Think back. Can you remember who shot the Bulls back into contender form with countless threes in between the post-Michael Jordan and pre-Derrick Rose eras? He’s a two at heart in a point guard’s body. He was drafted No. 3 in 2004 after leading UConn to a national championship. Ben Gordon is 29 now, in his ninth season in the league, and as all the expectations that he would lead Chicago back to the promised land faded, so did his name.
We’ve forgotten about someone we shouldn’t have. Someone who does one thing that every team needs: he can flat out shoot the ball, holding a career playoff average of 20.2 points per game (mostly off the bench at that). He was also the first rookie in NBA history to win Sixth Man of the Year.
We’ve also forgotten about his college big man in Storrs, Emeka Okafor, who was drafted No. 2 ahead of Gordon that same year. Okafor was also expected to be the face of his franchise in Charlotte, taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Despite a career average of 12.7 points and 10.1 boards since then, Okafor, now 30, isn’t mentioned in the conversation on the league’s elite centers; he doesn’t cut the honorable mention list, either.
Yet like Gordon, he does one thing invaluable to a team: he blocks shots. Before missing most of last season with a knee injury, Okafor was 11th in the league in regular-season blocks per game (1.76) in 2010-11, and 13th in the league in regular-season total blocks (127) — four spots ahead of Andrew Bynum.
Gordon gives you instant offense, Okafor gives you defensive presence. So why have these two proven vets been erased from NBA memory? Some people call them “busts,” but I prefer the term “unconventional” to describe them. Or, maybe misfits in the current landscape. Gordon entered the league when seven out of the first 10 draft picks were forwards or centers, but now quick, slashing combo guards that can get to the cup at will have taken over the league. Just look at Gordon’s long-term replacement in Chicago: Derrick Rose. Gordon’s perimeter game doesn’t fit in with the changing of the guard represented by Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the West.
Okafor is also in-between positions. At 6-10 he has the fundamental skills of a power forward, but doesn’t have the size of the big body bangers like Dwight Howard or Bynum. But Okafor has something that the dominant centers in the league don’t have: consistency. Likewise, Gordon has what many flashy guards in the league don’t have: patience and a high shot-selection IQ.
The 2008-09 season was arguably Gordon’s best, but it would be his last in a Bulls uniform. Rose won Rookie of the Year averaging 16.8 points and 6.3 assists per game, while Gordon dropped 20 a night on 45 percent from the field and 41 percent beyond the arc, helping the Bulls clinch the seventh spot (41-41) in the East for a playoff berth. Though Chicago eventually lost 4-3 to the defending champs Celtics in the first round — arguably one of the greatest duels in playoff history, in which the seven-game series was the first to have four games reach overtime.
Gordon scored 42 points in a heartbreaking, three-point Game 2 loss, but showed he and Rose could build one of the most explosive backcourts in the East together. Yet their dynamic was broken up when Gordon and Chicago couldn’t agree on a long-term deal. Instead Gordon signed with the Pistons, where most believe the drop off in his career began as did his scoring average. He still continued to put up respectable numbers as a reliable outside shooter despite a shoulder injury in his final season, averaging 12.5 points a game in his three years in Motor City. He even tied his own NBA record of nine consecutive threes without a miss.
But Detroit failed to make the playoffs in each of Gordon’s three seasons, never winning more than 30 games a year. In June he was traded to Charlotte, the place where Okafor’s NBA career began.