Striking a Balance

Can Gordon stay hot after Stuckey returns to Pistons?
NEW YORK – In the nearly three seasons Ben Gordon has played with the Pistons, he’s yet to compile a scoring average that matches any among his five seasons spent with the Chicago Bulls. Even in his first NBA season, when Gordon won both Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year awards, the 15.1 points Gordon averaged – his lowest with the Bulls – beats the 13.8 he managed in his first season with the Pistons, his best since leaving Chicago.

With 75 points in his last three games, all as a starter with Rodney Stuckey out due to a left big toe injury, Gordon’s bumped his 2011-12 average to 12.6. The extra minutes he’s been able to play with a shorthanded backcourt – he’s averaged nearly 35 a game over the last three – have him back in a flow he hopes will carry over whenever Stuckey returns, which could be as soon as Monday night in Washington.

“I’m not going to lie. Especially for a shooter – you ask any shooter – it’s always easier when you have to time to build a rhythm,” he said after Saturday night’s 20-point performance against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, not far from where he starred in high school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. “Hopefully, when Stuck gets back healthy, I can still play alongside him and keep that rhythm going because that will be a dangerous tandem, the way he attacks and me being able to shoot the ball.”

Gordon’s production and playing time present Lawrence Frank with something of a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: Does Gordon need more minutes to produce more consistently, or does he need to produce more consistently in order to warrant more minutes?

Gordon’s secondary numbers closely align with his Chicago record. His field-goal percentages fall in line, with the only outlier being Gordon’s .321 3-point percentage in his first season with the Pistons; in all five of his years in Chicago, and in both of his Pistons seasons since then, Gordon has made more than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.

The most obvious difference between Detroit and Chicago? Shot attempts per minute. In five seasons with the Bulls, Gordon never averaged fewer than 15.8 shots per 36 minutes; in three seasons with the Pistons, Gordon’s high-water mark is the 14.5 he averaged two years ago. This year, he’s at 13.8, up from 13.0 a season ago.

That’s probably as simple as roster makeup. In Chicago, the Bulls leaned on Gordon for scoring, even when he was coming off the bench. Chicago’s frontcourt included players like Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah in Gordon’s heyday, players who didn’t have offense run for them. Luol Deng was usually the only other credible scoring option until the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose, who was teammates with Gordon for only one season.

When the Pistons signed Gordon, he came to a team with Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey in the backcourt, but the Pistons envisioned Gordon coming off the bench and playing around 28 to 30 minutes and scoring with great efficiency. Gordon has averaged between 26 and 28 minutes in his three seasons, not far off of expectations. And coming off the bench was a comfortable role for him in Chicago. Even in his middle three seasons with the Bulls, before Gordon finally became a full-time starter in his fifth season, Gordon started 125 of 234 games.

In his last three games, Gordon has shot the ball with notable confidence, making 13 of 21 from the 3-point line and 14 of 16 at the foul line.

“That’s what my game is about,” Gordon said. “Anytime I play aggressively and play with confidence, I can put the ball in the basket. I think at times, I haven’t done that throughout the year, so I’ve just got to keep it going.”

Beyond Gordon’s scoring, Frank has often cited him this year for his ability to make plays for others. In his 45-point explosion at Denver last week, Gordon found time to dish eight assists. When Stuckey returns, it’s possible Frank will look for ways to use Stuckey, Gordon and rookie Brandon Knight together in matchups where Stuckey could guard the opposition small forward. But frank is resolute in putting defense above all else and rebounding as a huge component of defense. In other words, he won’t use the three-guard lineup extensively if he feels it will compromise Pistons rebounding and, thus, their defense.

But they’ll have to produce more offensively than they have the past few games. In losses to Miami and New York, they failed to break 80 points. That, in part, reflects the growing reliance on Stuckey as he’s elevated his play since the season’s first month.

“He’s one of our best scorers, if not our best, especially our most aggressive guy off the dribble,” Gordon said. “When he’s there, even if we’re not making shots, he’s able to get to the line and able to create by getting into the paint. Our game is definitely different, but we’re still good enough to win games. We’ve got to adjust, because that was the way we were rolling for a long time. When he’s out, it’s just kind of different for some guys.”

The difference has opened the door for Gordon to find his rhythm. The trick will be for him to maintain it when Stuckey returns.