We're running a series of "exit interviews" of the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of the 14 Clippers who ended the 2010-2011 season on the roster. In this edition: Shooting Guard Eric Gordon.
Name: Eric Gordon
2010-11 Key Stats: 22.3 ppg, 4.4 apg, 37.7 mpg
Years in the NBA:3
Years with the Clippers:3
2010-2011 Salary: $3,016,680
Contract Status: Signed through 2012, Restricted Free Agent in summer 2012
In a Nutshell
In 2008-2009, Eric Gordon had a terrific rookie season with the Clippers. In fact, I personally spent a lot of time and pixels arguing that Gordon deserved the same level of recognition as some of his more heralded backcourt class mates in the 2008 draft like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and O.J. Mayo. His sophomore season was disappointing in retrospect. He wasn't bad - but for a 21 year old player who had shown so much promise as a rookie, I expected more improvement.
He more than made up for that mini sophomore slump in this his third season. Although his productivity trailed off some down the stretch as he battled injuries, he was easily the Clippers best perimeter player all season. It's a shame that it was so long ago now, but before he got hurt in January, he was playing like a flat out star, and although he had little chance to actually make the team in the crowded Western Conference, his numbers were certainly worthy of All Star consideration to that point. As it was, despite the injuries that sidelined him for 24 of the Clippers' final 39 games, he received some votes for the NBA's Most Improved Player.
NBA people will tell you that the jump from scoring in the 15 to 17 range, up to the 22 to 24 range is the toughest one. Improved shooting, more touches and more opportunity will allow lots of different players to make big percentage increases in scoring. So a Dorell Wright (from 7 points per game to 16) or Arron Afflalo (from 8.8 to 12.6) looks impressive, but those stories are not particularly uncommon. However, of the players to average over 20 points per game this season, only the actual league MIP Kevin Love (from 14 points per game to 20.2) had a bigger increase than Gordon (16.9 to 22.3) - and Gordon's scoring increase was actually greater than Love's on a per minute basis.
Much was made of Gordon's stint with Team USA this summer, playing a key reserve role for the Gold Medal winning squad in Turkey, and it's hard to ignore the improvement in his game since then. More than anything, I think the experience simply gave EJ the confidence to assert himself on the Clippers. There's very little he can't do on a basketball court - but his personality is such that he tended to be deferential, and he often allowed Baron Davis or Chris Kaman to dominate the ball while he drifted around the three point line in seasons past. This season, he became the Clippers go to scorer on the perimeter, and along with Blake Griffin he formed the outside-inside cornerstones of the future of the team. An early season injury to Baron probably accelerated the process, but it was going to happen either way. Gordon's time had arrived.
From November through January, Gordon averaged almost 25 points per game. He also spent quite of bit of time in those months playing point guard, while both Davis and Randy Foye were injured. Oh, and he also defended against the opposition's best perimeter player every night. During a November 6th double overtime loss in Utah (a place where the Clippers have won just once in over 20 years), Gordon single handedly carried the Clippers through the fourth quarter and overtime. That was the game where it became apparent - this was a different Eric Gordon.
Gordon has one of the purest shooting strokes in the NBA. When he shoots the ball, you just believe it's going in, because the release is so beautiful. The Team USA coaching staff marveled at his shooting this summer; few people gave him much chance of making Team USA when camp opened, but he got himself noticed with his shooting. Ironically, he began this season mired in a terrible slump from three point range - he made just 19 of 82 threes through November. But he shot 88 for 209 (42%) the rest of the season, and frankly that simply more indicative of the shooter he is. Despite his early season struggles, he's a very good shooter, with almost unlimited range.
But this season he also began to attack the basket relentlessly. He averaged 26 points per game in November - and that was when his jump shot was off. He used his quickness to get to the rim, where he used his strength to either finish or draw a foul (or both). He got to the line over 6 times per game on the season, and made 82.5% of his free throws when he got there. The combination of a respectable overall shooting percentage (45%, not bad for a guard, particularly a primary scoring option), a high percentage on three pointers, and lots of trips to the line makes Gordon a very efficient scorer as well - his true shooting percentage of 56.6% is excellent for a perimeter scorer.
