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Eric Gordon looking for bounce-back year after returning to sixth man role

Under Stephen Silas, the Houston Rockets are expecting to have Eric Gordon reclaim his sixth man role this season.

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Eric Gordon says he is fine with either role.

Before the Houston Rockets can tip-off their new season, Stephen Silas made his first major decision as head coach. His projected starting five will consist of John Wall, James Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker and Christian Wood. Filling in as a reserve on the sideline will be Gordon.

Under Silas, the 13-year veteran will reclaim his role as Houston’s sixth man this season. Silas said the strategy is to utilize Gordon as a secondary ball-handler outside of Harden and Wall. The two parties announced the mutual decision following practice on Monday.

Silas mentioned that it meant a lot to have a player willing to accept a non-starter role. But Gordon is no stranger to filling in as a reserve. He earned Sixth-Man of the Year honors in 2017, but his role with the Rockets has been inconsistent since.

Gordon has played in 173 games, starting in 98 over the last three seasons. A part of his inconsistency was the result of filling in for an injured Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook. But when the Rockets had their All-Star guards in the lineup, Gordon’s role was still in question. The back-and-forth Gordon has experienced could be the logic behind his recent struggles. But does it truly matter if Gordon is starting or not?

“For him, it has to be something consistent. It can’t be game-to-game where he is starting or coming off the bench. Players play their best when they know what is coming. I want him to be comfortable on the floor. I want him to get his shot attempts. And I want him to be a primary scorer. With the first group, I felt it was a little bit harder for him to do that. We talked about it and came to a mutual decision that coming off the bench would be a good thing.” — Silas

It is hard to argue that Gordon is better suited coming off the bench than starting. He is averaging 17.5 points as a starter in comparison to 14.7 points as a reserve. He currently holds a plus-minus of +5.8 coming off the bench, which increases to +9.1 as a starter.

His higher on-court production as a starter is the effect of sharing the court with Harden — the league’s most prolific scorer. Harden draws most of the opposing team’s attention on defense, which creates easier scoring opportunities for Gordon. He was also asked to do less playing off the ball alongside Paul and Westbrook in recent years. So Gordon’s stats as a starter could be a bit inflated.

However, despite the numbers, Gordon is more vital to the Rockets’ success coming off the bench than starting. He gives Houston the necessary spark needed for their second unit, similar to the role Manu Ginobili played for 16 seasons in San Antonio.

“It’s always been tough and weird for me. I just want to have consistency where I either come off the bench or start. In previous years of going back-and-forth was sometimes frustrating as a player. I am fine with either role. I know I am going to come off the bench and create a big spark for the second unit. And that is what I look forward too.” — Gordon

Gordon is at his best when playing on the ball, which is something he rarely experiences as a starter. The less time he spins on the court with another ball-dominant guard, the more he can utilize his skill set as a high-volume two-guard. This is more apparent when looking back at Gordon’s 50-point explosion against the Jazz in January.

Houston Rockets v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

In Harden’s and Westbrook’s absence, Gordon took the helm as Houston’s primary ball-handler. Although a starter, he registered a season-high usage rating of 35.0 percent en route to a career-night in Salt Lake City. Without the former MVPs, Gordon had the freedom to showcase his scoring repertoire with the ball in his hands.

Gordon’s best year in Houston remains his first season with the Rockets. He was the second primary ball-handler behind Harden before the Rockets began experimenting with high caliber point guards. The results in 2017 led to Gordon averaging 16.2 points and a career-high 246 made 3-pointers. That season, Gordon appeared in 75 games and started 15.

“I just worry about winning. When I start, we always had two prominent guards, and I’ll just space the floor because the other team does not want me to shoot. But I know if I come off the bench, I’ll have more of a chance to have the ball in my hands, and create more offensive opportunities for myself. But I really don’t care as long as we win — that’s the main thing.” — Gordon

Ultimately, it does not matter whether Gordon is starting or coming off the bench. Gordon’s durability will determine his on-court production for the season.

Injuries have always hindered Gordon’s play on the court. It robbed him from reaching the potential that made him a lottery pick coming out of Indiana in 2008. And is the reason why his play has declined since 2017.

Last season was an injury-plagued year for the 31-year-old shooting guard. He appeared in 36 games hampered by a knee injury and missed 22 consecutive after undergoing arthroscopic surgery.

Before the operation, Gordon was far from his best. He was averaging a career-low 10.9 points on 30.9 percent shooting from the field — 28.4 percent from deep — through the first 10 games of the season. Gordon reestablished himself as Houston’s X-factor averaging 17.7 points through his first 15 games after his return. The 75 games Gordon played in 2017 remains his career-best as a Rocket.

Entering the new season, Gordon says he is healthy and ready to go. His top goal is to help this team win a championship whether he is starting or coming off the bench. But regardless of Gordon’s role, one thing is for sure. The Rockets are a better team with Gordon on the court than without him.