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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.


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.


  • Dec 22, 20111:13 pm
    by flip


    Great article. I think the Pistons bet was on one flukey 1st round series against the Celtics – one that he didn’t even win. Looks like they lost the bet, and have been doubling down every year since trying to make their money back. Time to take their loss, pay up, and just amnesty him already.

  • Dec 22, 20111:19 pm
    by bball4224


    johnhollinger John Hollinger
    RT @tribjazz: Ex-#UtahJazz center Kyrylo Fesenko drawing interest from Heat, Warriors, Pistons, Clippers, source says.

  • Dec 22, 20111:30 pm
    by vic


    i’d let him go too, but mainly because we have Daye at the 2, that can shoot just as well as him.
    We also have Stuckey that can defend better, and get to the hole just as well as him.

  • Dec 22, 20111:50 pm
    by flip


    Another thing on Gordon I find interesting is that the Bulls were trapped in mediocrity during Gordon’s entire tenure there. Now that he’s gone, they are finally having success again.

    Ironically, the Pistons have been trapped in mediocrity the last 2 years during Gordon’s tenure here. Gordon is off the team for 1 game the other night and for the first time in 2 yrs they won a game off of pure hustle/heart.

    You can’t win like that with a player like Gordon on the team because he doesn’t do any of those little things you need to win. All he does is shoot. When his shots are going in, you have a chance. When they aren’t, you pretty much can’t win, if he’s playing significant minutes.

    If he were making $3 mil/yr and only required 15 min/gm off the bench, he’d be a fine
    player to have in your rotation. Essentially on a Bynum-type contract. I think everyone agrees Bynum has a fair contract for his production/impact. When Bynum/Gordon are on the floor together, I never notice ANY difference in impact between the two. Plain and simple, that should tell Joe that Gordon should be on the same type of contract as Bynum. He doesn’t deserve 3x as much money or twice as much PT. Becaues you can’t chage his contract now, you have to trade him or amnesty him, something they should’ve done before the season. Now they have to wait until next season to use their amnesty.

    • Dec 23, 20115:22 am
      by Max


      The Bulls were trapped in mediocrity when they didn’t have good bigs.  That first round playoff series with Bos coincided with the emergence of Noah.
      The Pistons have been mediocre since the the decline of Rasheed Wallace.
      Ben Gordon’s regular season numbers for his career compared with those of Reggie Miller’s at the same point in their careers on the day of signing but this is certainly his put up or shut up year.
      I didn’t like the signing when it was made because I pretty much only like players that fit my vision of a Piston to a T and he just doesn’t, but I’m not that inclined to doubt his return to form, which doesn’t have to mean twenty points a game by the way; there is no reason why he couldn’t score 17 or 18 and even be an all around better player.
      I don’t like the point that his struggles last year disproves that he lost the previous season to injury,  From what I’ve noticed over the years it more often then not takes a player two yeas to recover completely from losing a year to injury.  Further, however you assign blame to RIP, McGrady and Kuester limiting him–I’m more inclined to not analyze and just call the entire thing chaos. One year was lost to injury and chaos and the other offers a host of reasons why nearly any player might have struggled.
      Some ESPN writer can compliment Kuester;s offense all they want, but the team seemed to hate and not believe him and there was an actual mutiny.  Frank is going to be awesome.
      Ben Gordon is still only 28 which means the last two years when he sucked and the next couple should be his prime.  Ultimately, his worth is tied more than anything else to how well he shoots the ball and while some players ala Steve Kerr may be able to come in and hit a shot here or there, Ben Gordon is not accustomed to that role.  His best moments as a Pistons seem to have all been when he felt comfortable that he would see extended minutes.  I’m pretty sure he will will be feeling more confidant of minutes to start the season, and I am hopeful that he will shoot well and return to some form.

  • Dec 22, 20111:58 pm
    by neutes


    Here’s what I see:

    Gordon’s shot attempts / TS% per 36 over his career
    04: 19.0 / 53%
    05: 16.7 / 53%
    06: 17.8 / 57%
    07: 16.8 / 56%
    08: 15.8 / 57%
    09: 14.5 / 53%
    10: 13.0 / 55%
    Career: 16.3 / 55

    His shot attempts per minute have falling for 5 consecutive seasons. His TS% has remained relatively steady. Basically he’s the same player he’s always been but he just doesn’t shoot, and since that’s all he does well he’s been pretty much worthless.

    I don’t buy any of the above excuses. I buy that he simply doesn’t care. That’s my excuse for him. Whatever fire he had in that Boston series is gone. He’s just going through the motions.

