This morning I published a piece for Bleacher Report about Eric Gordon and the depressing trade market the New Orleans Pelicans find themselves staring down. The heart of that piece was a breakdown of changes that have manifested in Gordon’s game over his two-and-a-half injury ravaged seasons in New Orleans. Preparing to write that section I sank into video of his 2010-2011 campaign, his last with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Injuries had already begun chipping away at Gordon’s physical being when he was a Clipper, but his play was still remarkable. A slightly rounded physique and bow-legged gait in moments of calm camouflaged just how destructive he could be when the action picked up. The Clippers pick-and-roll was a mechanism for opening seams, avenues for Gordon to explode through. He lacked the raw strength of Eric Bledsoe, but was every bit his equal in quickness, speed and the ability to collect and ride forward momentum. Stir all of that in with a beautiful jump shot and an off-ball game of savvy refinement and Gordon was on the road to becoming something special.
In comparing his youthful, vital self to the version who’s slogging through another season in New Orleans, the most striking thing was how small the differences were. As I alluded to in that B/R piece, the only thing to really draw a circle around was that he appears a step slower and can no longer explode out of the pick-and-roll the way he used to. Of course that small difference has a spiderweb of effects, stretching throughout his entire game. But everything looks the same, from his gait to his shooting form, it’s all just a fraction of a second slower and lower than it used to be.
And I found that fact to be irrationally depressing.
When it comes to injury pity parties we all throw lavish galas for the players who’s slates were wiped clean. Bill Walton had years stripped away, Greg Oden’s career fell down a well (recently extracted by some well-intentioned fireman from South Florida), and Brandon Roy is a celestial comet who burned up entering our atmosphere. But what about the players for whom nagging injuries have been a dead weight, dragging them off the top of the pyramid and pulling them down a tier (or tiers) lower than they would have otherwise been a part of. I’m talking about players for whom injuries have knocked trajectories just slightly askew, not enough for hand-wringing or rocking in the fetal position, but enough to rewrite a legacy.
Thinking about what Gordon had been, and could have been, is not an exercise in catastrophic grief, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. He had the potential to become an elite offensive talent, the kind who carry entire narrative arcs on his back, driving the fortunes of men and Men. He could have been a version of Russell Westbrook, free from the baggage and pretense that comes with masquerading as a true point guard (whatever the hell that means).
But what we got instead was about 85% of that, still a very good basketball player, but indisputably less than. A fact which is almost more depressing than his complete absence.
In a choking twist of irony, by returning so close to form Gordon has made himself culpable for his own failures. If injuries had forced him to walk away from the game forever he could wrap himself in a protective shroud of sympathy. But by continuing to play the perception is changed — his struggles are his own, not his knee’s, ankle’s or hip’s. He’s close enough to what he was, recognizable enough as his former self that the Eric Gordon zeitgeist becomes how his attitude and choices on the court are the reasons he never maximized his potential. We can even convince ourselves in malicious deception on his part, and that maybe he was never that good to begin with.
But I’m not willing to chalk up that missing 15% to Gordon’s on-court decision making, a lack of effort, or a swell of surliness and passivity. And I’m certainly not willing to mark it down as an illusion or an overly optimistic assessment of his previous abilities. I’ve watched the tapes. He was gold, Ponyboy.
So consider this a eulogy for all the half-steps that have been lost, the quarter-inches of vertical leaps suppressed and the traces of physical explosiveness neutralized; for the players who didn’t burn out in a blaze of glory but fought their way back onto the court for the right to fade away into shadows of themselves. Pour one out today for the slivers of greatness we’ve lost out on, the shavings, the edges, the tracings and the margins. This is for Chris Webber’s lift, Amare Stoudemire’s bounce, Dwyane Wade’s endurance and Eric Gordon’s beautiful first step. You are gone, but not forgotten.