If there was one single player in the NBA playoffs this year who made himself more money than any other, it was Chicago’s Ben Gordon. The impending unrestricted free agent had himself an official coming out party in the Bulls-Celtics epic seven game series. Not to be confused with a journeyman, Gordon has been always been known as an electric scorer and an elite sixth man who has provided a spark off the Chicago bench (off and on) for the past five seasons. So why is this important?
Because elite teams in the NBA have elite scorers, players who can take over a game at will, find his own shot, and sink the buzzer beater. The Lakers have Kobe, the Cavs have LeBron, the Nuggets have ‘Melo, the Celtics have both Pierce and Allen. There are other clutch players around the league, namely Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, and Dwayne Wade among others. The common theme is that not only does each of these teams have an elite player, they are successful year in and year out. There are other teams in the league that hang around each year, coasting through the year to make the playoffs, only to falter in the playoff. Perhaps they advance a round or two into the playoffs, using smoke and mirrors or having an injured team stumble into a matchup against them. Examples of these teams are the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, and the Orlando Magic. The Orlando Magic?! More on that later.
What does any of this have to do with Ben Gordon? Certainly this isn’t to compare Gordon to the greatest players in the league (Kobe, LeBron, et al) but to highlight what the second tier teams are lacking. That’s a go-to scorer who takes over games and wins them for his team. That’s what Gordon has done in numerous regular season games in the past. But during the ’09 playoffs, on a national stage versus the defending champion Celtics, Ben Gordon willed his team to the most thrilling series of the postseason. Take game 4 for example. Gordon hit a game tying three-pointer to end the first overtime. He ended the game playing 50 minutes on a strained hamstring, willing to the Bulls to victory on the back of his 22 point effort. It’s not the volume of the points that mattered in this game, it was clutch timing of them. But if volume is important to some, consider that he filled the bucket with lines of 20, 42, 15, 22, 26, 12, and 33 points in the instant classic series.
As an unrestricted free agent this summer, he’s among the leaders in a pretty weak class. It is known that he cares about money above all (having turned down a huge extension from Chicago last offseason) and with other less than stellar options available, some team is going to make him a very rich (and very happy) man. Consider these credentials: he is the 7th best active free throw shooter at 86% for his career, 4th in career 3-point percentage, and a former sixth man of the year award winner. This kind of talent can be enough to put a second tier team into the elite.
Remember the mention of the Orlando Magic as a second tier team? They fit the criteria of a team that hasn’t done enough long-term to be considered a yearly contender and don’t have an elite scorer. They struggled against a poor Philadelphia team in the first round and couldn’t dominate a Boston team decimated by injuries. Dwight Howard is an elite player, but not an elite scorer. He can dominate a game from the opening tip, but in crunch time, he isn’t the player a team is counting on to win for them. For all his wonderful talent, he still cannot create his own shot or consistently knock down free throws. What they are missing is a go-to scorer, someone they can hand the ball to at the end of games and get out of his way. Gordon has done that and will continue to. If the Magic can afford him, they should sign him. He is the type of player who can put them over the top by hitting the big shots Howard simply should not take. So if the Magic can sign Ben Gordon, next year the answer to the NBA’s “Where will amazing happen?” just might be Orlando.