Warriors-Rockets X-Factor: The Eric Gordon Puzzle
Troy Taormina- USA Today Sports
- Eric Gordon has to pick his spots much more carefully than he did last year, as he’s averaging fewer touches and covering less ground.
- Golden State’s bigs have had trouble guarding Gordon in the past.
- Gordon can tilt this series, but the Rockets still need a lot to go right if they’re going to upset the Warriors.
Warriors. Rockets. The NBA Finals … er, Western Conference finals begin on Monday in Houston. We’ll be breaking down various angles of the conference finals over the next few days, covering the ins and outs of the analytics, the X’s and O’s, and, of course, the action.
We continue with the biggest x-factor in this series: Eric Gordon.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
Gordon has a hard gig with this Rockets team. Last season, as the Sixth Man of the Year, Gordon was the solvent that filled the gaps in Houston’s offense. That offense, by the way, was the most efficient unit in NBA history. It was matched by this year’s team, on the dot, at 114.7 points per 100 possessions.
In last year’s construct, Gordon burst through gaps provided by the sheer dread Harden created in opponents. Harden would dribble the ball up slowly in the backcourt, then zip a pass to a Gordon hitting full speed as he attacked the rim. He operated as a secondary playmaker, as well — 5.1 potential assists per game last season. He was what you might call a dynamic-creator. Not that he was all that dynamic, but that he created dynamics within Houston’s offense.
It’s different now. Gordon has to pick his spots much more carefully. He’s averaging 32 touches per game in the playoffs, which is eight fewer than he had in the regular season and in last year’s postseason. So much of the offense goes through Harden and Chris Paul, Gordon has to find opportunities and make the most of them without breaking the offense.
Per the NBA’s tracking data, Gordon averages fewer touches per game and covers less distance on offense than he did last year. This is to be expected; the addition of Paul means it’s more difficult for Gordon to find rhythm.
All of that makes the following sentence a little tricky: Gordon needs to have an absolutely phenomenal series if Houston is going to upset Golden State.
There will be opportunities for Gordon on offense. In particular, Gordon slipped by Draymond Green on a number of possessions during the regular season. That could prove vital if the Rockets construct a small-ball lineup using Gordon.
Shaun Livingston, too, had trouble with Gordon’s top-end speed. Gordon’s game, much like the rest of Houston’s offense, is simpler now. He’s not shifty. He’s a bullet, tearing through paper sheets.
Really, all of the Golden State bigs had a devil of a time with Gordon. I’m looking at you, Kevin Looney and David West …
The space the Rockets create is just nuts. There’s just so much room for Gordon to beat a one-on-one cover vs. a slow-footed big.
This is a reason to keep Gordon on the floor, specifically vs. any lineup where the Warriors use a traditional big.
Stephen Curry guarded Gordon a lot during the regular season, and you can expect more of that when Houston trots out three-guard lineups. However, Gordon was just 1-of-6 with Curry guarding him. Part of that was Gordon being ice cold vs. Golden State this year, shooting 2-of-24 from deep.
The Warriors want to hide Curry as much as possible, for a number of reasons. If Curry guards Gordon in lineups with a big, he can use the gravity that Paul and Harden demand and use it to exploit the big on a switch. If the Warriors reject the switch, though, Gordon may have to just challenge Curry one on one.
Balancing Gordon’s aggressiveness and the Rockets’ desire to keep Harden and Paul constantly involved is a challenge, particularly in this series.
Man, did the Rockets and Warriors hide from one another in the regular season. For example, the two highest-used Rockets lineups that included Gordon featured Ryan Anderson (who is almost out of the rotation entirely) in one lineup, and Tarik Black in the other.
However, there were signs. With Gordon next to P.J. Tucker, the Rockets outscored the Warriors by 31 points in 62 minutes. On the other hand, the Rockets’ three most-used lineup combinations with Gordon and Clint Capela were a minus.
And yet, much of what we know about Gordon in this series is unknown. He tore apart Nick Young for a lot of the regular season matchups:
If Gordon hits 3’s, he attacks the weakside, if he maintains his ability to chase Klay Thompson and Curry off screens, he can tilt this series (provided Harden and Paul do their thing and the Rockets hit their 3s and Curry and KD don’t have those games where they are just unstoppable and … man, a lot needs to go their way in this series).
Gordon has to pick his spots, and then attack them with abandon.