passing lane to another, always ready to fire or to attack a helpless closeout defender with a pump fake and drive, all at a moment's notice. They've even become dangerous when working 1-2 pick-and-rolls themselves.
Then, as soon as the guy orchestrating it all takes a seat on the bench, Gordon moves into the driver's seat. He enters attack mode, hunting for his shot both off the catch and off the bounce, from all areas of the floor.
You may be wondering where, exactly, this "Phoenix Suns Era Joe Johnson" version of Eric Gordon has been, and that's where we get to the "slow your roll" portion of the program. He's been on the floor for all 25 of the Rockets' games so far, but the deepest Gordon has played into any season since his rookie year without getting hurt is 41 games. He played only 56 percent of the Hornets/Pelicans' contests during his five seasons in New Orleans, with games-missed totals of 57, 40, 18, 21, and 37. Being in a bench role where he plays fewer minutes and is basically acting as a standstill shooter for much of his time on the floor should help ease his physical burden, but this is still a guy prone to breaking down playing for a coach who loves riding his horses, many of whom have eventually broken down themselves.
D'Antoni and Gordon have struck up a perfect marriage here, but they also have a delicate balance to maintain in order to make sure it lasts, not just through this season but over the next four years of Gordon's deal. They have to be careful to put as much on Gordon's plate as he can handle but not more, lest he buckle under the weight. Luckily, they have a good foundation supporting them that should allow both men to thrive.
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