If Forced to Choose, Should Pelicans Keep Tyreke Evans or Eric Gordon?
Bringing in the diverse talents of Tyreke Evans was a considerable boon for the New Orleans Pelicans this offseason. His addition, however, stirs questions about returning guard Eric Gordon, and whether both can be included in the team's long-term plans.
Once the biggest returning chip in the Chris Paul trade, Gordon's value has fallen significantly in the time since. His inability to stay on the court the past few seasons clouds any prediction that could be made for his future.
That murkiness, to some extent, is one of the driving factors that led to Dell Demps signing Evans to a four-year, $44 million contract this summer. The Pelicans are a curious landing spot for the 24-year-old Evans, with a starting backcourt seemingly in place between Gordon and recently acquired Jrue Holiday.
Shooting—The Gap Is Shrinking
Coming out of Indiana University, Jonathan Givony via Draft Express marveled at Eric Gordon's jumpshot, "Shooting is probably Gordon’s biggest strength at the moment, showing a beautiful stroke, with a quick release, NBA range and a terrific follow through."
Watching Gordon's old tape is magnificent. Coming off screens, creating his own shot—no matter how the attempt originated—the form stays the same. You get the feeling that he could be put in a phone booth and still rise up and hit a jumper with ease.
That form is what makes his regression over the past few years all the more confusing. After shooting a satisfying 38.9 percent from deep on 4.3 attempts his rookie season, Gordon's proficiency has plummeted. Last year's mark of 32.4 percent was strange for someone with such an obvious knack for shooting.
The real issue is that Gordon's difficulty from downtown was not an isolated problem. His percentages on shots taken at the rim (54.2 percent) and from 16-23 feet (34 percent) last season were career lows. It's hard to say whether the drops are a product of his nagging injuries, poor shot selection or just bad luck, but it's troubling that he took a step back five years into his career.
On the other end of the spectrum, Evans has taken a glaring weakness and slowly built towards respectability.
Evans shot 47.8 percent from the field and almost 34 percent beyond the arc last season, in his most efficient year to date. This is a far cry from his numbers even one season prior, when he shot 45 percent overall and 20.2 percent from three.
We're dealing with a one-year sample here, so concluding that Evans is now a better shooter than Gordon would be foolish.
That said, it's tough to ignore Evans making the best of a bad situation in Sacramento, cleaning up a weaker part of his game. Keep in mind that the same publication (Draft Express) that lauded Gordon's stroke claimed that Evans had, "poor shooting mechanics," and was, "downright dreadful shooting the ball off the dribble," coming into the league.
Drive and Kick—The Distribution Game
One trait that Gordon and Evans share is their ability to create offense off of the dribble. But it's Evans ability to create offense for his teammates with his handle that sets him apart.
Evans has the rare ability to do a little bit of everything on the offensive end. During his rookie season, Evans joined the exclusive trio of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the fourth rookie with season averages of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.
The assists, in large part, come from Evans' slashing ability. One of his favorite moves is the spin as he barrels towards the basket, disorienting hopeful defenders.
That same move is used to set up highlight reel passes like the following:
But just like Gordon's shooting, Evans' assist numbers have regressed since his rookie season. The drop from 5.8 to 3.5 over the course of three seasons brings him close to the totals of Gordon, who averages 3.3 dimes for his career.
Part of this stems from the personnel surrounding him. Surrounded by players like DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmer Fredette, who are commonly referred to as "black holes," the Kings relied heavily on isolation scoring. They scored 44.7 percent of their baskets unassisted, a number that reveals why Evans' numbers have dropped and (most likely) why the Kings have been so bad the past few seasons.
Evans has also had the ball in his hands considerably less in recent seasons compared to Gordon. His usage percentage of 22.3 paled in comparison to Gordon's mark of 29.4. Even with a smaller chunk of his team's possessions, Evans dished more dimes.
Size Does Matter
Much has been made of the supposed "positional revolution" in basketball. This is more a product of a desire for flexibility than anything else.
With video scouting and generational improvement in finding opponent weaknesses, having the option to use a variety of looks and adapt on the fly is key. Miami's discovery of its destiny as a small-ball juggernaut was not reached until Chris Bosh was injured in their 2012 playoff run, necessitating the move.
Based on anecdotal evidence and measurables, both players are gifted in the athleticism department, which they use to their advantage defensively. Gordon, despite standing only 6'3", has some highlight blocks on his resume:
Evans is no slouch in this department, either. Former Pelican, Greivis Vasquez, was made well aware of this fact.
So what separates Evans and Gordon on defense, since their steal (1.4 vs. 1.1) and block (.4 v. .3) totals are so similar? Size and flexibility. Standing at 6'6", Evans is a full three inches taller than Gordon.
With a height more suited to play point guard, Gordon is unprepared to guard many of the league's wings, especially considering the toll that chronic injuries may have had on his athleticism. Without the tools to compensate for the disadvantage, he's already in the hole.
To make matters worse, it's the ability to switch seamlessly that prohibits him the most. In a standard defensive rotation, small forwards will often be asked to make switches into the post as necessary with the shot clock winding down.
For the taller Evans, it's a tough task, but not an impossible one. For Eric Gordon, post defense is an exercise in futility. He simply has no chance against the league's giants.
Fans and columnists alike have pointed to the San Antonio Spurs as a model for the Pelicans to follow. Wisdom dictates that Evans can be employed in a Manu Ginobili, "super sub" role where he can dominate bench units and ultimately play in crunch time.
It's a suggestion with merit, but it ignores Ginobili's entrance to the NBA, as well as the context of the Spurs roster.
Ginobili was able to step into the role he did in San Antonio because of the strong cast already in place upon his arrival. The Spurs had won 58 games the year before with a mostly unchanged roster, which included all-time great Tim Duncan at the peak of his powers.
Apologies to Anthony Davis, but he's not close to The Big Fundamental's level at this stage. In the absence of a transformative superstar, the Pelicans can't afford to go long stretches with their best players on the bench.
With that in mind, Evans offers more flexibility, and in many cases production than his counterpart Gordon.
If the Pelicans were to move Gordon rather than Evans, they would have more options in the type of return they could seek. Adding a legitimate center and a three-and-D guy next to Evans, Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis would give New Orleans a more balanced lineup, and would open more playing time for Austin Rivers to develop.
Because Evans has shown he can impact the game on a variety of levels other than just shooting, he is a more attractive player to keep around as New Orleans builds a new identity.
From a financial standpoint, Evans also has the better deal. The couple million dollars between the two deals might not seem huge, but it's the difference between players like Caron Butler ($8 million) and David West ($10 million).
Ideally, head coach Monty Williams will find a way to use the two players together beneficially. Assuming that he can't, Evans is the keeper.
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