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Houston Rockets: Could trading Eric Gordon boost the team’s title chances?

By Dan Crouch
OAKLAND, CA - MAY 20: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a play against the Golden State Warriors during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 20, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - MAY 20: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a play against the Golden State Warriors during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 20, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Rockets will likely bring back the same core they had last season, but if they want to improve, their best bet could be trading Eric Gordon for a wing.

Eric Gordon has done nothing wrong in his time as a Houston Rocket. That’s not to say he has been explicitly perfect – nobody is – just that he has been reliable, trustworthy and ultra-passionate about winning for an organization and city he seems to genuinely love.

Gordon, a sixth man of the year and three-point shootout champion, has been an part of Houston’s success throughout the last three seasons. It would be brave of Daryl Morey to trade a dependable role player, but it could be Houston’s clearest path to improvement without completely re-structuring Mike D’Antoni’s game plan.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying Houston should trade Gordon, just that if Morey decides to make a big move involving a key player then this might be Houston’s best option.

Houston never successfully replaced Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute following their free agency departures last off-season. Danuel House was the closest Houston had to a starting small forward last season, and he was a lovely surprise, but his inexperience showed in the playoffs.

Eventually it was the 6’4 Gordon who claimed the starting role, which gave Houston four starters standing 6’6 or shorter (Chris Paul is 6’0, James Harden 6’5 and PJ Tucker 6’6, according to the Official NBA Website). In crunch time during the playoffs, Austin Rivers was the replacement for Capela as Houston tried to match Golden State’s small-ball lineup.

Five players ranging between 6’0 and 6’6 sharing the floor is bound to be a flawed lineup given the severe lack of height; this was the lineup which most plainly showed the hole left by Ariza and Mbah A Moute.

Trading Gordon for a bigger 3-and-D wing would pave the way for the freshly signed Rivers to slide into Gordon’s old role as the first guard off the bench, while also acquiring the bigger two-way wing Houston have been searching for to start and close games.

The key to this hypothetical trade being a realistic option is Rivers, and whether or not he can be reliable in a bigger role. He has been nothing but professional and dedicated since arriving in Houston, which is highly respectable given the history between Rivers and Houston (secret tunnels, 3-1 leads, trash talk, etc), but can he fill the sixth man role anywhere near as well as Gordon?

Rivers was a better contributor in the playoffs than he was in the regular season as he was more settled into his role, and there is no question he can play Gordon’s role if he carries his playoff form into next season. Per Basketball Reference, he shot an ugly 32.1% from three-point range in 47 games as a Rocket last season, but that number increased to 45.7% in ten postseason games.

In his final two years with the Clippers he shot 37.5% from three on 659 attempts. Can Rivers bring that level of consistency now that he is settled in Houston and not distracted by contract talks?

For what it’s worth, that 37.5% clip by Rivers is superior to Gordon’s 36.4% mark in his three seasons as a Rocket. That doesn’t mean Rivers is a better player or shooter than Gordon – none of this does, because he’s not – but it does mean Rivers has the ability to play Gordon’s role should Houston decide to trade him for a starting wing player, and it could lead to a better overall team in Houston next year.

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Rivers also shot 67.6% inside three feet last season as a Rocket, which is where he took 19.6% of his field goal attempts. A further 58.5% of his attempts came from three-point range, equating to 78.1% of his attempts coming from the two areas Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey want him shooting the ball. Gordon took 83.8% of his attempts from these two areas and connected on 63.4% of his attempts within three feet. The similarities in play style are visible, even if Rivers doesn’t have the three-point shooting ability or the range of Gordon.

Houston will be a better overall team if Gordon is replaced in the starting lineup with a two-way wing player, but only if it’s the right replacement player, and only if Rivers plays and shoots with consistency off the bench to make up for the loss of Gordon. Harden and Paul have no problem getting him open shots – 30.7% of his three-point attempts in Houston last season were considered wide open by the shot tracking tool on nba.com/stats – he just needs to make them.

Rivers connected on just 31% of his wide open three-point attempts as a Rocket last season. A more encouraging number last season was his 36.2% clip on 2.5 catch and shoot three-point attempts per game. The pieces of the puzzle are all there, he just needs to put them together, and there is no guarantee he will do so.

Morey would also need to find the ideal wing player – one who can make nearly 40% of his threes and defend multiple positions – if he is going to entertain trading Gordon, and he will need to see develop more trust in Rivers first too.

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Right now, Houston should not consider this risk, but they need to find a wing player somehow and this could be a viable possibility rather than a hypothetical later down the track.

If Rivers starts the season well, and an appropriate player becomes attainable, maybe Morey will swing for the fences and put his trust in Rivers. If not, here’s the good news: Eric Gordon is a handy player to keep around.

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