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(Editor’s note: We are continuing our individual reviews of all players from the Houston Rockets who finished the 2021-22 season with the team. To access other reviews as part of this ongoing series, click here.)
Rockets Player: Eric Gordon, 6-foot-3 guard, 33 years old
2021-22 statistics: 13.4 points (47.5% FG, 41.2% on 3-pointers), 2.7 assists, 2.0 rebounds in 29.3 minutes
Professional Experience: 14 seasons
Contract Status: Under contract for 2022-23 at $19.6 million; team option for 2023-24 at $20.9 million
The best statistic to sum up Gordon’s value as a steady veteran is this: The Rockets were 1-24 (.040) when he did not play in the 2021-22 season, and 19-38 (.333) when he did. If extrapolated over a full 82-game campaign, that’s the difference between going 27-55 or 3-79.
Gordon is one of the best defenders on a young team that is otherwise deficient on that side of the game, and his value as a floor spacer and penetrator makes offense much easier for his teammates.
If you exclude Gordon’s 14 games during Houston’s 1-16 start (largely due to the ill-fated Christian Wood-Daniel Theis big lineups), the Rockets were 18-25 (.419) when playing Gordon alongside proper spacing. Over a full season, that would be a win pace of nearly 35 games!
After playing in a combined 63 regular-season games over 2019-20 and 2020-21, the biggest challenge for Gordon was proving his health. He did that by playing in 57 games, and it would have been more if not for Houston’s decision to shut down its veterans for the final seven games.
Moreover, if not for the Rockets being clearly out of the playoff race, Gordon potentially would have played both ends of back-to-backs. As it was, Houston erred on the side of maintenance, since grinding out additional wins in 2021-22 did not mean much in their particular situation.
Though he’s only 6-foot-3, Gordon is a surprisingly versatile defender, since he has the bulk and strength to match up physically with forwards.
On offense, Gordon shot 41.2% on 3-pointers, which was the second-highest figure of his entire career. His 47.5% shooting clip and 61.4% true shooting percentage were both career-highs. In short, he’s healthy.
Eric Gordon can play defense, folks pic.twitter.com/GLbpg7qzv7
— Itamar (@Itamar_17_10) February 2, 2022
So, with a 33-year-old Gordon playing so well and the rebuilding Rockets (20-62) saddled with the NBA’s worst record, why wasn’t he dealt at the February trade deadline? Historically, he’s the type of smart, savvy veteran that often is moved from a rebuilding team to a contender.
From the perspective of general manager Rafael Stone, it has a lot to do with Gordon’s value and influence to younger teammates like Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. “He’s bought in and wants to be a part of it,” Stone said of Gordon’s approach to Houston’s current rebuild.
Rafael Stone said he talks one on one with Eric Gordon constantly and Eric wants to stay in Houston and likes this group of guys. "He feels good about the process. He likes where we're at."
— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) February 11, 2022
To many on the outside, since Gordon is likely to be past his prime when the Rockets are next ready to contend, it makes sense to simply trade him now for the best possible return. After all, keeping him around risks an injury or age-related decline that might decrease his value.
But as the Rockets see it, there are other kinds of value to the team besides trade value and immediate “winning” value. They believe Gordon has intangible value to his young teammates as a hard-working leader. Moreover, in contrast to ball-dominant guards like John Wall (who the Rockets chose not to play in 2021-22), Houston sees Gordon as an ideal on-court fit to bolster the development of those prospects — since he can make a positive off-ball impact (floor spacing, defense) and allow players like Green and Porter to get more on-ball repetitions.
Rafael Stone says he believes giving minutes to Eric Gordon and Dennis Schröder the rest of the season will help the development of the Rockets young guards: “I think Eric’s been extraordinarily helpful to the development of our young guards…" pic.twitter.com/dcgUuB7EEv
— Adam Spolane (@AdamSpolane) February 11, 2022
That’s not to say that the Rockets wouldn’t trade Gordon for the right offer. Perhaps he could have more trade value in the offseason than at the deadline, since Gordon will now be viewed as an expiring contract (with a friendly team option, in the event that he plays well). Furthermore, if a desirable trade target comes available to the Rockets, Gordon’s expiring salary might also prove useful for matching purposes.
But Houston won’t trade him simply to make a deal. It has to make sense. If the only available trades are for a second-round draft pick or a late first-round pick in 2022, the Rockets may not see that as worth giving up Gordon’s value in the locker room and to his teammates.
Beyond the fact that the expected value of those types of picks is fairly low to begin with, the reality is also that draft choices who don’t play tend to lose their trade value (relative to the original pick itself), and Houston already has an enormous amount of youth on its roster and two more first-rounders on the way from the upcoming 2022 NBA draft. Finding playing time in the short-term would not be easy.
“The offers they could get, at best late first-round picks in a draft they already have two picks, were not irresistible. So, they resisted them.”@clutchfans there it is. #Rockets🚀 https://t.co/r1o40BckKf
— Chris A. White 🐻 (@fyrebear) February 11, 2022
So, if Gordon isn’t being traded as part of a larger deal, Houston would likely prefer a first-round pick in a future season relative to adding yet another young player to a roster that is overflowing with them, as it is.
In the end, it’s simply a matter of other teams deciding if Gordon is worth surrendering that type of asset. If not, the Rockets appear comfortable keeping Gordon around and using him for the foreseeable future to help lead and develop their young core — both on and off the court.
Perhaps the Rockets would relent and trade Gordon for a short-term asset by the 2023 trade deadline, if they feel he’s not likely to be retained after the 2022-23 season. By that point, there would only be two months left in a season where Houston isn’t likely to make the playoffs. The calculus may be different in February 2023 than February 2022, since free agency that offseason is a possibility for Gordon (unlike 2022).
But to expedite the timetable to the 2022 offseason, some other team would need to pay a premium. It might just happen, since Gordon played quite well last season, but that’s for other general mangers to decide.