Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
Eric Gordon is set to begin the most important season of his young career.
Eric Gordon's only been a Hornet for 9 months, but it already feels like years. Game winners, injuries, comebacks from injuries, more injuries, more comebacks from injuries, activity in the community, pleas to join other communities... 9 months. The question of "will New Orleans keep him?" is once more superseded by the question it originally supplanted - "will Eric Gordon become a superstar?" One way or another - through excellence, mediocrity, or injury - 2013 will give us the answer.
New Orleans will continue to be a defense-first team under Monty Williams, especially with the addition of Anthony Davis, and as we've noted many times before, Eric Gordon is an exceptional on-ball defender when he's on the floor. Gordon's isolation defense with Los Angeles was excellent, a trend that continued in limited minutes in 2012. And it's really this aspect to his game that likely trumped long-term concerns about his health for Hornets management. If Gordon was simply an above average scorer with the prospect of maybe becoming a star scorer in a couple seasons, a max deal probably isn't worth it.
Critiques of Gordon as one-dimensional on offense still largely ring true at this point, but an elevated assist rate in 2011 and again in 2012 are good signs for the future. Gordon's primary value comes in the pick and roll, and with an excellent screen setter in Robin Lopez joining the team, opportunities to penetrate and pass to a weakside-cutting Anthony Davis should be plentiful. It would be unwise to expect Gordon to usurp extensive creating duties if Greivis Vasquez or Austin Rivers prove unsuccessful at the point, but at the same time, an assist percentage around 25% is not out of the question. For reference, Gordon was at 20% a year ago.
Returning to the defensive side, Gordon will be largely expected to reprise Trevor Ariza's role. Gordon lacks Ariza's length and isn't nearly as efficient in playing passing lanes, but Ariza was also a significantly more upright defender, raising issues against shiftier players. Gordon's increased leverage allows him to stick with quicker players, and as a result, he should be granted defensive matchups against some of the league's tougher covers at point guard (with players of the Russell Westbrook mold coming to mind immediately). This should prove especially important in 2012-2013, with Greivis Vasquez's ability to stop penetration from the point guard position still an open question. Vasquez is tall enough (6'6") to switch comfortably with Gordon; in many ways, inverted roles between the pair seem the more natural fit.
With Ryan Anderson, Davis, and Lopez all on board (and all potentially starting), it wouldn't be a surprise to see more of Gordon's isolation plays be siphoned more towards pick and roll ones. On 71 P&R plays in 2012, Gordon posted the top offensive efficiency (1.21 points per possession) in the entire league, following up on his top-15 performance in 2011. And as the roll-man in P&R, Robin Lopez has annually ranked among the league's best for three consecutive years now. The Gordon-Davis combination will naturally be the most anticipated, but at least for the time being, the Gordon-Lopez pairing is the one that should pay immediate dividends.
What Constitutes Gordon Becoming a "Star?"
A great question and one that comes with, at best, nebulous answers. I'm a big proponent of analyzing teams and players by point differentials - what did they add and what did they take away, relative to a league average player at the position? A fuller version of this concept is here (and a reprisal of the concept for the 2012-2013 season is on the way as part of this preview series).
Gordon, as he's played to this point, has contributed about +1 points to team offensive point differential over the course of a full season. A +6 team (offense and defense combined) can generally be considered a contender; players don't eclipse +2 contributions offensively very often (LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade have all done it recently). Gordon's offensive efficiency took a hit (in a small sample size) last year, dropping from 112 points per 100 possessions to about 105. Though his usage did go up (heavier usage often means lower efficiency), that's too large a drop-off in general.
If "stardom" is defined as a function of playing time and efficiency, Gordon will need to improve significantly on both counts. His defensive ability helps offset relative shortcomings on offense, but if the Hornets continue to look to him as their primary offensive star, we'll need to see jumps in playing time and quality - at the very least back to his 2010-2011 L.A. Clipper levels.
Stay healthy, for one. Everything else is entirely secondary; if another major injury strikes this season, the Hornets could have a very toxic asset on their hands. With the decision made to spend much of their significant cap space on Gordon and Ryan Anderson this offseason, New Orleans has gone all-in to start the Anthony Davis era. We'll soon learn if it was too much, too early, and the health of Eric Gordon's various appendages will play a critical role.