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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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NBA Daily: Indiana’s X-Factor, Malcolm Brogdon

A reshaped roster and injury concerns cloud Indiana’s season outlook. But their success or failure rests on the shoulders of their new starting point guard and the many-changing roles he will play.

Chad Smith

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Over the past few seasons, the Indiana Pacers have relied upon familiarity and continuity within their roster. That will not be the case this year, as the organization massively reshaped their team over the summer.

The biggest move that the Pacers made was acquiring restricted free agent guard Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks. The price was steep, both in terms of the contract dollars and the number of assets given up. For Indiana though, it was a price worth paying.

Of course, for starters, Brogdon was the first second-round pick to win the Rookie of the Year Award since Willis Reed in 1965. Last season, the 26-year old became just the eighth player in NBA history to achieve a 50-40-90 season, while his 93 percent free throw rate was the best in the league. Among guards, Brogdon had the fourth-best effective field goal percentage.

The numbers are fantastic, but how will the three-year veteran fit into the Pacers’ system? Several factors will determine that. Chief among them is the absence of the franchise player, Victor Oladipo. The All-Star guard is recovering from a devastating long-term injury and is not expected to be back on the floor until after Christmas.

In Milwaukee, Brogdon was thrust into many different positions but was never a ball-dominant point guard, owning a usage rate of just about 20 percent. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the newly-crowned MVP, did many things for the Bucks, including handling the ball and drawing in defenders. The spacing will not be the same for Brogdon in Indiana, especially without Oladipo.

On paper, the Brogdon fit seems perfect. In the initial stages of the season, he will need to be the motor for the offense. He is terrific with the ball going downhill and getting into the teeth of the defense — a feat that results in a high number of kick-outs and free throw attempts.

The biggest concern will be if he is still able to maximize that part of his game with two big men on the floor — spacing is everything. Last season, Brogdon shot 31 percent from downtown when a defender was more than six feet away. He has a slow release, so the best solution might be to use Domantas Sabonis as a pivot point for the offense. Notably, Brogdon is exceptional at making plays coming off of a dribble handoff.

Indiana’s first 11 games are very favorable, too, and they will travel to India for a pair of preseason games against the Sacramento Kings. Brogdon will have ample time to gel with the team before Oladipo is healthy. When that time comes, Brogdon should have no problem sliding into the role of an off-ball initiator. He is a malleable backcourt pairing for Oladipo, easily taking the pressure off of him without actually taking anything away from him.

Standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Brogdon will be a sizeable upgrade over Darren Collison. His size, length and defensive prowess will be a welcomed addition to the backcourt. During his senior campaign at Virginia, Malcolm became the first player in ACC history to win both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. With Indiana’s already massive frontcourt, the Pacers will boast one of the larger starting lineups in the league.

While Brogdon may not be at the top of the opposing team’s scouting report, he has been the picture of consistency throughout his career. He has done so while working with both the starters and the second unit too. He has three years of playoff experience that he brings to the table, but staying healthy may be his biggest challenge.

After missing an entire season in college due to a foot problem, the injuries followed Brogdon to the NBA. He has played in just 187 games in three full seasons. Last year, Malcolm missed seven weeks with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot. He appeared in just 48 games the year before that, after suffering a partially torn quad tendon. Still, the potential is undeniable.

Despite the injuries, Brogdon has improved his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding and scoring averages each year. His leadership and ability to play multiple positions is something the Pacers will lean on heavily in the first few months of the season — and will continue to do so even after Oladipo makes his way back.

Given the circumstances, the Pacers’ success this season will hinge heavily on the shoulders of a second-round pick. Then again, Brogdon has already proven that he is so much more than that.

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NBA Daily: The Most Underrated Departures

A lot can be made about the under-the-radar players that teams pick up, but not enough is made about the under-the-radar players that teams lose. Matt John elaborates.

Matt John

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When comparing the loss of a star player to the loss of a glue player, there’s no question which one is worse. Losing a star can set back a franchise for years, with so many questions surrounding what they should do next in light of his departure. Losing a glue player doesn’t make as much of a sting, but it can make all the difference in a playoff series.

