It was a routine play in the second quarter of a 20-point blowout, a bucket conjured out of simple, quick, Mike D’Antoni-endorsed decision making. Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon sent Sacramento Kings point guard Darren Collison backpedaling with a sharp jab step, pushing him directly into a Ryan Anderson screen.
Anderson plowed himself into the petite point guard, carving prime post position on the block. Gordon danced in front of Anderson’s man, Garrett Temple, froze him with a slick in-and-out dribble and fed Anderson through the passing lane created by his ball handling. Anderson wasted no time, parlaying his 10-inch height advantage into a short jumper.
The otherwise unnoteworthy sequence was one of mere folklore a year ago, when injuries stopped both Anderson and Gordon from forming a second act to Anthony Davis’s rise to superstardom in New Orleans. After the duo combined to miss 53 games in 2015–16, Anderson is now sniping off high ball screens set for James Harden, and Gordon has reestablished the slithery scoring style he honed during his early seasons with the Clippers. Many have Gordon pegged as the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
“It doesn’t surprise me how he’s playing,“ said Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, who voted for Gordon as an All-Star reserve. “I think he’s playing the way he’s played since he’s gotten into the league when he’s been healthy. And obviously, he’s healthy there.”
Gordon never eclipsed 64 games during his five seasons in New Orleans and the injuries didn’t stop with him. According to the site InStreetClothes.com, the Pelicans have had more players miss games due to injury than 66% of their NBA rivals since 2005–06, when the site began curating its data. “It was there all four years I was there. It was there a couple years even before that,” Anderson said. “It’s an odd thing.”
It manifested last season, when New Orleans players missed 351 games due to injury—11 individuals missed over 10 games and six missed over 20—the second-highest, single-season total of any team in the last decade. Members of the Pelicans front office and coaching staff swear they maintain full faith in the franchise’s medical team, citing a string of fluke injuries, like Anderson knocking heads with Gerald Wallace in Jan. 2014, causing a potential career-ending herniated cervical disc. “I got hit, there’s nothing the training staff could have done to prevent that,” Anderson said. “You can’t really point fingers. If there is such a thing as voodoo, it’s in New Orleans.”
Gordon harbors a different perspective. “The teams that win, they don’t have health issues or concerns because they make that their No. 1 task,” he told The Crossover. “It was a weird time, a weird tale for me in New Orleans.” Gordon then leaned back in his cushy, black-leather courtside seat at Barclays Center, fresh off a morning shootaround before the Rockets’ Jan. 15 clash with the Brooklyn Nets.
Aside from his patented, squared shooting mechanics, Gordon appears more relaxed and fluid these days. In New Orleans, he trained closely with longtime Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, walking through his shooting routines. Gordon would perform a move, fire a shot and then stroll back to his starting spot. It’s a method frequently utilized by cagey veteran sharpshooters, not 27-year-old scoring dynamos with All-Star potential. “I had to do different things with explosion, and getting to the rim and worrying about my first step,” Gordon explained.
Vinson and Gordon first joined forces with the Clippers, when the Indiana product appeared destined for stardom. Before his second season, the guard hosted Vinson for several days in Indianapolis, picking up the young coach from his hotel at 6 a.m. each morning to run Gordon’s high school track before the summer sun rose. Then in his mid 30s, Vinson still maintained playing condition from his own professional career, outlasting the young combo guard in the warm up, one-mile runs. Yet Gordon, of equal 6’4” stature, repeatedly burned Vinson in 400, 200 and 100-meter sprints.
That athleticism seems to have resurfaced in Houston nearly a decade later. Gordon and Harden compete in aggressive warm-up regimens, circling the arc with a series of hard dribble combinations before draining triple after triple. When he facilitates for the Rockets’ second unit, Gordon looks like he bounces with his handle, seamlessly weaving the ball between his legs before slipping around a defender. “He surprised us a little bit,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a better playmaker than what we thought.”
Gordon believes the Rockets’ training staff is the secret ingredient to finally maximizing his talent and athleticism. Houston constantly rotates its players through the weight room. “I’ve never lifted this much,” Gordon said. The Rockets’ strength and conditioning program is a modified version of the plan first molded by the team’s former health science guru Joe Rogowski, previously the Orlando Magic’s strength and conditioning coach when Anderson first entered the league.
“I’d do postgame lifts occasionally in Orlando,” Anderson said. “Everything is very thought out and thoughtful towards making sure your body is the most refreshed it can be for game days, so I think that this is definitely the most—the only word I can just think of is ‘thought.’” Now, Rockets director of athletic performance Javair Gillet—his LinkedIn profile picture shows him beaming alongside Bill Nye—has further engineered the program. “There’s just so much attention to prevention and attacking an issue before it becomes an issue,” Anderson said.
Gordon has been guided in a multitude of core exercises he says he’s never experienced. The postgame lifts Anderson alluded to can be more draining than the night’s actual contest. “We’ll lift weights, I mean heavy after a game,” Gordon said. “No matter overtime, double-overtime, we’re in that weight room right after every game.” The lifts typically consist of 5–10 different Olympic weightlifting exercises, tasked in sets of three or four. “And then you’re basically done and then you’re fresh for the next day,” Gordon said.
The Rockets have launched a 34–14 start to this season, with Gordon and Anderson respectively playing 46 and 45 of the team’s 48 contests. Anderson is draining 40.3% of his three-pointers, the second-highest mark of his career, and a ridiculous 35.4% on outlying attempts from 25–29 feet. Gordon is flirting with a career-high at 20.5 points per 36 minutes, shouldering creation responsibilities for Houston’s second-unit and thriving as Harden’s sidekick for roughly 19.5 minutes per game. Sometimes, the grass is greener on the other side of the Southwest Division.