Eric Gordon is back with Clippers and familiar with his role among stars
For Eric Gordon, Monday’s setting was as familiar as the assignment.
The 34-year-old guard practiced for the first time since he was traded last week from Houston to the Clippers inside the same Playa Vista practice facility he called home during three seasons to start his NBA career, from 2008 to 2011.
It was the first opportunity to learn teammates’ preferences and the Clippers’ specific terminology. Any trade requires a learning curve.
His ultimate responsibilities are already understood from his time complementing ball-dominant superstars such as James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston. In a season in which the championship ambitions hinge on the Clippers’ duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it’s Gordon’s job — and those of guard Bones Hyland and backup center Mason Plumlee, who also practiced Monday for the first time since their trades here — to help the stars, and thus the team as a whole, play their best.
“Other guys, outside of them, would need to make quicker decisions, being ready to shoot, be ready to drive,” Gordon said. “Because they’re going to command a lot of attention. And whenever the other guys get the ball, it’s making the right decision at all times.”
The Clippers believe they made the right decisions to bring in Gordon, Hyland and Plumlee — trades Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, said were made with the overarching intent of improving the top eight or nine players in the Clippers’ playoff rotation. They have only eight weeks to mesh before the postseason begins.
Clippers forwards Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. believe the team needs another point guard and say Russell Westbrook could be the right fit.
“I’ve maybe been on two teams where we even talked about championships, and that’s in 10 years,” Plumlee said of his NBA career. “So to come into this situation, it’s an opportunity. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”
For Gordon, it’s a stark contrast to playing with Houston, which transformed from a Western Conference finalist to a lottery team during his seven seasons with the Rockets. He was the only veteran on a bottom-up rebuild centered on youth that had produced an NBA-low 13 wins this season.
“You got a lot of talent on this team,” Gordon said of the Clippers. “And whenever you have a good team like this, things can come a lot more easier than when you’re on teams that are trying to figure out ways to win.”
All three newcomers bring something different. Plumlee’s size should make him a legitimate backup for starter Ivica Zubac. Gordon was prized for his shooting range to space the floor, Frank said, and sturdiness as a defender when guarding bigger players. Hyland can score in a hurry, fueled by an energy and skills he crafted growing up by studying videos of the ballhandling legend known by the streetball nickname of Hot Sauce.
Yet all three, the Clippers hope, will elevate their championship chances through what they share: the ability to make plays as a passer. Last season, the Clippers’ de facto point guard off the bench was often center Isaiah Hartenstein, who could stand above the free-throw line and hit cutters or shooters running into open space off flare screens. Plumlee fills that void, with Frank recalling a 2016 postseason series against the Trail Blazers in which he picked apart the Clippers’ defense by acting as a release valve when Portland’s backcourt was blitzed and forced to give up the ball.
The Clippers no longer have a traditional point guard on the roster, and coach Tyronn Lue and players such as George and Marcus Morris Sr. have been vocal this season about the need for such a player in the rotation. On Friday, George and Morris openly campaigned to add Russell Westbrook, though he currently remains on Utah’s payroll after his trade from the Lakers.
Frank has acknowledged that the team’s offense can grow stagnant when too reliant on jump shots. The Clippers are still evaluating whether or how to fill their 15th and final roster spot through a buyout signing, and outside candidates at guard could be part of that evaluation. In the interim, Hyland and Gordon sounded more than willing to audition their playmaking abilities.
“I’ve always been playing one and two throughout my whole career,” said Gordon, who averaged 8.9 drives per game with Houston and assisted on nearly 9% of those drives, of playing point guard and shooting guard. “If I’m playing the one here, I think I’ll be able to space the floor and create easier opportunities for them.”
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, coach Tyronn Lue and the rest of the Clippers all have fond memories of the basketball courts where they learned the game.
During his first season-plus in Denver, Hyland said he wanted to show off more of his game as a playmaker and believes he can do that now with the Clippers to alleviate pressure on George and Leonard, who will continue to see double teams.
“More than just a scorer,” Hyland said. “I’m actually a point guard, and I offer that at a high level. And if you put me in that position, I’m going to dive into that position as well.”
Despite an All-Rookie season last year, Hyland was available via trade after growing frustrated with his role with the Nuggets, according to the Denver Post. He walked off the court during a game in January, which he referred to indirectly as a “frustrating moment” Monday.
There is no guarantee of Hyland’s role with the Clippers during their championship pursuit, with Gordon and Norman Powell also in the bench’s backcourt rotation — at least initially, as Lue experiments with new rotations — but Hyland said he is “all about winning” and was visibly thrilled to be with an organization that felt like home after he was hosted for predraft workouts in 2021. In the locker room, he sits next to Morris, whom he has known since he was 11.
“When I got the call [of being traded], I was doing jumping jacks inside of my house,” Hyland said.
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