It’s a shame that Golden State had all the injuries that it did. Because, had the Warriors been at full health, we would have seen one of the most obvious advantages the Raptors had over them – their glue guys. The Raptors had plenty of them at their disposal while the Warriors’ glue guys had slowly disintegrated into a shell of the depth they once had.

Before Durant’s injury, Golden State had enough star power to match up with Toronto’s, but Toronto’s glue players rounded out the edges whereas Golden State’s could not. That made a big difference in how the NBA Finals turned out.

Which brings us to this summer. This may have been the most epic player movement in one offseason. The highlight has been the movement among the players considered among the upper class.

A fair amount of quality teams lost their star players this year. Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Boston lost Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler. None of these teams replaced their departed stars with players who can do everything they can, but their replacements can do enough to keep the team afloat.

It’s a rarity to see playoff teams that lose their star players make such an effort to replace them. What’s not a rarity is that these teams also lost some of their glue players in the process. Since so many big names switched teams this offseason, their decisions have overshadowed the role players who have done the same.

This won’t be the case next summer when the NBA has one of its weakest free agency classes it’s had in years, but not enough has been made about the glue guys who find themselves on different teams this summer. Let’s take a look at who would fit that bill.

JJ Redick – Philadelphia 76ers

The acquisitions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford – on top of paying top dollar to re-sign Tobias Harris – has overshadowed the loss of the man who helped kick “The Process” into a higher gear.

Redick was a brilliant addition for the 76ers. With Simmons slated to play his rookie year and Embiid itching to capitalize on his promising rookie season, Philadelphia knew that it was too good to be a bottom dweller. With the centerpieces coming into place, the team needed immediate help. With all the cap room in the world, it added a surefire contributor with Redick.

JJ’s all-around abilities as a player are not what they once were, but what he is best at showed up so beautifully that it made him worth every penny in Philly. Because Philly used his elite three-point shooting as a focal point of its offense, Redick averaged career-highs in points per game in his two years as a Sixer.

Averaging 17.1 points per game in one season then 18 the next doesn’t usually happen with players entering their mid-thirties. The 76ers basically used JJ the same way the Hawks used Kyle Korver, only at a higher volume. Offensively, he may have never looked better in his entire career.

Because Redick’s shooting fit so snugly next to Simmons and Embiid – the three-man trio was the most used three-man lineup by Philly last year – his three-point shot became a weapon. Now that weapon is gone.

Richardson and Horford are adequate three-point shooters, but their ability to shoot the longball isn’t as intimidating as Redick’s is. Compared to Redick, their three-point shots are not accurate nor quick enough that other teams would frantically do everything to make sure their shot couldn’t see a glimmer of daylight.

The Sixers should be fine this season, but adjusting to Redick is not going to be easy. Especially for Simmons and Embiid, who lest we forget are their two cornerstones.

Aron Baynes – Boston Celtics

There was some temptation to put Al Horford on this list, but those in the know can see clear as day that going from Horford to Enes Kanter is a downgrade for the Celtics. Boston’s going to miss Horford the most out of all the players it lost, but losing Baynes is really going hurt the team’s defense in the post.

There are lots of reasons as to why the Celtics disappointed as badly as they did. There’s no reason to rehash everything because you probably saw it yourself. In regards what Baynes has to do with it, well, an injury-plagued season had him play in only 51 games.

In the 31 games that Baynes was absent, the Celtics went 17-14. When taking into effect that the Celtics won 49 games in total, it’s not totally out of left field to suggest that maybe they could have added a few more wins, and then some, had Baynes avoided the injury bug.

His unavailability definitely played a role in how the Celtics defensive rating went from 103.8 to 108 in 2019. Since the defense allowed 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor – the highest among players who played 800 minutes or more – they missed what he could do when he was out last season, and it’ll be the same reason why they’re going to miss him in his entirety this season.

To make things worse, Baynes and Horford made for one terrific frontcourt duo. In their first season, the two of them together combined for a defensive rating of 95.5. The next season, that defensive rating was 98.5. Baynes doesn’t have the typical criteria for a shot-blocker, but the results speak for themselves. When he’s on the court, he makes life hell in the paint.

