There wasn’t much silver lining in the New Orleans Pelicans‘ first full game without shooting guard Eric Gordon on Tuesday night. Anthony Davis tied a season low with 14 points; the team made just 41.8 percent of its field-goal attempts; and the shorthanded Pels fell to 7-6 this season after a 99-89 loss to the similarly up-and-coming Sacramento Kings.
There’s a strong case to be made that Gordon’s injury will do some good things for this club. Even if the Pelicans aren’t immediately better without him, this could very well yield some postseason payoff. This is a serious injury that opens some big doors for others in the rotation.
The Pelicans released an announcement (via NBA.com) saying, “Gordon will be out indefinitely with a left shoulder injury,” and adding that, “An MRI revealed Gordon suffered a torn labrum as a result of the left shoulder subluxation injury that occurred Saturday night at Utah.”
It has all the makings of a prolonged absence, particularly with the looming possibility of surgery (and the recovery period that would ensue).
“We’ll see,” Gordon recently told reporters. “It’s a full tear. I still have a labrum. But it’s tough for any athlete to deal with that.
“If I keep on playing, it’s going to be a lingering issue. This thing doesn’t heal all the way correctly, I’ve heard, unless surgery happens. I don’t know, [the surgery option is] still hard to determine right now.”
He indicated it may take another week or two before a decision is made about surgery. Either way, this seems destined to turn into a months-long process. According to NOLA.com’s John Reid, “he could possibly miss up to three months or more to make a full recovery if he undergoes surgery.”
The glass-half-empty scenario is easy enough to paint.
“We’re definitely missing a big part of our team,” teammate Tyreke Evans told media this week. “He plays hard all the time and is a good teammate.”
Gordon had started 12 games this season and averaged 9.5 points in 31 minutes per contest. Early-shooting woes (including a 39.8 percent success rate from the field) notwithstanding, the Indiana product clearly plays a prominent role for head coach Monty Williams—as he should during a season in which the organization will pay him $14,898,938.
The seventh-year veteran hasn’t played in more than 64 games since his rookie campaign in 2008-09. One would assume his health is indispensable to New Orleans’ ambitions this season.
In a perfect world, the Pelicans would spend the next couple of months learning some lessons the hard way, sneak into the playoffs nevertheless and then find a healthy Gordon waiting for them in March or April. This is the more optimistic scenario, and it may be the more probable one.
The Pelicans currently rank 10th in the Western Conference and could still make a strong run at the No. 8 seed without Gordon. Hoping for anything better than that might be getting greedy, but this team has enough talent to remain in the postseason conversation.
If recent years are any indication, it will be a close race—but not an unwinnable one.
The good news is Davis is so far having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 25.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 36.7 minutes through 13 games. Point guard Jrue Holiday is healthy, and swingman Tyreke Evans has been productive across the board (though less than efficient from the field). With Ryan Anderson contributing nearly 15 points per contest off the bench, this team has options.
It will be in especially good shape if the supporting cast steps up. Third-year shooting guard Austin Rivers played 27 minutes against the Kings and should see similar playing time for the remainder of Gordon’s absence. Through 13 games he’s only averaged 7.5 points in 22 minutes per game, but he is making a career-high 45.3 percent of his field-goal attempts.
That’s actually an upgrade over Gordon’s mark.
CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore crunched the numbers and also found that, “the starting combination of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday have individually and as a pair been better with Austin Rivers on the floor than Eric Gordon.”
“A lot of this has to do with what has made so many dual-point-guard lineups successful,” Moore adds. “It gives you two playmakers and ball-handlers, and Rivers’ ability to get to the rim really helps when the weak side opens up because the defense must honor Davis and Holiday.”
In short, Rivers may benefit from increased time alongside the Pelicans’ best players. As a complementary player free to pull the trigger, he should get some quality looks.
Pressed into increased usage, Rivers’ efficiency may suffer. But the 22-year-old Duke product certainly has an opportunity to prove he can carry a more significant load.
So does 24-year-old small forward Darius Miller, who started for Gordon in what was just his fifth appearance this season. The former second-round pick went scoreless in 14 minutes on Tuesday night, but his coach has faith in his ability to bring something to the table.
“Darius is obviously a guy who is prepared [to contribute],” Williams told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “Our [player development] program is important to us because you never know when you’re going to get your name called. Darius, Luke, Tyreke, all those guys have played the 3 position for us.
“I think Darius would have to be a guy ready to play minutes…It’s on me to make the right decision to put guys in the game. The difference is putting someone in that small forward position who can be consistent. That’s something we have to work out.”
Jimmer Fredette could find himself in the mix as well. He only played nine minutes on Tuesday, but he could shoot his way into a consistent role.
More than any individual contribution, a little early adversity may help the Pelicans build some grit and connectivity. They have the talent to replace Gordon for a few months, but they’ll also need resolve. With a thinner margin for error, playing defense and doing little things now matter even more.
Hopefully that builds some good habits. Between individuals stepping up and the collective coming together, the Pelicans should be stronger when Gordon returns.
So long as their bad injury luck stops here.
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