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NBA Saturday: The Stakes Are High for Eric Gordon This Season

Eric Gordon stands to earn a big contract next summer if he can overcome his health issues.

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When the then-New Orleans Hornets (later renamed the Pelicans) traded Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, most people agreed that Eric Gordon was the best asset heading for the Big Easy.

Gordon was coming off his best NBA season, where he averaged 22.3 points, 4.4 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 36.4 percent from three-point range. He was the wing-man to Blake Griffin, who, along with Eric Bledsoe, DeAndre Jordan and Al-Farouq Aminu, were supposed to usher in a new era of Clippers basketball. However, in New Orleans, Gordon was pegged as the new go-to guy that would be a foundational piece for the Hornets’ future.

Unfortunately, despite hitting a game-winning jumper in his debut with the Hornets, Gordon’s first season in New Orleans did not go well. Gordon injured his knee in his debut game, which required surgery, limiting him to just nine games in the 2011-12 campaign. Despite the disappointing season, Gordon signed a four-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns, which the Hornets eventually matched (despite Gordon stating that his heart was in Phoenix).

In the three years since signing that deal, Gordon has continued to play below expectations. He has struggled with several injuries, consistency and has often deferred to his teammates. With his role diminished, his declining scoring averages and ongoing injury issues, the once held belief that Gordon could be one of the best all-around shooting guards in the league has dissipated.

Now entering the final year of his current contract, the stakes are high for Gordon. He is still just 26 years old, and showed last season that, when healthy, he is capable of being a major contributor on the court. With a new, offensively-minded head coach in Alvin Gentry, an already dominant and improving teammate in Anthony Davis, the salary cap set to increase dramatically after next season and a somewhat shallow crop of to be free agents, Gordon is well-positioned to earn himself a big contract by playing well this season.

The big questions are whether or not Gordon is capable of playing at a top-tier level, and whether he can show that he can remain healthy for a full season.

On the first question, Gordon showed for the majority of last season that he can be an impact-player. Kyle Korver and Stephen Curry set the league on fire with historically great shooting seasons. However, the player with the second best three-point percentage last season was Gordon (44.8), which is surprising considering he was 81st in three-point percentage two seasons ago. In addition, Gordon was in the 93rd percentile in spot-up shooting last season, hitting 43.7 of his spot-up jumpers. That places Gordon ahead of other well-paid, knock-down shooters like Danny Green, James Harden, DeMarre Carroll, Kyrie Irving and Wesley Matthews.

Gordon’s improved shooting is, at least in part, a result of a slight tweak in his shooting mechanics. Last summer, Gordon added a sweep-and-sway motion to his shot; a motion that is supposed to help a player’s shoulders sway back, improving the arc of their shot. The small change seems to have paid off and it’s possible Gordon could keep improving since he was somewhat inconsistent incorporating the sweep-and-sway last season. With another offseason to work on his shot, it is possible Gordon could be an even better shooter next season.

This will only be possible if Gordon can maintain his health. As Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson said earlier this year, Gordon’s improved shooting is directly tied to his improving health.

“It’s his health,” Vinson said in March. “Just being healthy, it means that his body is in balance. His shooting mechanics are on balance. He’s able to move fluidly, get to a spot, get his feet set and get his balance. Then, having the strength and the power from his legs. That’s a huge part of shooting, particularly from long range. With how deep the three-point line is in the NBA, there is less room for error. You’ve really got to be on-balance, and have the leg strength to get the ball there, so that you’re not shooting the ball just with your upper body.

“What helps is he’s getting the reps up, because he’s healthy now,” Vinson added. “He’s more apt to be in the gym getting up extra shots, as opposed to being in the training room, trying to protect his body and prepare himself to be able to play. Now that he’s healthy, he can get out on the court early before shootaround, or get extra shots in after practice. He’s able to say, ‘OK, I feel good, I can get those extra shots up.’ His health has been huge.”

When healthy, Gordon is also a strong player off the dribble. While he is not a great ball-handler like Kyrie Irving, he is good enough to create his own offense by attacking the rim and handling the ball in pick-and-roll sets. Other knock-down shooting guards like Danny Green and Kyle Korver are generally unable to score the ball unless a teammate finds them for an open jumper. This separates Gordon from a lot of other wing-players and keeps him from being pegged strictly as a 3-and-D player.

In addition to his offensive game, Gordon is a strong athlete that is a tough-defensive player. While he is undersized at 6’4, Gordon is surprisingly strong and does a good job of defending opposing wing-players. Gordon is not a lock-down defender like Tony Allen or Danny Green, but he is solid. In fact, with the Clippers, Gordon was viewed as the team’s best wing-defender and often guarded the opposing team’s best scoring guard, or forward. His ability to play both ends of the court should help his cause when he becomes a free agent as teams place a lot of value in well-rounded players that are not liabilities on one end of the court.

Pelicans fans may want Gordon to take a significant pay cut to stay in New Orleans since he hasn’t lived up to his contract thus far, but this is very unlikely to happen considering the league’s financial landscape. With the cap expected to rise, some knock-down shooters earned some big contracts this offseason. Wesley Matthews, who is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, secured a four-year, $70 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks. Khris Middleton agreed to a five-year, $70 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. DeMarre Carroll signed a four-year, $60 million contract with the Toronto Raptors. Danny Green locked in a four-year, $45 million deal with the San Antonio Spurs, though his contract is considered a bargain and he could have likely earned more on the open market.

Matthews is set to earn more than $17 million a season with a surgically repaired Achilles. Middleton will make more than $14 million a season despite the fact that he is more of a 3-and-D wing and struggles to score off the dribble. Carroll is set to earn $15 million a season despite being 29 years old and averaging just 7.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game for his career. This is simply the new NBA economy with the NBA’s new TV deal coming into effect after this upcoming season.

Assuming Gordon can play roughly 70 games or so, continue shooting the ball well from distance and continue his solid play on defense, he should be in line for a significant new contract next offseason. This is especially true when we consider that the list of notable free agent shooting guards after this season is limited to: Kobe Bryant (37), Jamal Crawford (35), Joe Johnson (34), Dwyane Wade (33), Courtney Lee (29), O.J. Mayo (27), Gerald Henderson (27), Dion Waiters (23) and Bradley Beal (22). Bryant, Crawford, Johnson and Wade are all in the tail end of their respective careers, Beal and Waiters will likely be restricted free agents and Mayo has failed to produce consistently, despite being relatively healthy throughout his career. Lee and Henderson, like Gordon, could likely secure sizable contracts, though neither has ever had the stature that Gordon held earlier in his career.

With the rising cap, more than half the league will suddenly be armed with free agent spending power after this season. However, Kevin Durant is arguably the only unrestricted free agent deserving of a max-deal, while the other best free agents will likely be restricted, which could deter teams from making serious offers. The likelihood is that there will be at least one team that is willing to take a chance on Gordon and offer him a sizable, long-term deal, especially if he puts together a solid season. However, if Gordon suffers through another injury-riddled season, teams may shy away from offering him the sort of long-term money that a player of his caliber may otherwise expect.

Considering this, there is no doubt that the stakes are high for Eric Gordon this upcoming season.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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