The last time—and only time—an NBA player was an All-Star and won the Sixth Man Award in the same year was former Celtics great Kevin McHale in 1984.
Could Rockets star Eric Gordon, the NBA’s frontrunner for Sixth Man, be a Western Conference reserve next month in New Orleans?
“All-Star for sure,” James Harden said about his scoring sidekick in early January.
While Harden has arguably been the league’s MVP, here’s how important Gordon has been to the 34-win Rockets: in 10 of their 14 losses, he didn’t reach his scoring average of about 18 points per game. Overall for the third-seeded Rockets, Gordon has been the NBA’s best offensive player off the bench, averaging his most points since 2012-13—in only 30.5 minutes per game. And he’s second in the league with 166 three-pointers, making them at a standout 39.2 percent clip (entering Wednesday).
“I just like how our record is,” Gordon told the NBPA on what makes him most proud as the team’s sixth man. “Me taking the sacrifice and coming off the bench and having the record that we have, I’ll do it every year. So as long as we just keep on continuously playing well, I’m more than happy.”
Gordon has been so dangerous from downtown that his streak of seven straight games with at least four three-pointers—from late November to early December, including eight against the Lakers on Dec. 7—was the second-longest in NBA history. On the season, the 6’4″ guard is averaging 3.6 long makes per game—second-best in the league—and his most potent accuracy has been further beyond the arc from 25 to 29 feet (40.5 percent, according to NBA.com/Stats). In fact, 71.7 percent of his three-pointers come from that range.
Even from longer distance, Gordon is able to run fluidly to a spot off of a screen, get his feet set quickly squared to the basket and shoot on-balance without hesitation. He has the strength from his legs (with his stronger 215 pounds for his height), coupled with his fast release with little jumping, to power his shot from longer range before defenders can react.
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told the NBPA that the deeper shooting is the first time he’s “ever experienced anything like that” in his 44-year pro basketball playing and coaching career. And Gordon’s unique ability has opened up D’Antoni’s trademark space-out, free-flowing offense—focused on three-pointers, layups and drawing fouls—even more for other Rockets to make plays.
“It’s huge,” D’Antoni said. “And Ryan [Anderson] and James both easily can shoot from 29 feet. And when you have to guard them way out there, now that gives James more and more space to operate. He really only needs a couple of inches, but we’re giving him an extra two or three feet of space. But what’s probably more important is giving two or three feet of space to Pat Beverley or Trevor Ariza driving, or Montrezl [Harrell] rolling. When you have that kind of space, it makes it a lot easier for everybody. We’re hard to guard.”
Behind Gordon’s offensive flow and consistency is also his health, having lost some weight last summer, getting in better shape for the Rockets’ faster pace and dedicating himself more to the training room. Having only played between around 40 and 60 games each season in his nine-year career due to injuries, he’s only missed two games this season because of a sprained left big toe. Along with Gordon and D’Antoni’s marriage on volume shooting and versatile playmaking—the 28-year-old felt contained in New Orleans as “more of a spot-up guy”—he’s found his groove in Houston. Gordon said it’s the best offensive flow he’s been a part of while in the NBA.
“This style of play is pretty easy,” he said. “We don’t really have a lot of plays that we run; it’s more of pick-and-roll and find space opportunities. Everybody gets along, everybody is really unselfish, so when you’re on the floor, you can almost find your shots almost anywhere on the court. Every time I’m open, my teammates are going to find me and that’s what they do: they look for me to have big nights every single night.”
Two years ago when taking a break from coaching, D’Antoni attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, where the latest trends in the fields of play and sports business are discussed. His experience only “gave him more confidence” about what he sparked with the Suns from 2004-07, when they led the league by a wide margin in three-pointers made and attempted, and two of those years were runs to the Western Conference finals.
The conference supported the notion in the NBA of what he calls “enhanced three-pointers,” which is where D’Antoni’s full green light for Gordon, and others, to shoot anywhere on the court comes into play. In fact, the Rockets are on pace to shatter the all-time record for the most threes made and attempted in a season—set by the Warriors just last season. They were 1,077-for-2,592 (41.6 percent); the Rockets, through 48 games, are 704-for-1,914 (36.8 percent).
“[In Phoenix], we were tip-toeing in the water and shooting threes, but getting me a little nervous when we got up in the 30s [for attempts],” D’Antoni said. “We hardly ever post up, even back then, because now it’s shown that a post-up isn’t a great statistic play. Where now, it’s kind of proven why wouldn’t you shoot a three if you’re open every time? We didn’t know back then. Now we’re sure. Golden State validated that, and even Cleveland to a certain degree. So it’s helped me as a coach, that’s for sure, to be more confident.”
Once Beverley made his season debut in mid-November following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Gordon became the full-time sixth man. But that was D’Antoni’s plan all along. He wanted to make sure that starters Anderson, Ariza and Harden got into an early rhythm scoring, so that Gordon would “give us another boost on top,” D’Antoni said. And Gordon embraced his new role.
