Eric Gordon needs to prove his worth to Pelicans

Eric Gordon returned to the Pelicans' starting lineup Monday night.

Jonathan Bachman/AP

The New Orleans Pelicans pay Eric Gordon a lot of money, $14.9 million big ones this season, more than anybody else on the squad.

They’ll pay him $15.5 million next season when Gordon surely picks up his player option, putting in his pocket twice as much green as the team’s best player, the mesmerizing Anthony Davis, will put in his.

Really though, this is no longer about money with Gordon. It was the Pelicans after all who decided to match the Phoenix Suns’ offer sheet in 2012, even as the player protested to be released to go to the desert. 

This is bigger than money now. This is about Gordon’s spirit, and ultimately his legacy.

It’s about this oft-injured shooting guard beginning to repay the franchise with all-out effort for its iron-willed patience through never-ending injuries that have kept him out of 137 of a possible 264 games.

His latest affliction, a torn labrum in his left shoulder, shelved him for 21 games until his return Monday night.

This is about Gordon taking the court now with a nightly enthusiasm that will inspire a young team that’s been treading water just outside the playoff mix in the ruthless Western Conference.

"He’s a key part to our team," Davis, the West’s second-highest vote-getter in current All-Star voting, said of Gordon early into his 21-game absence due to a shoulder injury. "He can score the ball, he defends, he’s a big weapon for us and we definitely miss him."

Now that the 6-foot-4 Gordon is back, it would be a grand time for him to rediscover the form that made him a coveted young player with the Los Angeles Clippers, an attacking guard who averaged 22.3 points the season before being traded to New Orleans in the deal for Chris Paul.

It didn’t happen Monday night in his long-awaited return. Gordon scored six points in a disappointing 92-85 home loss to the Washington Wizards. It was New Orleans’ 10th consecutive game of alternating wins and losses. 

Out since Nov. 22, Gordon, who turned 26 on Christmas, was predictably rusty as coach Monty Williams returned him to the starting lineup. Gordon went 2-for-8 from the floor and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. He had five assists and four rebounds with just two turnovers in nearly 33 minutes.

Afterward, Williams was asked if integrating Gordon back into the lineup made it difficult for the team to find a rhythm.

"It wasn’t like guys didn’t know Eric was coming back," Williams said. "But if we had shot the ball better and not turned it over we wouldn’t have had an issue."

Obviously, the Pelicans will need more. The question is whether they’ll get it.

In the 12 games he played before injuring his shoulder and fearing season-ending surgery, Gordon was averaging a career-low 9.5 points a game, 2.0 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 31.0 minutes. His shooting percentages are also at career lows, 38.8 percent overall and 31.1 percent from beyond the arc.

Before his Monday night return, Gordon said his shoulder is "not 100 percent by any stretch," but that he’s ready to fight through the pain.

"It’s all about mentality. I’m determined to play through," Gordon told FOX Sports New Orleans. 

He added: "With me, it’s all about winning. It’s all about whatever it takes to win games."

That’s the kind of attitude the Pelicans not only need to hear, but see. They simply don’t have the depth to compete for a playoff spot without him. 

Gordon, point guard Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, who has played a lot of small forward in the starting lineup, are the team’s top playmakers. Off the bench, Austin Rivers has continued to be a disappointment.

Even with Gordon on the floor, the Pelicans are no lock to outlast the competition for a playoff spot. The Suns remain ahead of them in the eighth spot, and Oklahoma City is healthy again with the return of reigning MVP Kevin Durant. OKC is only a half-game behind the ninth-place Pelicans.

A fully engaged Gordon at least gives New Orleans a fighting chance to string some wins together, make a run and keep improving around their 21-year-old emerging superstar in the middle.

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