DALLAS — Friday’s game at Phoenix (10:30 p.m., ESPN) will be the 55th of the season for Pelicans guard Eric Gordon. That is significant because it is four more games than he managed to play in his first two injury-saddled seasons in the Big Easy.
The irony isn’t lost on him. He’s healthy, finally, but the teammates expected to lift this franchise back into the playoff hunt are not.
Starting point guard Jrue Holiday, an All-Star last season in Philadelphia, and Ryan Anderson, the 3-point shooting stretch-4, have played 56 games, total. Neither might play again this season. Starting center Jason Smith has played 31 games. He won’t play again this season.
Tyreke Evans, paid an eye-popping $44 million for four years by the Pelicans last summer, has been hurt off and on. He’s averaging a career-low 12.0 points a game while shooting 14.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Gordon hasn’t blown anybody away. But he has shown steady improvement, if only sporadic spectacular bursts to the bucket. He describes his season as “OK,” yet at 15.8 points a game and shooting 38.9 percent from deep, he’s been the Pelicans’ most reliable player outside of All-Star power forward Anthony Davis — who was added to the injured list Wednesday with a sprained left shoulder.
“I feel I can do more,” Gordon told NBA.com. “I’ve had some big, explosive games this year. Now for me it’s just all about having the ball a little bit more, shooting the ball a little bit more and being able to do all the playmaking that I’m used to.”
His gains haven’t stopped the team from again shopping him, something that eats at Gordon. As he walked from the American Airlines Center court to the team bus following Wednesday morning’s shootaround, he said, “It is disappointing because … I am back to where I should be [physically] and will be. And just to hear stuff like that out there kind of throws you off sometimes.”
Gordon has become a forgotten man on a losing team, his production not living up to his hefty contract (he has two years and $30.4 million left on it) and his fragile health serving as a trade deterrent. For his part, Pelicans coach Monty Williams says he keeps the faith that Gordon can revive an unfulfilled career after being the seventh overall pick of the Los Angeles Clippers in 2008.
“I’ve probably been the only guy that has [kept the faith],” Williams said. “I’m not backing off of that.”
Throughout his six seasons, Gordon’s career has been filled with more “what ifs” than accolades.
- What if the original Chris Paul deal in which the then-Hornets sent Paul to the Lakers had never been squashed by former commissioner David Stern — acting as the personnel decision-maker on the then league-owned team — and Gordon had remained with the Clippers to pair with Blake Griffin?
- What if he had never injured his knee, an issue that lingered and limited him to nine games during his first season in New Orleans?
- What if New Orleans, as Gordon asked, had not matched the max offer sheet he signed with Phoenix as a restricted free agent?
- What if he had never pleaded for New Orleans not to match and had simply, and happily, joined the franchise that coveted him?
“He has been through a lot, from the trade and things that happened in L.A. that were pretty disheartening for him, and then the stuff in Phoenix,” Williams said. “That was a time where I’m sure he wishes he could go back and do some things differently. But … check everybody out at 22 and ask what would they do differently [in their lives]?”
Gordon is now 25 and wiser, and he’s set a new course for himself, starting with a heavy-duty conditioning program following knee and ankle surgeries the past two years. He spent a large portion of last summer working out in Los Angeles at Athletes’ Performance under the guidance of Jen Swanson, now the director of sports performance for the Chicago Bulls.
“I was there five days a week … five to six hours a day,” Gordon said. “This is without basketball [activities]. It is all workout stuff to prevent injury. This is the best I’ve felt in a while.”
He’s missed just three games this season with a bruised hip after a hard fall against Sacramento. Which, of course, raises the biggest “What if?” of all.
What if Holiday and Anderson and Smith had all stayed healthy?
“Definitely there’s a foundation here,” Gordon said. “The crazy part is we’re still having injuries while we’re a young team and that’s just something we’ve got to figure out because we’ve always had injuries since I’ve been here. So we still haven’t played our full, collective unit since I’ve been here. But our foundation is good.”
Having a full, healthy team in New Orleans with Gordon a big part of it likely won’t happen until next season. And if Pelicans general manager Dell Demps shops Gordon this summer and finally finds a taker, it won’t happen then.
“You never know,” Gordon said. “Any player can get traded, I don’t care how high or low your value is, any player can get traded at any given time. It’s not like I do anything negative. I do play well and I do give a good, consistent effort every day.
“To me, it’s all about how how we can make ourselves better and how we can win. That’s all that matters.”