After the quest for the elusive second star, perhaps the greatest subplot of the James Harden era has been the search for an appropriate backcourt running mate. In Harden’s first season, the team paired the Beard with fellow blockbuster acquisition Jeremy Lin, another ball dominating guard who thrived in the pick and roll. While its been my opinion that Lin fared better than history will recall, the fit was awkward at best. Patrick Beverley then supplanted Lin, but his playmaking limitations left the ball handling responsibilities on Harden entirely too burdensome. Beverley was then moved to the bench and Ty Lawson was acquired, resulting in one of the most disappointing seasons in Houston sports history; Lawson was useless off the ball and Harden needed it, not to mention the other demons the former was facing. Enter Eric Gordon, who shared the backcourt with Harden in the season’s opening stretch, and now is anchoring Houston’s formidable bench mob after the return of a resurgent Patrick Beverley.
Readers will recall I was downright euphoric over the announcement of the Gordon signing this offseason. While his injury history was a risk, his ability to both spot up off the ball–unlike Lawson–and also score off the dribble made him, in theory, an ideal offensive counterpart to James Harden. Coming into this season, Gordon was just a year removed from a 2014-2015 campaign in which he knocked down almost 45% of his three-point attempts. This year, thus far, at the time of writing, Gordon is shooting threes at 43%. He’s made 70 assisted threes, and 20 unassisted. And 40 of those 70 assisted threes were off passes from James Harden.
It’s a great outlet for Harden to have Gordon spotting up out of the Harden pick and roll. Just an inch of daylight gives Gordon enough space to make the defense pay for loading up on James.
Look how far Gordon sets up. While Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley shot healthy percentages last year, they wouldn’t have been able to get this shot off from this distance.
Here’s Gordon from way downtown. Upon noticing that he’s seemingly more comfortable from a further distance, I went to confirm: indeed, at the time of writing, Gordon has shot 24-64 on three point attempts between 20 and 24 feet, for 37.5%. Conversely, he’s shot 65-137 on threes between 25 and 29 feet for a ridiculous 47.4%! The deeper he is, the better he is, and that makes things work – just an extra foot of space means an extra foot a rotating defender has to cover after helping onto James Harden.
Thus far, Gordon is shooting 46.2% on left corner threes, 26.7% on right corner threes, and 45.5% on threes above the break.
What makes Gordon lethal is that he’s not just a spot-up shooter. He can pull up, like above. I noted in the offseason that he shot 48% overall on pullup jumpers last year. This year, at the time of writing, he’s shooting 53.6% and 56.5% (13-23) on pullup threes!
Gordon’s a traditional shooting guard, which means you can use him on plays like this one, especially when Harden rests.
But this was what I was most excited about, and the abilities that I think most Rockets fans were unaware of. Eric Gordon is not just a shooter. While injuries have robbed him of the athleticism that made him the most promising young shooting guard in the league, he still has the ball handling and shiftiness to create something out of nothing for himself when the shot clock winds down.
The Rockets haven’t had anyone in the James Harden era who could make plays like the above. I argued recently that Gordon is already the second best offensive player of the James Harden era. Early Dwight was good, yes, but he never quite meshed with Harden the way Houston likely envisioned during that now infamous meeting in Los Angeles. Eric Gordon amplifies James Harden’s strengths by extending the floor when its shared, and alleviating his burden when the latter is off of it.
As good as Gordon was sharing the floor with Harden in Beverley’s absence, he’s been dynamite since heading to the bench to anchor the second unit. Gordon’s best 3-man unit is the trio of Beverley, Brewer, and Gordon, a combination that has produced a +16.3 in 157 minutes; the trio of Brewer, Dekker, and Gordon is a +13.5 in 220 minutes; the duo of Montrezl Harrell and Gordon is a +19.4 in 139 minutes, and the duo of Beverley and Gordon is a +16.2 in 194 minutes. The Houston bench has been instrumental during its current nine game winning streak.
I had argued in the offseason that I hoped Mike D’Antoni would start Gordon in place of Beverley. Part of my reasoning at the time pertained to what I perceived as Beverley’s decline in production, a point that is moot now. Beverley might be playing the best basketball of his career. But while almost everyone agreed on the merits of the offensive fit, the drawbacks to starting Gordon concerned his defensive inabilities. In essence, it would be suicide to start two defenders as porous as Gordon and Harden in concert in the backcourt.
Thus far, Eric Gordon has a defensive RPM of -1.2. He hasn’t been good at that end. But Bradley Beal is at -1.35, and J.J. Reddick is coming in currently at -1.12. Reddick in particular is part of one of the best units in basketball per net rating. Beyond that, Houston’s net rating with Gordon and Harden together is +7.4. They have an offensive rating of 111.1 and a defensive rating of 103.6. The point here, which I made in the offseason, is that when you’re that good offensively, you can survive defensively.
The question now for Gordon is health. He’s signed for the next three seasons through his age 30 season. Patrick Beverley is locked in for two more years after this one, also through his age 30 season, and James Harden ceremoniously was extended this past summer. After so many years of searching for the proper fit, Houston will have this trio–this perfect blend of talents–signed together through each player’s basketball prime. But Gordon has never played more than 64 games in a season since his rookie year; he’s played in all of Houston’s games so far this season.
I’ve argued that Beverley/Harden/Gordon is undoubtedly a championship backcourt nucleus. Houston is still missing something upfront and Daryl Morey will have to work to acquire that final piece. But finally, after so many years, I believe the Rockets are completely set at the guard positions.