Boston had to trade him in order to get the cap space to bring Kemba Walker in. With a star like that, sacrificing Baynes is more than understandable, but his absence should be felt.

The real question is, why exactly did Phoenix go out of its way to get him?

Al-Farouq Aminu/Moe Harkless – Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers lost a lot of players that helped them reach their first Conference Finals since 2000. Enes Kanter. Evan Turner. Seth Curry. Harkless and Aminu stand out the most among them because they’ve been with the team since 2015 – the year Portland lost LaMarcus Aldridge – and have been in the starting lineup for most of that time.

Losing continuity can really hurt. In Portland’s case, there’s more to this than just losing two players that they relied on. They didn’t replace what they can do. Both Harkless and Aminu are wings capable of playing power forward in a small-ball lineup. This summer, the Blazers added Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja and retained Rodney Hood.

Bazemore is a two/three tweener who’s barely played power forward. Hezonja has played some power forward, but he hasn’t really put it together. Hood played a fair amount of power forward in this year’s playoffs, but in the regular season, not so much. Most of the minutes he’s played are at small forward.

There is a gap there that one way or the other, Portland is going to have to fill. Neither Aminu nor Harkless are the best three-point shooters – Harkless’ three-ball somehow went to hell this season – but their defense will sorely be missed. Harkless has a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.69 while Aminu had one of 1.46. While not the best, both finished in the top-20 in their respective positions.

With Jusuf Nurkic out for who knows how long, Portland definitely had to do something to fill that gap. Trading Harkless for Hassan Whiteside – in a contract year – was a move the Blazers had to make even if it’s just a stopgap.

Losing both continuity and versatility can definitely hurt when you’re trying to pounce on a tough, but wide-open Western Conference. If the Blazers want to go further than they did last year, they need to address this before the season starts.

Glue guys are important, but what they bring to the court can be replaceable in some cases. Fans should really keep an eye out on how buyout season goes because, with all the contracts that are set to expire this year, we could see a lot of talent on the open market six months from now.

The teams that lost these players have the privilege of waiting to see how they fare. Even if losing a role player doesn’t sting as much as losing an All-Star does, getting someone who can replace what he does can make all the difference between winning the championship and getting eliminated in the opening round in this day and age.

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Isaiah Thomas Facing Uphill Battle In Returning To Form

Isaiah Thomas has an opportunity for a great comeback season with the Washington Wizards – but did Thomas take too long to address his hip injury with surgery? David Weissman writes.

David Weissman

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Like the long ball, everyone loves a good comeback story.

This offseason, the NBA world had been enamored with the comeback story of DeMarcus Cousins. After two major leg injuries in a 15 month period, the association was waiting to see how the six-time All-Star would bounce back this season. Those speculations ended when Cousins tore his ACL in a pickup game last week, taking him out for the entire 2019-2020 campaign.

With Cousins’ return consuming the NBA world, many overlooked another comeback superstar – Isaiah Thomas. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old guard, he may be facing permanent damage to his hip that will prevent a fairy tale ending.

Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year since with the Washington Wizards. Thomas faces long odds for a comeback story, but he has been the quintessential underdog from the beginning of his career.

Ultimate Underdog

In the 2011 NBA Draft, Thomas was the last player selected, mainly due to skepticism over his 5-foot-9 stature. After being selected by the Sacramento Kings, there were no expectations Thomas would be a contributor his first year. Despite those predictions, he ended the season as a starter.

For three years Thomas maintained the starting role and ended his tenure with the Kings averaging 20 points per game. Instead of re-signing him, the Kings refused to match an offer sheet of 4-years/$28 million and let him go to the Phoenix Suns, a bargain especially getting a free agent with a stat line of 20.3 PPG, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

Thomas was traded to the Celtics in 2015 and had been considered an MVP caliber talent by the end of his first season in Boston. At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics. He led them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 by averaging 28.9 points per game. Thomas showed devotion to the Boston Celtics by playing through a torn hip labral injury he sustained during the regular season. The injury forced him to sit out two-and-a-half games in the conference finals, which led to a Celtics defeat in the series.

