Slowly, but surely

Eric Gordon "nowhere near" himself yet, but making strides

Jonathan Daniel

If you watched Eric Gordon in the two games since he's returned to Houston's rotation, you would think he's back to the player he was two years ago. Gordon is averaging 16.0 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting from the field and more importantly, 58.3 percent from three-point range. Prior to his right knee arthroscopy, Gordon was averaging 10.9 points per game on 30.9 percent shooting from the field and 28.4 percent shooting from three-point range. However, Gordon insists that he still has a long way to go until he feels like himself again.

"I'm not there yet,'' said Gordon at practice Thursday. "I'm getting there, but I'm nowhere near there. A few weeks, maybe a month, and I'll be at that point."

The Rockets approached Gordon's situation delicately after the surgery and were really cautious with bringing him back. Gordon could be seen traveling with the Rockets as early as a couple weeks ago and had started to ramp up his workouts with assistant coach John Lucas. There was serious speculation about Gordon returning on Christmas Day, but the Rockets had him return four days later against the New Orleans Pelicans and with a 25 minute restriction. While Gordon had worked on conditioning during his rehab, there's nothing that properly simulates the change of speed and direction in an NBA game.

"All my athleticism and explosiveness [is not there yet]," said Gordon. "I just have to continue to get in better conditioning, because it's hard to condition outside of the game, because the game is a lot harder. As time goes on, it's going to get better and better."

Before the surgery, unbeknownst to most, Gordon was dealing with significant knee pain that had gone on for months. Gordon didn't believe his knee would be as big of an issue going into this season and elected not to pursue surgery. However, after dealing with pain again at the beginning of the season and an MRI in November, it was revealed that Gordon had a piece of debris in his right knee that ultimately led to him getting the arthroscopy. Gordon would go on to miss the next 22 games, but he says the pain that once existed in his knee is gone now.

"Oh yeah, for sure," said Gordon when asked if the knee pain had subsided. "I don't really deal with that [anymore]. I just got to continue strengthening my legs and continue to get back in better shape and things will be much easier."

With teams trapping James Harden the way that they have the past couple months, the Rockets have been chomping at the bit for Gordon's return. Gordon adds a spacing element that makes the Rockets nearly indefensible if a second defender is going to double Harden. Even when Russell Westbrook's defender is cheating off him, Westbrook's drives to the rim collapse the entire defense to create several uncontested three-pointers for shooters like Gordon.

"He'll add a whole nother dimension," said Mike D'Antoni at practice. "It makes it a lot easier on everybody. [It's] another guy who can either iso or go through what we do. He spreads the floor even more than what we're spread."

An underrated dimension of Gordon's return that the Rockets have craved is his point of attack defense. When the Rockets traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, they were trading their best point-of-attack defender and putting more of an onus on guys like Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers to pick up the slack. Last season, Gordon was the primary defender Houston used on star guard Donovan Mitchell in the playoffs and it worked to a high degree of success. Mitchell was limited to 21.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 4.2 turnovers on a putrid 43.2 true shooting percentage.

"Defensively, nobody talks about him," said D'Antoni. "He's one of our best defenders on-ball and if he gets switched off, he can guard bigs."

The numbers also back up Gordon's defensive ability. The Rockets have been better defensively with Gordon on the floor as opposed to him on the bench every season he's been in Houston. In Houston's best defensive season (2017-18), Gordon had a nearly identical defensive rating (103.5) to that of Chris Paul (103.3) and P.J. Tucker (103.4). He also had a better defensive rating than Clint Capela (104.9) and Trevor Ariza (105.6).

With Houston struggling to crack the top 10 defenses in the NBA (currently 17th), Gordon has the potential to provide a boost in that he can take away minutes from Rockets players that have been negative defenders this season (Ben McLemore and Russell Westbrook specifically).

There's also something about having distance from a team and seeing where you can contribute once you do inevitably return. Gordon is someone who's been with this core group (other than Russell Westbrook) for a few years now and believes he can plug in holes that have existed for Houston this season. The Rockets have been a team this year that have bled leads, specifically when James Harden sits. Gordon, who will come off the bench for Houston, believes he can bolster that second unit and add to the consistency

"With me, I think I compliment everybody on the team," said Gordon "It's good that we've been winning. We still have highs and lows within a game where we'll have a big lead and other teams come back. We got to learn how to keep big leads throughout a game."

Gordon obviously won't shoot above fifty percent from beyond the arc all season, but Houston essentially added a talented swingman to a team that went 15-7 in his absence. It will be interesting to see if Gordon can help Houston elevate to a higher level on both ends of the floor. The Rockets certainly welcome his return.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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