“I just thought there were too many guys that needed to get started,” D’Antoni said. “But the whole thing came down to Eric. It wouldn’t have worked if Eric would’ve had second doubts or he didn’t want to. It’s just his character, his willingness to accept it and to trust me a little bit. He’s been terrific as a person, and at the end of the day you win with good people. And that’s why we’re having success—we’ve got all good guys.”
Gordon added, “I just thought it would be better for me to come off the bench, because I get to do things when I’m out there that James does when he’s with the first unit.”
When Harden sits at the start of the second and fourth quarters, Gordon becomes the main playmaker. He facilitates pick-and-rolls and is one of the best one-on-one players in the game, with his double crossovers, hesitation moves and shiftiness through traffic. Another reason behind his offensive production in the second unit is taking advantage of his matchups: more less experienced players coming off the bench.
“His role is perfect because he scores so well and can give backups fits,” a veteran NBA scout said. “And he’s a mismatch nightmare for small guards; he can post or use his strength on them. Against bigger guards, he can use his quickness. He has the skill set for D’Antoni’s offense and they can run plays for him as a lead player.”
Those plays include staggered screens, wing and baseline pin-down screens for shots, curl screens so he can become a playmaker into the paint and L-shaped manuevers from one of the wings through a big-man screen to the top of the key for three-pointers. Gordon also, with his size, is a solid screener for the team’s bigs and guards to create switch opportunities, and space for his open looks. One especially clever play the Rockets run is when Gordon has the ball on a wing, Harden sets the first screen to pop out, and Capela, Harrell or Nene set the second screen to roll.
“It’s almost like a pick-your-poison style of play, so that’s the best and unique thing,” Gordon said.
“Any time James becomes a screener, it becomes really tough because then [the defenders] switch and they take somebody off James,” D’Antoni said. “And then somebody guarding James has a hard time focusing on somebody else. So any time we can get James as a screener, it works out pretty good.”
While Gordon doesn’t dunk much, he’s able to finish layups and floaters because he seeks contact and uses his strength over bigs. He’s picked up some driving tricks from Harden, who’s very crafty and the best in the game at getting to the foul line (the current league leader in makes and attempts, and in four seasons since 2012-13, his first in Houston).
After practices and shootarounds—since the start of the season—Gordon and Harden pair up to take shots together, working on their isolation moves from the perimeter and spot-up shots from different areas of the court. Off the court, they’ve been friends for a while as they share the same agency, Landmark Sports, and sneaker endorser, adidas, as well as enjoy fun competitions in NBA 2K and ping-pong.
“I’ve learned from him about just picking and choosing his spots on when to score and when not to score, because we both have to be major playmakers,” Gordon said. “And since I’m with the second unit, I have to do a lot of playmaking myself. He gets really creative throughout the game and he doesn’t really take a possession off. That’s why he has the stats that he has now.”
When Gordon first enters the game for Beverley about midway through the first quarter, he plays off of the ball initially alongside Harden. And that leads to most of where his catches originate: 70 assists from Harden, by far the most from a teammate (according to NBA.com/Stats).
“The Rockets space the floor well so when Harden drives, the defense has to collapse on him, which leaves all their shooters wide open for threes,” the scout said.
Harden also specializes in sending three-quarter court passes, after a defensive rebound, up ahead to Gordon for quick three-pointers. That has helped boost the Rockets to fourth-best in fast-break points per game (16.9), and fourth-best in pace (101.3), measured by the average number of possessions a team uses per game. Gordon’s improved health has not only helped him run the floor better in transition, but it’s also benefited him on the other end, with D’Antoni saying this season, “He’s not a good defender. He’s a great defender.”
“He got leaner and quicker, and the weight loss and mobility have been a bonus,” the scout said. “That benefits him and the team on both ends. He appears to have found the fountain of youth.”
In addition to winning games, Gordon’s other key metric for his impact and team’s success is the bench’s collective plus-minus in every game. And it’s been positive for much of the season for him, Capela, Nene, Corey Brewer and Sam Dekker.
“I just want every single night, everybody on the bench must have a plus,” Gordon said. “And we’ve been doing it almost all year.”
Before the season started, D’Antoni’s goal for the Rockets was the playoffs. But now, the talk is making a championship run and breaking the franchise record for wins in a season (58 set in 1993-94, when they won their first of back-to-back titles). He also strives for his players to have career years, saying, “I want every guy to play meaningful minutes and get highs in a lot of categories. So far, so good.”
With Gordon having a career resurgence, he said he’s found his calling as a sixth man. And off the court, he’s continuing to build his Indianapolis-based AAU program with eight teams covering middle to high school, and his community work with Ronald McDonald House Charities, making donations and visiting with children. He’s now also getting involved in commercial real estate in Houston and back home in Indy.
Life is good for Gordon, and it all begins on the basketball court.
“I’ll be sixth man every year,” said the Hoosier, who also aims to be a better rebounder. “I definitely want that role. That’s what I strive for.”
And on shooting for the Sixth Man Award?
“No question,” he said.