By Sam Amick
April 12, 2012

Eric Gordon is a fan of New Orleans, which should come as welcome news to, well, New Orleans fans.

He loves the food, the laid-back vibe and the folks who support the last-place Hornets despite being given so many reasons to stay away. Bring up the coach (that's second-year man Monty Williams for you non-loyalists), and the 23-year-old shooting guard who will be a restricted free agent this summer makes it sound as if he never wants to leave.

"The first thing I'd say is that we have a very underrated coach," Gordon said by phone on Tuesday. "He's one of the best coaches out there, and we're definitely an underrated team. I know our record [16-42] doesn't speak for itself, but I've been out more than half the season. The Hornets really do have good fans, too. I really can't say too many negatives about it.

"Overall, it's better than what people probably would think if they hadn't lived here. It's been enjoyable."

Imagine how happy he'd be if he had actually played.

Gordon has appeared in just five games this season, sidelined early by a right-knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery and currently by back spasms. But it was never about this season for the Hornets or Gordon, New Orleans' main attraction in the Chris Paul trade with the Clippers that also brought center Chris Kaman, small forward Al Farouq-Aminu and Minnesota's 2012 first-round pick.

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This was about replacing Paul with a younger, supremely talented scorer, a natural shooter who averaged a career-high 22.3 points last season and played a pivotal role for the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2010 FIBA World Championships. And despite the fact that extension negotiations between Gordon's agent, Rob Pelinka, and the NBA-owned Hornets were unsuccessful in January, all indications still point to Gordon's becoming a fixture at New Orleans Arena for years to come. Gordon's restricted status means the Hornets can match any other team's offer.

"We want him here for the long term; we're looking forward to signing him this summer," Hornets general manager Dell Demps told "We think he is a big-time player who can score, and we're thrilled to have him. He's a big part of our plans for the future."

Though the notion that the Hornets would not match an offer for the player they acquired for Paul would appear highly unlikely, there's simply no way of knowing how the team's new owners will see the situation once they're in place. What's more, the recent elimination of Orlando's Dwight Howard from the 2012 free-agent class (he opted in for next season) moves Gordon up the ranks and could help create a bidding war.

Demps, however, seems determined to keep rival teams at bay, despite Gordon's injury history. This is the third year in a row that injuries have slowed Gordon, who missed 26 games last season and 20 games in 2009-2010. Asked if Gordon's value might be affected by the fact that his health issues kept him off the floor for most of this season, Demps said, "We feel confident that we know what Eric brings to the table. We believe that he'll be healthy and have a long and successful career."

While Gordon is looking for increased exposure, he said the Hornets shouldn't be concerned that he doesn't want to be in a small market like New Orleans.

"[The market] doesn't matter," said Gordon, who was taken seventh by the Clippers in 2008. "It's all about how people are going to remember you, and how was your career. It's all about playing to make yourself better, whatever situation you're in. To me, it'd be really good if you're with an organization for 13, 14 years. If it works out, I'd rather have that than have multiple situations in my career."

Still, Gordon admitted that the Hornets' ownership situation adds some uncertainty into the equation. Commissioner/de facto Hornets owner David Stern said on April 4 that a deal was "close" to keep the team in New Orleans long term with a favorable lease, capital improvements, tax benefits and a new television deal, and the transfer of ownership to a new group could be finalized soon as well.

"It's a unique situation, where you don't have an owner and you don't know what's going to happen player-wise," Gordon said. "You've got a lot of one-year guys on this team. So you never know what an ownership might do, but I'd say overall it's a pretty good situation, and, like I say, it's a contract year so you're always looking for the best situation for yourself."

Only Gordon knows where New Orleans sits on his list of desired destinations, but he certainly wasn't happy when he arrived. He had planned to be with the Clippers during his prime, and was openly critical of their handling of the deal, in part because he had been told so many times by team officials that he was there to stay. He found out about the trade while taking part in a Clippers community event and riding on a bus full of teammates, coaches and fans.

"It was kind of surprising when I got traded, but it wasn't the worst thing in the world," he said. "It was tough to swallow. Anytime you have someone in the organization telling you that you're going to stay here -- I mean multiple times telling you personally -- that's tough. And for them just to up and do that without even telling me I got traded, and I had to find out from someone else in the family, that was even more bizarre."

The Hornets attempted to lock up Gordon once he arrived, reportedly offering a four-year extension in January and negotiating all the way up until the deadline. Looking back, Gordon said he's convinced the Hornets wanted to wait for the summer -- and the chance to see his true market and match any offer -- all along.

"That's why things didn't work out at that time, whether or not I wish they did," he said. "It was an offer that we both couldn't accept."

The offers are sure to be even more plentiful this summer. Sources close to the situation said Indiana, Phoenix, Portland and Dallas are among the teams with interest in Gordon.

The Mavericks' pursuit would be problematic because they are widely known to have New Jersey's Deron Williams atop their wish list and -- for salary-cap purposes -- would have to amnesty a player (likely center Brendan Haywood) before submitting a competitive offer sheet to Gordon, if he became the backup plan. The Pacers appear intent on re-signing restricted free agents George Hill (a reserve shooting guard) and Roy Hibbert (their starting center), and would likely need to resolve those situations before knowing how aggressively -- and how quickly -- they could go after Gordon (though renouncing the rights to free-agent guard Leandro Barbosa and his $11.4 million cap hold would help).

As for Phoenix, the future of free-agent-to-be Steve Nash (whose cap hold is a whopping $17.5 million) would have to be resolved before Gordon could be added. If the Suns renounced his rights in order to make a quick move on Gordon, they not only would run the risk of missing out on both players but also lose the ability to go above the salary cap to re-sign Nash in the event that they landed Gordon and the future Hall of Fame point guard wanted to join him.

New Jersey and Cleveland could be possibilities for Gordon as well. Whichever city he winds up in, Gordon is looking forward to raising his under-the-radar profile. He remains one of the league's most underrated talents, in part because of his injuries but also because he played his first two seasons for the Clippers before Blake Griffin and his eternal spotlight arrived.

"Yeah, I still think I get undervalued," Gordon said. "I've never gotten the credit as far as helping the team. Maybe I haven't made an All-Star team yet because of some injuries at certain times in the season, long injuries where I missed a lot of games. But at the end of the day, I made Team USA teams just like [other prominent players], and scoring and stat-wise it's just the same. I just haven't been on good teams at a young age."

Whether he helps New Orleans return to relevance or winds up elsewhere again, Gordon is ready to get past his Clippers days.

"I'm just happy that I'm able to still play basketball and move on to another journey," he said.

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