Over the past few weeks, reports have begun to pop up that the New Orleans Pelicans are looking to deal shooting guard Eric Gordon. Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reported that, with the team's recent struggles, executives from around the league believe both Gordon and Tyreke Evans are available:
The Pelicans signed Tyreke Evans this past summer to a four-year, $44 million free-agent deal and then added veteran PG Jrue Holiday via a trade with the Sixers to join Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis. But all the moves haven't exactly clicked. In fact, they've backfired, with New Orleans losing 13 of its last 17 games after starting out 11-10. The front office's take? Team execs are saying at least those are assets that can be moved. Davis and Holiday are the keepers.
Gordon has never really seemed at home in New Orleans, on the court or within the organization, and a trade could be a beneficial move for both parties. But figuring out exactly what the Pelicans could realistically expect in return is complicated, both by Gordon's contract and existing skill set. To figure out exactly what a potential deal could look like requires examining both the player and his contract.
In 2011, his last season in Los Angeles, Gordon averaged 22.3 points a game, shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 36.4 percent on three-pointers. That season, he was particularly phenomenal hunting shots in the pick-and-roll—averaging 0.94 points per possession, the 14th-best mark in the league according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Pick-and-roll play was the focus of his offensive attack, but the quantity and quality of Gordon's scoring was built on a diverse array of skills. The graph below shows his offensive distribution for the 2010-11 season with the Clippers. The red line represents the percentage of his total offensive possessions used on each play type. The blue line represents his points-per-possession average on each play type.
The graph highlights a few different things. We can see the significant portion of offense Gordon created for himself, through isolation and in the pick-and-roll, with a high level of efficiency. He was viciously explosive off the dribble in those days and often needed nothing more than his first step and the threat of a ball screen to get himself all the way to the basket.
Pull-up jumpers were also a big part of Gordon's pick-and-roll arsenal, and he used the threat of those explosive drives to create space between himself and a retreating defender.
But what made Gordon really special was the way his on-ball potency was supported by a well-developed off-ball game. He was incredibly adept at finding space by running off screens or cutting to the basket.
Since being traded from the Clippers to the New Orleans Pelicans, Gordon has been plagued by injuries. In two-and-a-half seasons in New Orleans, he has missed a total of 100 games due to injury. These injuries have come in remarkable variety, from ankle to knee to hip, and sapped considerable portions of his athleticism.
As the injuries have changed his physical capabilities, Gordon has had to change the way he plays.
The graph below shows his offensive distribution for this season in New Orleans, laid out the same as the Clippers graph we looked at above. Here the dark blue line represents the percentage of his offensive possessions used on each play type. The gold line represents his average points per possession on each play type.
In terms of the distribution of his possessions, the biggest difference is the spike in transition opportunities. This speaks to both a different style of play in New Orleans and the fact that he's much less involved in the half-court offense for the Pelicans than he was for the Clippers.
On the efficiency side, we can see a huge drop in his performance in those key areas of isolation and the pick-and-roll. As the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll this season, he's averaging just 0.73 points per possession, the 96th-best mark in the league and a far cry from his performance in Los Angeles.
The difference between the 0.94 points per possession he averaged his last season with the Clippers and his average of 0.73 this season might feel insignificant when framed as the average of a single possession. But what it means is that per 100 pick-and-roll possessions, Gordon is scoring 21 fewer points than he did just three years ago.
When you watch Gordon run the pick-and-roll this season, you can see many of the same familiar elements—advanced ball-handling, acute awareness of space, anticipation. The problem is that the same explosiveness isn't there.
Three years ago, he could hit a screen and explode around the corner, arriving at the basket before interior defenders had a chance to react. Now he struggles to create separation as he comes off the screen, and interior defenders are swallowing up his open spaces before he gets there.
This specific decline is really important because it's ultimately what separates Gordon from the top tier of scoring wings. In almost every other offensive area, he's at least as capable as he was before the litany of injuries. With the ability to create offense for himself off the dribble, he would be the kind of backcourt player you could build an offense around. Without it, he's just a very efficient complementary piece.
The problem is that his contract doesn't exactly line up with his current level of performance.
The per-season salary on this deal is quite a bit more than the contract extension the Pelicans had originally offered Gordon before he hit restricted free agency. When he turned that down and signed this offer sheet, the Pelicans were forced to match or risk letting the biggest asset they acquired in exchange for Chris Paul walk with nothing in return.
The problem is that Gordon's level of compensation is based on the Suns' (and to some degree, the Pelicans') assumption that he would be able to regain the career trajectory he was on before his injuries. But that slight decline in his athleticism has lowered both the slope and ultimate ceiling of that trajectory.
In an article for Sporting News, Sean Deveney pointed out the incongruity between his production and compensation:
Gordon has been healthy this year, and is averaging 15.6 points on 43.9 percent shooting, making 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers. But that production doesn't match up with his contract, which calls for Gordon to make more than $14 million this year and $30 million over the next two years (he has a player option on the final year of the deal).
"He has been healthy and he has played better," one league executive told Sporting News. "But he is a still a long way from living up to what you have to pay him. His contract is still the big reason they are not able to do anything with him at this point."
The bottom line is that Gordon is still a relatively young player with plenty to contribute in a supporting role offensively. But his cap hit is that of a player you'd build a team around, a load that he doesn't appear capable of carrying at this point.
Given what he is and what he costs, it's difficult to find a realistic deal that offers the kind of youth, financial flexibility and frontcourt depth the Pelicans appear to covet.
There are plenty of teams who could use his offense, but most don't have the pieces to put a deal together. Plenty of others will be scared off by the cost and Gordon's injury history. However, there are a few scenarios that seem plausible, if not probable.
Eric Gordon's deal would match, numbers-wise, with Ben Gordon's expiring deal for the Charlotte Bobcats. It would lock the Bobcats roster in for the next few seasons, but gambling on Eric Gordon regaining some of what he showed with the Clippers is one of a slim number of options that gives Charlotte a chance to quickly make a leap. In return, the Pelicans clear a big chunk of cap space to take into the summer.
It's unlikely they'd get a bite, but the Pelicans could also dangle Gordon in front of the Detroit Pistons in hopes of snagging Greg Monroe. They'd have to take back an expiring contract in either Rodney Stuckey or Charlie Villanueva and be ready to pay Monroe this summer, but they'd get a talented frontcourt player to pair with Anthony Davis. The issue would be convincing the Pistons that this is the best deal they could get for Monroe.
There is another possibility. This season has been derailed by injuries up and down the roster, and it's possible that many of the things that currently look hopelessly broken on the Pelicans could be fixed with time and continuity. Taking a less-than-ideal trade for Gordon may actually be worse than keeping him and allowing him to grow into his role with this young team.
This is all conjecture and imagination, but it captures the position the Pelicans are in. When it comes to the trade market, Gordon is more defined by the disconnect between his talent and his salary than by the actual talent itself. By overpaying a player to avoid losing him as an asset, the Pelicans have locked themselves into a place where they may have to accept less than Gordon's actual value.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/Stats.