  • Dec 22, 20112:10 pm
    by gordbrown


    I agree it’s not a slam dunk that Gordon will bounce back after two years of horror (both for him and Pistons fans). I don’t agree that you can’t use injury as an excuse for last year. Gordon had surgery in the off season and he had it relatively late IIRC. I think he took a step back physically over the summer and the injury had some effect. What that might have been is difficult to determine because we’ve already proven he is a better player without Hamilton. Plus the Kuester factor affected every single Piston, but probably Gordon and Stuckey more than any other players. And to his credit there were stretches where Gordon was at least hustling on defense last year, which was a major contrast to his teammates (and utterly unnoticed and unrewarded for all that). Having said that, his performance in the pre-season looked pretty much unchanged from last year, so my optimism has certainly been tempered by that.

  • Dec 22, 20112:12 pm
    by Scott


    one word: AMNESTY!!!

  • Dec 22, 20112:19 pm
    by Adam


    I think that Gordon may surprise some people this year. If he’s given the 30+ minutes a game, I think he’ll be back to averaging about 18 points a game.
    I don’t buy that he doesn’t care. He has just seemed so lost and without a role over the past two seasons that he didn’t know how to react. Coupling that with Hamilton being in the same position and the stress of living up to a large contract, he just couldn’t get it done.
    If he’s able to get the minutes and touches, which they should do at least for half of a season to see if there is anything less, he will at least return to a productive player again.

  • Dec 22, 20112:26 pm
    by khandor


    Until Ben Gordon is used consistently at the PG position there is little chance that he will ever play at a level which approaches his maximum capacity, as a top flight NBA player. Unfortunately for Ben, to this point in his NBA career he has not had the luxury of playing for a coach who actually knows how to use him properly, according to his specific individual strengths and weaknesses [i.e. encompassing both his physical skills and his character traits]. This is not a rare situation in the NBA, however, as a great many players routinely have their pro careers ruined by relatively poor coaches who really have no business whatsoever being thought of as amongst the best practicioners in the basketball world. The closest player from the past who Ben Gordon actually resembles is Gus Williams, who … as a legitimate combo guard … was good enough to win a NBA Title, in Seattle, while manning the PG position, under the direction of Lenny Wilkens [i.e. coach and former NBA HOF player]. Indeed, it takes a very special coach to know how exactly to develop a team with a player like Ben Gordon at the helm … and the simple fact is that there are very few of these in the NBA.

    • Dec 22, 20112:47 pm
      by neutes



    • Dec 22, 20117:14 pm
      by Youssif


      What are you smoking and where can I get it?

  • Dec 22, 20112:52 pm
    by lk#1


    I still believe in him. He needs a good start to the season. Probably the problem is in his head – he needs to feel like a major part of that team. There were small samples of games when he looked liked the old Ben (e.g. beginning of the first season with Rip injured – i don’t remember the stats because it was such a long time ago but i thought he would be a force offensively for the Pistons). I think it was a depressing situation for him. He signed a huge contract with a respected team but everything went wrong.

    I guess he will get minutes to get confident and his scoring will be back. He may not be a long-term answer for the team but he’s got the potential to lead it offensively.

  • Dec 22, 20117:34 pm
    by Youssif


    You know what else is nearly unprecedented? A roster of players who, almost completely top to bottom (Including CV and Daye, excluding JJ, Max, Monroe and Big Ben) are all shooting guards.

    BG is good for a playoff team that needs a guy to step up and put up points to keep them in a game (see: Boston vs. Chicago a few years ago, and I really don’t think it was a fluke). He’s not good to build a team around, he’s not going to be the second best guy on a championship team, and he’s not going to take you very far if you’re hinging your playoff/title hopes primarily on his scoring.

    He’s like icing — you need the cake before you can talk about having him. Very situational, not the heart and soul of a team.

    • Dec 22, 20117:37 pm
      by Youssif


      Sorry, forgot to state my point: the better the Pistons get, the better Gordon will be. Keeping the icing analogy alive: you can’t bake a watery cake and expect the icing to make it all taste good. But the better a cake you bake, the better the icing will taste.

      Sidenote, I’m feeling some cake right about now.

  • Dec 23, 201112:22 pm
    by Laser


    Obviously I enjoy this site and come here often, but DAMN if there aren’t some wonky themes in the analysis. Chiefly, the tendency to point fingers at individual performances with no consideration to the overall environment these guys are somehow expected to perform in. Rip and Gordon are the two worst casualties, our juiciest scapegoats, and not-coincidentally the two guys who were paid a fortune to share a position when nobody with a shred of basketball acumen would predict they were likely to excel together.
    Nobody has been any good on this team, and Gordon is the last one you should expect to have excelled. And the problem isn’t “Rip Hamillton” as much as “the entire status of the backcourt, and really that hasn’t changed much. He’s the least compelling player on a loaded perimeter, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play the same brand of basketball he did in Chicago if you inserted him into a good system. Put him on a good defensive team that needs scoring and he’ll be the same guy he was before. Dude’s like 27.

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