The Houston Rockets tried to find the ideal backcourt partner for James Harden since The Beard’s arrival in 2012. From Jeremy Lin to Patrick Beverley to Ty Lawson, nobody seemed capable of meeting the team’s expectations for a guard who could take pressure off their franchise player.
Eric Gordon is hitting the ground running in his first season in Houston. He’s averaging 17.6 points in 32.6 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 44.4 percent from the field, including 39.5 percent from three. Meanwhile, Harden is putting up a career-high 31.8 points (fourth in the NBA) and leads the league with 12.4 nightly assists.
The duo’s success comes as no surprise to anyone involved with the organization. During Gordon’s introductory press conference, general manager Daryl Morey described the ex-Pelican as the “perfect complement” to Harden. Gordon also had high hopes for his partnership with his new teammate.
“I think it’s (backcourt with him and Harden) going to be great,” Gordon said in September. “We’re both playmakers. Like I told people before, I don’t need to have the ball in my hands all the time…With me and him, we’re trying to be as dynamic and unstoppable as possible.”
Like Harden, Gordon searched for a fellow guard who could bring out the best in him. It never happened in Los Angeles as the team fluctuated between wanting to rebuild and pushing to compete during his three years in Hollywood. In New Orleans, injuries prevented a tandem with Jrue Holiday from reaching its full potential. Now, he’s teamed up with Harden, one of the league’s most explosive and durable entities.
So far, the early results look promising. Harden and Gordon’s combined 49.4 points per game is third-highest among starting backcourts. A major part of the pair’s offensive output has been the three-ball. Harden (tied for second) and Gordon (tied for fifth) are both in the top-five in made three-pointers. Their 33 total trifectas is the most of any starting tandem in the league, as of Nov. 3.
Gordon was expected to open the season as the team’s sixth man. That role would’ve allowed Houston to keep the offensive momentum going when Harden sits and lightened the load on Gordon’s troublesome knees. However, with Beverley sidelined for up to six weeks following knee surgery, Gordon got the starting nod with Harden operating as the team’s point guard.
Harden’s ability to facilitate between scorer and distributor has been one of the keys to making this tandem work. Lin and Lawson struggled to find a rhythm playing alongside a ball-dominant guard like Harden, while Beverley’s offensive shortcomings didn’t keep opposing defenses up at night.
With Harden and Gordon both playing well, opponents must pick their poison. Both guards can create off the dribble and get to the basket at will. Both are excellent outside shooters. Both are capable of getting others involved, with Harden’s facilitation skills raising his already elite ceiling to another level this season.
The next step will be improving at the defensive end. The Rockets are 27th in defensive efficiency and allowing 107.4 points per game (21st). With Beverley out, the pressure is on Harden and Gordon to seal off the perimeter against opposing first units.
“With me starting, I’m going to have to guard mostly the top perimeter guy, and that’s fine,” Gordon said, per ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins. “They will have to guard me also. You just have to play both sides of the ball very well. Pat is known well for defense, and I have to put it up on both ends of the floor.”
Harden’s much-maligned defense still needs work, but there are signs of improvement. The team is allowing 107 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which isn’t great. However, it’s much better than the 115.4 they are surrendering when he sits, per NBA.com.
Gordon’s splits aren’t as one-sided. The Rockets have a defensive rating of 109.1 with their prized free agent acquisition on the court. The number drops to just 108.8 when he’s on the bench. Both Gordon (minus-4.3) and Harden (minus-2.0) are posting negative Defensive Box Plus Minus numbers. However, so is everyone else on the Rockets, per Basketball-Reference.
Gordon has the added obstacle of trying to stay healthy going forward. The 27-year-old’s body has betrayed him during his eight-year career. He’s never played a full season and hasn’t appeared in more than 64 games in a single campaign since his rookie year in 2008-09. With head coach Mike D’Antoni wanting either Harden or Gordon on the court at all times, it’s up to the latter to avoid the injury bug.
For now, things are working out for the Rockets’ new starting guard tandem. Harden looks like a natural as the team’s point man. Gordon is making the most of the opportunities Harden is providing. Houston is 3-2 and holding down the fifth spot in the West.
Even better, Harden believes the best is yet to come: “We’re a special group, and we’re fairly new,” he said following the club’s most recent victory over the Knicks. “so the more we’re going to continue to build and do things and play the right way no matter who we’re playing, the better off we’ll be.”