Ben Gordon returning to form would be nearly unprecedented

Growing up, Ben Gordon showed a natural gift for basketball and played as much as he could. But his grandmother scolded him for waking their neighbors by bouncing the ball in the middle of the night.  So, he woke up at 5 a.m. to work out before high school classes.

That allowed Gordon to keep going, but plenty of talented young players work hard.

Gordon earned  a scholarship to Connecticut, one of the nation’s top basketball programs. But early in his career, he earned the less-than-affectionate nickname “Gentle Ben.” So, he toughened up and led Connecticut to a national championship.

That allowed Gordon to keep going, but plenty of college players win national titles.

In 2004, the Bulls drafted him No. 3 overall and made him a starter. But in his first three games, all losses, Gordon scored just 26 points on 9-of-29 shooting. So, Gordon went to the bench, won Sixth Man of the Year,  and helped the Bulls win 47 games for their best record since they had Michael Jordan.

That allowed Gordon to keep going, but plenty of NBA players thrive off the bench.

By the time Gordon signed a five-year, $58 million contract with the Pistons in 2009, he was a basketball success, though not a superstar. His path to the top wasn’t astonishing, but he simply overcame the fairly moderate challenges in front of him, time after to time.

Now, after the worst two seasons of his NBA career, Gordon faces his supreme on-court challenge: becoming a 20-point-per-game scorer again. After scoring 20.7 points per game in his final season with the Bulls, his average has dropped to 13.8 and 11.2 with the Pistons.

In NBA history, a player has averaged at least 20 points per game in a season only to have his scoring average drop by at least six the next season 116 times. Just five returned to their pre-drop scoring average: Pete Maravich, Bernard King, Kelly Tripucka, Antawn Jamison, and Kobe Bryant.

This is not something plenty of players have done.

Overcoming the decline

Gordon’s challenge is even more daunting, considering his scoring average dropped again between 2009-10 and 2010-11. That puts him in line with a majority of the players who never returned to form.

Only one in the sample of 116, Tripucka, returned to his original average without an immediate bump the year after his drop. Tripucka’s two down years came during a nightmarish stint with the Utah Jazz, and he scored more only after joining the expansion Charlotte Hornets, who allowed him to post a career-high usage.

Other than Tripucka, only one other player returned to even 80 percent of his pre-drop scoring average without improving it the year immediately after the drop – George Gervin, whose second drop was a mere 0.3 points and barely returned to 80 percent of his original scoring.

Excuses

Gordon’s struggles with the Pistons have largely been pinned on three excuses:

I believed Gordon’s ankle injury, apparently the first serious injury of his career, destroyed his 2009-10 season. When he played even worse last season, that theory became mostly unbelievable. If the injury is still affecting Gordon – either physically or mentally (more likely the latter at this point, if it still still has an effect at all) – that’s a serious problem and one that won’t necessarily be resolved this season if it hasn’t been already.

The theory with Hamilton is having another similarly abled shooting guard on the roster hindered Gordon by preventing him from receiving consistent minutes or getting into a rhythm. In Detroit, Gordon has played 92 games with Hamilton and 52 without him.

  • With: 9.8 points per game, 14.7 points per 36 minutes, 52.6 true shooting percentage
  • Without: 16.8 points per game, 19.2 points per 36 minutes, 55.8 true shooting percentage

That certainly indicates the Hamilton theory might be true. But Gordon’s without-Hamilton points per game and points per 36 minutes are both lower than his Chicago averages, and remove Gordon’s inefficient rookie year, it’s also true of true shooting percentage.

As far as John Kuester, many claim he managed every player wrong, including Gordon. That doesn’t really jive with the Pistons’ above-average offensive rating last year and Sebastian Pruiti’s frequent praise of Kuester’s plays, though.

Maybe these excuses are valid. We’ll have a much better idea this season.

But remember, the other 111 players who never returned to their original level of scoring all had excuses, too.

Signs of permanent disrepair

As John Hollinger pointed out, Gordon is playing like he’s lost a step. A lack of explosiveness is evident in three stats:

  • The percentage of his total field-goal attempts coming at the rim has dropped from 21 to 18 to 16 the last three years.
  • His turnover percentage was a career-high 14.4 last season.
  • His 2.7 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes last year were, by far, a career low.

The eye test would peg Gordon in his mid-30s. But Gordon is much younger, which makes his decline all the more confusing.

The average age of the players who returned to form was 24.8 in their pre-drop season. The average age of the players who didn’t was 28.1.

Gordon was 25.

Betting on the fluke

Gordon, at his best, is one-dimensional. He doesn’t rebound, pass or defend exceptionally well. He scores a lot, pretty efficiently, and limits his mistakes.

There’s value in a player like that, but when Gordon isn’t scoring, he’s a liability on the court. Set to make $37.2 million the next three year, he’s a liability on the salary cap, too.

It’s now-or-never time for Gordon, if that line hasn’t already been crossed. The Pistons bought out Hamilton and fired Kuester.

They appear willing to bet on Gordon. It’s not’s not a wager I would make, but they might not have another option at this point.

Thankfully, they can hedge. If Gordon doesn’t make they type of turnaround that occurs less than once in a generation, the Pistons have an out: amnesty.

That, I’d bet on.

Tags: Ben Gordon John Kuester Richard Hamilton