Eric Gordon’s Rockets extension is smart, assuming Houston’s grand experiment works

Gordon is a valuable Rocket. Whether he’s a contributor to a title contender depends entirely on others, though.

Another top 2020 NBA free agent is off the market, as the Houston Rockets locked in Eric Gordon with a 3-year, $54 million contract extension on Friday. That will keep Gordon under contract through the 2022-23 season.

There’s a non-guaranteed $21 million fourth year on the extension. The circumstances under which it becomes guaranteed: the Rockets win a title or Gordon makes the All-Star team between now and then. Odds are if either happened, the Rockets would want to pick up the guarantee anyway, so it’s truly a harmless extra year.

This is a good deal for the 30-year-old Gordon. He’s a really good player, either starting or off the bench. His combination of shooting and driving ability is valuable in the lay-ups and threes style Houston (and, increasingly, everyone) plays. He’s a tough competitor and a good teammate. He plays well with James Harden, which is the core quality every key Rocket must have.

It’s smart of Daryl Morey and the Rockets to lock up Gordon now considering the anemic nature of the 2020 free agent class. Players will get overpaid in that environment, and veterans below the All-Star level, like Gordon, are the players most likely to be overpaid. Locking Gordon in now keeps him at a price Houston feels comfortable paying without any other active bidders mucking things up.

That said, this extension really only works out if the Rockets’ grand experiment pairing Harden with Russell Westbrook works out.

This is the case with so many contracts and trades in the NBA. Context is everything when it comes to role players — which Gordon is, even though he’s in the upper echelon of role players. If Harden and Westbrook implode or never quite figure it out, all of the Rockets’ other roster work — including Gordon — are irrelevant. If Harden and Westbrook mesh and the Rockets stay in the top tier of contenders, then every little move Morey has and will make matters more.

It’s probably not fair to Gordon or Morey that this deal will be viewed exclusively through the prism of whether Houston can do with Westbrook what they could not with Chris Paul, which is to beat Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series and make the NBA Finals. Harden hasn’t been able to beat Curry. Westbrook hasn’t been able to beat Curry. Gordon can help the task — in fact, Gordon ends up defending Curry a lot in these series — but it’s very difficult to imagine Gordon being good enough to make the difference if the Harden-Westbrook team-up isn’t a rousing success.

In other words, the fate of the Rockets depends on Harden and Westbrook. If that duo is good enough to make Houston a title contender, Gordon and all the others really come into play. If the duo doesn’t work, nothing really matters given Houston’s stated and obvious goal to win a championship.

Gordon was going to be a Rocket this season regardless, so the extension doesn’t really change anything. What this extension really does is lock Houston into an asset allocation for a certain type of role player, under the assumption that Harden and Westbrook work properly. The Rockets have elected to invest these considerable resources in ensuring they retain a top third guard who can shoot and drive in lieu of chasing a longer wing who can start with Harden and Westbrook and defend multiple positions. That’s arguably what the Rockets need most given Harden and Westbrook’s defensive limitations and high offensive workload. P.J. Tucker can do but so much.

But grabbing a player like that is difficult, while retaining Gordon — again, a very good player — was much more straightforward. And given Houston’s stylistic proclivities — and those of coach-for-now Mike D’Antoni — Gordon is probably the right fit anyway.

Again, that’s if Houston is in the elite tier of NBA teams. Which depends on how Harden and Westbrook mesh.

If not, all bets on everything in Houston are off.

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