Despite his success, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge ignored what Thomas did during his tenure and focused on what Thomas could provide for the future. Ainge viewed Thomas as being an injured, under-sized point guard with aspirations of a maximum contract down the road. The Celtics avoided giving Thomas an extension by trading him away to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Ainge saw Irving as a more talented, stable point guard that the Celtics could build around.

After the Celtics playoff run, Thomas was diagnosed with a right femoral-acetabular impingement, a bruised hip and labral tear. Thomas decided to forgo surgery and do non-surgical treatment, usually preferred by most athletes. This treatment postponed Thomas’ debut with the Cavaliers until Jan. 2, 2019 and he ended up only playing 14 games with the team. Thomas was then traded to the Lakers due to locker room issues and played 17 games before finally opting for hip surgery.

Thomas was primed to earn a max-level contract after his 2017 season. However, after a season full of off-court drama and injury, Thomas only got a one-year veteran minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. Thomas made his debut with the Nuggets this past February after recovering from his hip surgery and only played 12 games last season. Due to a packed Nuggets backcourt, Thomas averaged career lows in minutes played, field goal percentage, three point percentage and points per game.

Coming into 2019-20 season, Thomas has signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard-hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. The question is: Did Thomas take too long to address his hip injury with surgery? And what lasting effect will that have on his career? A torn labral in the hip is not an injury with a high success rate of full recovery for NBA players.

Injury

A labral hip tear occurs when there is damage to the labrum (ring of cartilage) within the hip joint (ball and socket joint) due to irregular movement in the hip. In some cases, if the injury to the labrum is not repaired in time, permanent damage can be done to cartilage causing early on-set arthritis. When Thomas tore the labrum in his hip, it was due to a right femoral-acetabular impingement. A hip impingement is when an abnormal bone in the hip joint causes unusual contact between the ball and socket, sometimes tearing the cartilage.

Once torn, the labrum tissue in the hip does not heal on its own and surgery can remove or repair torn labral tissue. Currently, there are no procedures that will replace cartilage in the hip to prevent early on-set arthritis. The damage to the cartilage is permanent and will continue to cause severe pain. If injury to the hip is not that severe, athletes prefer to treat the issue with physical therapy by maximizing the strength and mobility of the hip to minimize the stress placed on the injured area.

Thomas played through his labral tear through the 2016-2017 season and postponed surgery 32 games after he tried to rehab the injury. The biggest issue for Thomas is whether the problem has been neglected so long that the impingement causes permanent cartilage damage and leads to arthritis. It is unknown how much damage has been done to his cartilage, but this would be the biggest obstacle to making a full comeback. Based on the lingering issues with his hip, it would not be surprising if he is facing early on-set arthritis.

Possible Outcomes

The success rate for the average person has not translated to the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the few who came back from this injury and succeeded. Aldridge was a freshman at the University of Texas when he tore his hip labrum and successfully came back from the injury after undergoing only nine months of rehab. Six years later, Aldridge suffered another tear to his hip labrum, but decided to undergo surgery. He came back six-and-a-half months later and has had an All-Star career without any other hip injury.

On the other hand, 6-foot Johnny Flynn – a similar sized point guard to Thomas – had surgery in July 2010 after his rookie season. The former number six overall pick played his final NBA game in 2012.

Martell Webster, a 10-year veteran, underwent surgery in November 2015 to repair a partial tear in his right hip labrum. 21 months later, Webster was signed to the Charlotte Hornets training camp, but got cut five days later.

Lastly, Wilson Chandler missed significant time from multiple labrum tears and subsequent surgeries from 2010 to 2016, but he has been healthy and decently productive since the beginning of the 2016-2017 season.

Isaiah Thomas took over the basketball world in 2016 and dominated at a level very few people thought was possible for his size. The Wizards hope Thomas can recover and return to MVP form, again proving all the critics wrong. Unfortunately for Thomas, small guards like himself do not have the best track record of coming back from a torn labral, and his future really depends on how much damage has been done to the cartilage in his hip.

Playing through the torn labrum from 2016 to 2018 without surgery may have cut Thomas’ career short. With continued lingering hip issues, there is a significant possibility that he is facing early on-set arthritis, a condition that could ultimately keep him from returning to MVP form.

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