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Eric Gordon’s latest injury brings up major questions for Rockets

Houston needs a healthy Gordon for the postseason. Will they get one?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

When Eric Gordon first signed with the Houston Rockets, he came with a pretty significant injury history. Suffering from various knee and shoulder ailments, Gordon averaged just 44 games per season during his five seasons in New Orleans, so despite his obvious talent, the Rockets took a risk when they signed him to a four-year, $53 million free agent deal in the summer of 2016. I remember a lot of us here thinking it was only a matter of time before his robust injury list began to flare up again.

However, for the first few seasons, Gordon experienced a period of good health unprecedented in his pro career. He played in 75 games, the most of his career, in the 2016-2017 season, his first with the Rockets, and he capped it off by winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award and averaging 16.2 points per game off of the bench.

He quickly became one of Houston’s most important pieces, and though streaky at times, he continued to produce as one of the Rockets’ top scorers, averaging 18 points per game in 2017-2018 and 16.2 points per game in the 2018-2019 season. On top of that, despite a few minor injuries, he continued to be mostly healthy, playing in 212 out of 246 games for the Rockets from 2017-2019, the most games he’s played in any three-season set over the course of his entire career.

He capped it off with the best playoff performance of his career, averaging 17.8 points in Houston’s 11 postseason games in 2019, shooting 44.7 percent from the field and a scorching 40 percent from deep, including a 30-point, 7 three-pointer performance in a Game 3 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Gordon was rewarded handsomely. The Rockets signed him to a whopping four-year, $75 million extension, which includes $20 million in the 2022-2023 season and a non-guaranteed $21 million in the 2023-2024 season.

But if EG continues on his current trajectory, there’s no way he sees that team option for his final year.

Signed to be the third major piece of Houston’s core that also includes James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Gordon’s barely been on the floor this season, playing in just 34 games so far. And when he has played, he’s been bad.

His current season average of 14.5 points per game is the lowest since 2015 in New Orleans. His current 37 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from deep would qualify as the absolute lowest of his career if they hold.

Worse still, EG just looked off. You could tell something wasn’t right. He was a step slow and had no legs at all on his jumpshot. What we saw with our eyes was confirmed from the trainer’s room, when it was announced that Gordon needed knee surgery and would miss six weeks of time.

Gordon would return to the Rockets, and though he had his moments — including a 50-point eruption against the Utah Jazz that led the Rockets to a win despite James Harden and Russell Westbrook both not playing — he was mostly inconsistent, particularly with his shot. In fact, exemplifying his struggles, take out his 6-11 shooting from deep in the Jazz game and Gordon was in the midst of 7-45 stretch from beyond the arc. He also continued to miss games and clearly wasn’t in peak physical form.

That’s one of the reasons this layoff was supposed to be particularly kind to the Rockets. Getting Gordon some rest and rehab would be critical to a title run, and there was plenty of time off in order to do that.

But EG is back on the shelf, sidelined for two weeks with an ankle injury sustained against the Boston Celtics. But the truth is, the rested healthy Gordon we saw in the scrimmages looked a lot like the injured version we saw before the break.

Before he went down, Gordon was averaging just 9.3 points per game and was shooting 34.3 percent from the field and was 3-20 from deep for the three-game scrimmage preseason. Not inspiring confidence that a rested, healthy EG was going to be a difference-maker. And that’s if he’s even truly healthy.

Because that’s how it happens sometimes, isn’t it? For some guys, it goes all at once. Just look at Tracy McGrady and how quickly he fell off. I’m certainly not comparing EG and T-Mac as players, simply saying there’s precedent for a guy who’s struggled with injuries for most of his career falling off of a cliff around age 30 following knee surgery. McGrady was 29 when his precipitous free fall began. Gordon is currently 31.

Now this absence could possibly be a blessing in disguise. Ben McLemore has stepped up in the scrimmages, though he’s also been a bit inconsistent, going for 26 points on 6-7 from three one night to 3 points and 1-7 from deep the next. We’ve also seen some positive from DeMarre Carroll, as he went for 9 rebounds against Memphis. The injury could could force Mike D’Antoni’s hand to open up his notoriously tight rotations a bit.

But the bigger problem is what to do when EG comes back. If he’s not healthy and performing, how long do the Rockets roll with him if he continues to shoot sub 30 percent from three (he was 15 percent in scrimmages)? Even if he is able to shake off the rust, the Rockets may have to limit his minutes in order to keep him healthy. Not sure if 30-plus is going to work for Gordon anymore.

There’s also something to look at in the long term. Say even the best-case scenario happens. Gordon comes back, he finds his shot, he plays well, the Rockets either go far in the playoffs or even win a title (hey, best-case scenario here, right?), does anyone have confidence that Gordon will remain healthy going forward? He’s got $58 million guaranteed through 2023. That’ll put EG 34 going on 35. Is doesn’t take Zoltar to see this could be a problem situation for the Rockets.

But at least for now, that’s an issue for another day. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for EG. A healthy and effective return still remains a key, in my opinion, for a deep Houston playoff run. The Rockets need him. Let’s hope EG can be there.