Analysis: Eric Gordon extends in Houston, is PJ Tucker next?

It broke late Friday night, but it was far from the typical Friday-night-before-Labor-Day-Weekend news dump: the Houston Rockets and Eric Gordon agreed terms on a four-year extension that will add $75.57 million in new money to his current deal, according to Houston Chronicle reporter Jonathan Feigen.

The full details trickled out throughout the night, culminating in Adrian Wojnarowski’s report that the final year of the extension is non-guaranteed. Gordon can make that 2023-24 season fully guaranteed for nearly $21 million if he makes an All-Star Game or wins a title between now and then. Presumably, there’s also a trigger date on that final year if he doesn’t not accomplish either of those targets in advance of the 2023-24 season, but there is no word on that at this point.

$75.57 million over four years is the most Houston was legally able to offer Gordon on an extension. The deal will start at 120% of his 2019-20 salary and rise by 8% of that new number throughout the life of the contract, for salaries of $16.87 million, $18.22 million, $19.57 million, and $20.92 million over the four years, starting with the 2020-21 season. As a result of both the length and amount on the extension, Houston will be unable to trade Gordon for six months following the official execution of the new pact, which stretches past the 2020 trade deadline. Barring something incredibly unforeseen (Gordon being cut this year), he’ll be on the team through at least the end of their 2019-20 season, whenever that may come.

Gordon will turn 31 on Christmas Day, so this extension will cover his age 32-35 seasons, though he’s only fully guaranteed through his age 34 year if things fall apart, either through on-court play or injury. Should the Rockets be on the hook for the final year of the deal, that means Gordon’s either still producing at a level commensurate with nearly $21 million in salary, he’s earned an All-Star appearance, or Houston has won a championship; any of those outcomes would be wonderful for the Rockets and they would gladly pick up the $21 million price tag for that level of production out of Gordon in the earlier years of the deal.

Even on the wrong side of 30, Gordon has proven himself to be a key component in one of the best teams in the league over the last three years. His shooting is the foundation upon which his game is built – he can knock down shots from well beyond the three-point line and unlocks an entirely new level of spacing for the Houston offense whenever he’s on the floor. In addition, he’s a quality driver and finisher, which sticks in defenders’ minds when they run him off the three-point line (and beyond). He’s very strong with the ball in his hands and will go through defenders on his way to the rim, particularly in transition.

That same strength is his calling card defensively, where he’s slightly undersized in the height department but makes up for it with his brick wall leverage in isolation and post-up situations. He doesn’t necessarily grade out well in traditional box score stats on this end of the floor, but Houston has been consistently very good with him on the floor throughout the last three seasons and better when he’s out there than when he sits.

I recently wrote about Gordon’s fit on the Portland Trail Blazers, should he have hit 2020 free agency and they had looked to sign him. In that piece, I brought up the fact that his short, strong defensive profile makes him a better matchup for this version of the Western Conference than the era that preceded it. In particular, his ability to guard the best wings in the Conference is now elevated with the departure of Kevin Durant and the arrival of Kawhi Leonard – Durant never had much trouble shooting over the top of Gordon, while Leonard’s game is based around his strength with the ball in his hands. Gordon matches up much better with Leonard than he does with Durant, though obviously the Rockets will still send him toward him in either situation.

As he ages, his ability to hold up in these spots may diminish, but it’s not as though he’s overly reliant on his quickness and agility on either end of the floor. He’ll always have his strength and the three-point shot, which should be more than enough for him to outstrip the value on this extension. Perhaps his transition game and finishing at the rim falls off in favor of more shots from distance, but his level of efficiency and volume from beyond the three-point line should hold up with very few problems and outweigh his lost athleticism.

With another year like the previous three, Gordon could have played his way into a much larger four-year contract next summer, but certainly the fact that Houston offered the most they could (at least in terms of years and dollars) helped to assuage his concerns with leaving money on the table. Gordon’s injury history is ugly and although he hasn’t had any issues with the Rockets, it had to play into his decision to sign this deal a year ahead of 2020 free agency. For me, Houston will see positive value on this extension, though the risk is certainly there for Gordon’s game to age poorly or his injury issues to resurface.