Although he still has lots of room for improvement, he also began to show the ability to score in key end of game situations this season. Going forward, he will likely be the player the Clippers turn to with the game on the line. That didn't always work out well this season (more on that below); but he's made tremendous progress as a go to scorer in the last season, and at just 22 years of age I don't think it's unreasonable to assume he'll make more. The fact that he can shoot from range, drive and draw fouls makes his style of game particularly well-suited to be the team's closer.
He's also a very good on ball defender and most nights he defends the opposition's best perimeter player. This was one of his primary roles on Team USA and ultimately it's why he made the team. He does a great job of keeping players in front of him, and although he's a bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard, he makes up for his lack of height with terrific strength, which allows him to hold his position against bigger two guards and even small forwards.
Although he's a great athlete and strong as an ox, Gordon is an embarrassingly bad rebounder. His rebound rate of 4.5% (the percentage of rebounds he collects while he's on the floor) is seventh worst in the NBA among players who played more than 1500 minutes this season. Rebounding is about wanting the ball - and if you watch Gordon when a shot goes up, he's just not that interested in rebounding, for whatever reason. The rebounds he gets come to him - he never goes out of his area for a rebound. Given his strength and athleticism, there's no reason that he shouldn't be a much better rebounder. He just needs to want it.
His handle also needs more work. He actually did a nice job running the point last season and he's turning into a pretty good playmaker. Among non-point guards, he was eighth in assists per game behind LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis, Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade - that's some pretty good company. But he also had a disconcerting habit of turning the ball over, particularly in key situations. More often than not, these turnovers were not steals by the defense so much as fumbles by EJ. He just overdribbles, and makes mistakes. He may have led the league in dribbling off his own foot, though I'm not sure they keep that stat. Actually, he must be doing a decent job of protecting the ball in other situations, because those highly visible turnovers make it feel like he's really terrible with the ball. However, his 2.7 turnovers per game, while bad, isn't completely out of line with other high usage guards. His assist to turnover ratio is actually better than Wade's for instance.
As I mentioned with Kaman, I don't really believe in the concept of 'injury-prone', but it must be noted that Gordon missed 26 games in 10-11 after missing 20 in 09-10. The types of injuries (sprained wrist, bruised shoulder, etc) aren't really red flags for future concerns. Suffice it to say that it would be nice if he could play in more games next season.
Future with the Clippers
There are few if any question marks concerning Eric Gordon's future with the Clippers. All indications are that the team considers him building block 1A next to number 1, Blake Griffin. He doesn't turn 23 until Christmas Day, and is poised to become one of the best shooting guards in the NBA over the next few seasons as the Kobes and Manus of the league get older.
Gordon has one more season left on his rookie deal. I don't think Neil Olshey is going to give him a Kevin Durant-style maximum extension this summer when he's first eligible for it - but even if he becomes a restricted free agent next summer, the Clippers won't let him go anywhere. Whether they extend him, re-sign him directly, or allow the marketplace to determine his value before matching any offer he gets, Gordon's next contract will be with the Clippers, and he and Griffin will be together for several years in LA, not wearing purple.
Can Gordon and Griffin become the twosome that leads the Clippers to prominence in the NBA? Well, they were already among the elite tandems in the league this season, behind only Durant/Westbrook and James/Wade in combined points per game - and Gordon and Griffin are each only 22! They also complement each other perfectly, providing just the right combination of perimeter and post to build around. As an extra added bonus, they seem to have a good rapport on the court as well - the Gordon-Griffin pick and roll was one of the most effective plays for the Clippers all season long. I love the way Gordon sends that one handed bounce pass back to Blake as he comes off the screen.
Can Gordon continue to get better? Well, he's not going to make the same kind of productivity jump in year four that he made in year three - there's just not that much headroom now that he's already at 22 points per game. But I see no reason that he shouldn't improve incrementally. He can become an even more efficient scorer (his true shooting percentage this season, while terrific, was actually the lowest of his career). He can become a better rebounder. He can improve his ball-handling. He can get better in end of game situations.
These are all incremental improvements that you might expect to see from a 22 year old player entering his fourth season in the NBA. If he can actually make these refinements in his game, then he'll be joining his teammate Griffin on the All Star team in the near future. And together they'll be leading the Clippers to the playoffs.
Other 2011 Exit Interviews