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 future is bright for the Astros. Composite image by Jack Brame.

2020 has shown us lots of things. A few of the things it's shown us is that anything is possible, expect the unexpected, and do not be surprised at the outcome. Well, the Astros checked all three of those boxes in this pandemic season and post season. Anything was possible when they finished the 60 game season 29-31 and barely made the playoffs (yes, the new format helped, but they made it). We should've expected the unexpected when they were able to beat the Twins in the first round 2-0 after the A's ran away with the division this season. We for damn sure shouldn't have been surprised at the outcome of their ALCS series when they forced Tampa to a game seven after being down 3-0 because this team is experienced and scrappy. We are talking about the team that's made it to the ALCS four years running and won it all in 2017.

Sure, there are some high dollar guys that mean a lot to this team that they may lose (looking squarely at George Springer and Michael Brantley), but that's the end of it. They'll also be without Justin Verlander after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Some will say coming back from a 3-0 deficit to force a game seven was good enough. They'll tell this team to accept its fate and fall into the background. They replaced their manager and general manager after the cheating scandal, no way they can move forward and succeed right? (insert your favorite GTFOH GIF)

Springer and Brantley could both leave as free agents

This team may not be thought of a contender moving forward, but I have faith in the talent that's still there. I believe Jim Crane knows who and what he can't live without moving forward, so I think he'll shell out the cash necessary to keep guys like Springer and Brantley...as long as it's within reason. Crane won't, and shouldn't, get into a bidding war with another team for either guy, but I think he will make a fair offer to both. Verlander being out in his last season under contract is a big blow. However, I think it can work to the team's advantage.

Let's say they're only able to bring back Springer OR Brantley, but Kyle Tucker takes that next step. Let's say Forrest Whitley, Framber Valdez, and Jose Urquidy all take that next step while Lance McCullers continues his accent. What will the league say when Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman return to their previously dominant forms? All of this speaks to the continued era of the dominant Astros.

Even if they lose Brantley and/or Springer this offseason, I still think they have enough in place to keep the lineup competitive and threatening. The pitching staff has enough firepower to put some fear into opposing lineups. If they continue to make the right moves and develop the talent they have in-house, this team won't fall off or take a dip. Instead, they'll continue to be a force if they hold true to the talent they have, and acquire the complimentary talent they need to accent the players they have now. The pitching staff will be in good hands. McCullers, Framber, and Urquidy are guys I feel that can carry the load. Meanwhile, Forrest Whitley is waiting in the wings. Kyle Tucker is poised for the next step in the lineup, and Captain Correa clearly established himself as a leader this post season.

The future is bright for Astros fans. If ownership and the front office pony up the money to keep some guys, it'll be even better.

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