His 3-and-D qualities, with the addition of his capable drive-and-finish and drive-and-kick game, make him a very valuable player in today’s NBA. Taking him off the 2020 free agent market makes a bad class that much worse for any team looking to spend big to bring in top-tier players next year. The guys who are still in contract years in 2019-20 have the opportunity to play their way into max contracts next summer, if only because there will be quite a few teams with that sort of money to spend and very few capable players deserving of it.

As the Rockets move forward, they’re pretty much entirely locked into the four-man core of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Clint Capela, and Gordon. The three of them will make a total of nearly $500 million in guaranteed salary over the next four years and there is essentially no chance of cap space on the horizon without a major trade. Houston will be dancing with the luxury tax threshold for the foreseeable future and will have to add talent on the margins to round out the rotation.

The next order of business for the Rockets is to negotiate a potential extension with PJ Tucker. Within the last two weeks, Tucker has made a lot of noise about his next deal with Houston, as he’s been one of the most underpaid players in the league over the last two years. Tucker signed a four-year deal in 2017 that includes a lightly-guaranteed 2020-21 salary and now that he’s passed his two-year anniversary with the club, he’s eligible to sign an extension that would essentially take him through the end of his career.

Purely from a salary cap perspective, Tucker’s age makes things somewhat difficult for the two sides to come to an extension agreement. He’s already 34 and will be 36 by the time he could hit free agency in 2021, which means any extension would likely run into the Over-38 Rule. Houston should be intimately familiar with the Over-38 Rule at this point, after it almost cost them the ability to sign Nene in 2017 free agency, but the same rule applies to a potential Tucker extension.

Under normal circumstances, Houston and Tucker could tack on an additional three years to any extension, bringing his total years left (including years on his current deal) to five. That’s what they just did with Gordon, who has one year left on his current contract and added four more in the extension. However, Tucker’s proximity to his 38th birthday means that Houston has to be wary of offering that fifth year – any contract that takes him through the 2023-24 season would essentially have to be front-loaded and would limit his annual earnings.

For that reason, any extension Tucker signs with the Rockets will realistically only add years up to the 2023 offseason. That two-year extension, which would start in 2021 after the expiration of his current contract, would pay him up to $20.88 million in new money, if signed before the 2019-20 season starts. Unlike most veteran extensions, Tucker is ineligible to sign an extension during the season, since he’s more than one year out from becoming a free agent on his current contract. Waiting until the 2020-21 league year doesn’t help matters, as an extension still cannot take him past the 2022-23 season because of the Over-38 Rule, which triggers on any extension for four or more seasons, including the years left on the current deal.

Beyond the fact that a long-term extension is impossible from a salary cap perspective, there are significant questions surrounding whether or not Houston should even want to extend Tucker on a deal through 2023. At some point, the athleticism that allows him to play both big man positions at a high level despite being undersized will wane and he’ll become more of a liability than an asset in the later stages of the playoffs. That point is clearly not here yet, as Tucker remains a phenomenal player, but one has to think it’s coming.

On the other hand, Tucker doesn’t have nearly as many NBA miles as most players his age, due to playing overseas for five years and not really beginning his NBA career until he was 27. He’s missed just nine games since coming back to the league in 2012-13 and played the most minutes of his career in 2018-19 in the run-up to his 34th birthday. The minutes he plays for Houston are at a very high intensity, but he’s absolutely up for it at this point in his career.

There’s also the real concern that Tucker’s public comments regarding an extension could influence his standing in the locker room. He’ll say what’s on his mind and if he’s unhappy with his contract situation, there might be ample reason for the Rockets to take care of him and keep the team’s focus on their ultimate goal. Signing him to the maximum possible extension through 2023 would still drastically underpay him over the next two years; a four-year deal for Tucker worth about $37.20 million would be a bargain if he had been a free agent this summer. It would be wrong to think of it that way from a value perspective, as the Rockets already have him under contract for the next two years at a very cheap price, but if he makes noise about wanting an extension, they’re still going to get positive value on the life of that deal, even though the actual extension years might be dicey.