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Rockets Insider: Can Eric Gordon Recapture His Star Potential in Houston?

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2016

BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 12: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets looks to pass against Langston Galloway #10 of the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the 2016 Global Games - China at LeSports Center on October 12, 2016 in Beijing, China. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

HOUSTON — "Health is wealth" is more than just a proverb for Eric Gordon. It's what he's hoping will be a new way of basketball life now that he's suiting up for the Houston Rockets.

After five injury-riddled seasons with the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, where he was forced to sit out 173 of a possible 394 games due to severe damage in his right knee (2011-12), left knee (2012-13), a torn labrum in his left shoulder (2013-14) and a fractured bone in the ring finger of his shooting hand (2015-16), he's ready to turn the page in favor of a new, healthier chapter.

"Really, all my injuries happened in New Orleans, so dealing with four or five years of injuries was definitely tough and frustrating," Gordon said during Rockets media day in September. "But being here in Houston, I'm going into a season with no restrictions, happy to play and don't even have a thought about it or deal with any injury at all."

To some extent, he deserves a mulligan, but a deep dive into the numbers reveals there was much more to his struggles than simply staying healthy.

It seems like revisionist history now, but before the blockbuster trade that sent Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers on December 14, 2011, Gordon, then 22, appeared to be on the verge of becoming a perennial All-Star with L.A. He was coming off a season in which he averaged 22.3 points while shooting 45.0 percent overall and 36.4 percent from three-point range.

Early on, Pelicans fans saw flashes of greatness from the former Indiana University standout.

In his first game with the franchise, he hit a 20-foot jumper over Jared Dudley to clinch an 85-84 win over the Phoenix Suns. During his second game after returning from a three-month layoff, he dropped 31 points, four dimes and three steals on the San Antonio Spurs. During the 2012-13 season, he averaged 17.0 points per game and led or tied for lead in team scoring 19 times.

But in the end, that's all they got. Flashes.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13: Eric Gordon #10 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 13, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Gordon didn't help his case with Pelicans' fans when he publicly professed his allegiance to Phoenix after accepting the Suns' four-year, $58 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2012. After New Orleans general manager Dell Demps matched the offer, pressure to become the team's superstar only intensified.

There was perhaps one bright spot—the 2014-15 playoffs, when Gordon averaged 18.5 points while shooting 40.6 percent from three. But that couldn't mask his career-low player efficiency rating of 12.7 during the regular season.

It wasn't all Gordon's fault though.

New Orleans' system wasn't tailored to long-distance shooters. The team's offensive efficiency wasn't horrible (15th in 2015-16, eighth in 2014-15 and 13th in 2013-14), but the percentage of points from three-pointers tells a different story. Last season, for example, 25 percent of the Pels' points came from long balls, while Golden State, Cleveland and Houston got 34.6, 31.7 and 29.9 percent of their points from deep, respectively.

That means that shooters such as Gordon and fellow new Rocket Ryan Anderson weren't getting as many open looks as they would have liked.

"I haven't had a lot of wide-open looks over the years," Anderson said, in a slight dig at the Pelicans system. "I've had more wide-open looks in our pickup games here than I've had in the past four years, probably."

But all of that is in the rearview mirror now.

"Injuries played a big role, but we just weren't winning a lot of games there, and a lot of guys were in and out of the lineup, not a lot of stability," Gordon said. "That's why I came to an organization where all of that is just out the way."

Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Rockets this past summer is ready to help Houston execute its high-powered spread pick-and-roll offense.

"I'm really happy here," he said. "They're giving me a chance to play a couple positions and allow me to really be myself, play a little bit of point guard, shooting guard, and I'll also be guarding those positions, so it's a good combination of both for me."

Preseason statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt, but so far, Gordon is finding his mark and playing within the offense. Through his first five preseason contests, he's averaging 12.4 points in 19.8 minutes per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from deep.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 9: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets shoots against the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the 2016 Global Games - China at the Mercedes Benz Arena on October 9, 2016 in Shanghai, China. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

"My money spots on the floor are still probably going to be the top of the key or the wing," he said. "I definitely need to make use of those spots. I fit really well in this offense, give them a different benefit for knocking down threes and just being consistent doing that. I also like driving to the basket."

All of those are looks Mike D'Antoni's system encourages. 

"Well, since I've been in New Orleans, I've been mostly a shooter," Gordon said. "But before then, I was more of a playmaker. I was a playmaker and I was a big-time scorer, and I'll get a chance to do both and put it all together here.”

And for everyone who cringed when he mentioned playmaking before becoming a shooter, Gordon's averaging 2.4 assists and plans to play up that "combo guard" label.

"My goal this year is to play hard, try to be an All-Star or even a sixth man. I just want to be a star in my role here and play at the highest level that I can and be a big-time difference-maker."

 

ROX RUMBLINGS

Watch Out, Rick Barry

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 7:  Chinanu Onuaku #21 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 7, 2016 at the Madison Square Garden Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Rockets rookie Chinanu Onuaku went viral last week after shooting underhanded at the free-throw line. Unorthodox as it may be, Onuaku said he's going to keep shooting it granny style because he doesn't have "the perfect shooting form."

"I was ready for it," Onuaku said of the attention he's gotten for his free-throw form. "I'm not really trying to convince anybody else to shoot it like me. I'm just doing it because it's better for me."

Even Onuaku's friends are in on it.

"They want me to shoot like that," he said. "They encourage me."

 

Where's Pat?

Patrick Beverley continues to sit due to injury, making it hard for D'Antoni to set his rotations, especially with the first unit.

"What I hear, it's just a matter of a couple weeks," D'Antoni said. "I would love for him to be with us. Seems like he's suffering through not playing, but it's a long season, and whatever it takes for him to get well, he'll eventually get well."

While he's out, the Rockets will miss Beverley's dogged defense. When he's on the court, he shadows all ball-handlers with more determination than a pit bull with a bone. D'Antoni, already facing intense scrutiny for his defensive philosophies, will be mining his bench for someone who can defend as strong as Beverley.

 

K.J. the Man?

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 4:  K.J. McDaniels #32 of the Houston Rockets goes up for a dunk against the New York Knicks during a preseason game on October 4, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

With Beverley nursing left knee irritation, there have been opportunities for other players to emerge in the starting backcourt. D'Antoni is constantly tinkering with his lineups and recently chose to start K.J. McDaniels for the second consecutive game alongside James Harden.

Because of his ability to defend point guards like Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies, McDaniels may continue to get some shine with the first unit.

"He has to keep his energy up," D'Antoni said. "That's the biggest thing. K.J. is a very talented basketball player. He has to make sure that his energy stays high and understand exactly what we need all the time from him. That will determine as the season goes forward what kind of role he'll have."

 

All quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseReport 

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