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.
In the team’s inaugural season as an expansion franchise team, the Bobcats looked to Okafor to bring them to the top ranks of the league. Okafor averaged a double-double in all five of his years with the team. In 2007, he had an NBA season-high 10 blocks against the Knicks, the most ever recorded in a single game at Madison Square Garden.
Yet the Bobcats neither made the playoffs with Okafor nor won more than 35 games in a season.
And like Gordon, the 2008-09 season would arguably be his best and last with the team that drafted him. He shot a career high 56 percent from the field and blocked 1.7 shots a game (to go along with 13 and 10).
In 2009, he was traded to the Hornets for Tyson Chandler, a move that’s perceived as the first indication of Okafor’s decline. Despite averaging a solid 10.3 points and 8.8 boards per game over three years with New Orleans, his numbers were down from Charlotte, and for the first time he didn’t average a double-double. To make matters worse, last season he missed 39 games with a knee injury. Like his college teammate, Okafor will start over somewhere new this season, as he was traded to the Wizards in June.
It seemed so long ago when Gordon and Okafor were crowned as national champions in 2004, going from basketball’s biggest stage to the basement. Did they have a down year or two? Yes. Have their stats decreased? Sure. But now as vets in new situations they still have a lot of underrated potential to offer their struggling, rebuilding squads this year. Gordon joins a team that didn’t even have double-digit wins last season (7-59). He fills the team’s
perimeter weakness, as Charlotte was also the league’s worst three-point shooting team (29 percent). He can also mentor a group of young talented players in forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and fellow Husky guard Kemba Walker.
Bobcats Coach Mike Dunlap has a lot of confidence in Gordon.
“I want him to come in and make game-winning shots,” he said. “He can carry you sometimes.”
His ability to carry teams at the end of games without starting them is partly why his role as a clutch player has fallen under the radar. A recent article by the Detroit Free Press pointed out that since his rookie year in 2004, only seven players have scored more points (2,756) than Gordon in the fourth quarter and only nine players have more points in the final two minutes of a game. He’s also hit four game-winning shots in the final 10 seconds. It’s early, but in three preseason games this season, Gordon has averaged 15.3 points a game.
Okafor, on the other hand, can bring defensive intensity to a Wizards frontcourt that finished 20th in the league last season rebounds per game (41.7). Along with Nene, Okafor is a key piece to build around young guards John Wall and the No. 3 overall pick this year, Bradley Beal. The Wizards are looking to get back to the playoffs after failing to reach the post-season since 2008, winning just 20 games last year.
Both Gordon and Okafor are well-suited to provide leadership to their rebuilding teams because they know what it’s like to be both at the top and bottom of the league. They just want everyone else to remember where they’ve been, too.
What do you think?
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