By Mat Issa
I remember it like it was 1,561 days ago — mostly because it was. I was laying on the futon pad in my dorm, procrastinating studying for my Forensic Science exam by looking through NBA highlights on YouTube (I know, some ~ casual ~ behavior on my part).
My mindless scrolling finally ceased when I stumbled upon this gem:
A delicious 40-burger. Aaron Gordon’s second one in as many months. I thought to myself: He’s finally taking that leap. A star is born.
Alas, the three-point shooting and on-ball creation never really materialized to the level necessary to make my prediction come to fruition. And, among his desire to be elsewhere, the Orlando Magic ultimately threw in the towel on his development in 2021, opting to rebuild their roster by trading him to the Denver Nuggets for the likes of Gary Harris, RJ Hampton and a lightly protected first-round pick.
Just like that, it appeared the book on Gordon had been closed. But then something fascinating happened. He transformed his game entirely.
His New Partner in Matrimony
In a recent episode of the DNVR Denver Nuggets Podcast, co-host Miroslav Ćuk likened the new partnership between Gordon and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to that of a married couple. And when you spend a handful of hours alone in your home office watching the two interact on the court (as I have), you have a hard time contending with that assessment.
Whether it resonates through hookups on 45-degree cuts to the rim, transition outlets, entry passes into a post seal or simple handoff actions, the two have achieved a level of on-court chemistry typically reserved for lifelong companions.
This season, Gordon is getting more assisted looks and more shots at the rim, and is scoring at the highest efficiency of his career — in large part because of his new frontcourt partner. With Jokic, Gordon is no longer bound by the advantage-creating ambitions the Magic had envisioned for him. He’s now empowered to roam free as the hyper-athletic play-finisher he was always destined to be.
However, Gordon isn’t the only one collecting benefits from this relationship. One could even argue that the symbiotic nature of their dynamic bears some resemblance to that of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire in the mid-2000s. Now, while I will concede that Gordon isn’t nearly the offensive talent Stoudemire was during his heyday, the formula is still the same:
Prodigious playmaker + Dynamite play-finisher = Highly-efficient offense.
The pairings’ similarities don’t end there. From 2004-10, Nash averaged nearly 2 assists fewer per 100 possessions when Stoudemire was on the bench (per PBP Stats). In comparison, Jokic has lost almost 2 assists per 100 possessions in the 365 minutes he’s played without Gordon this season.
Historical comparisons aside, the tandem also fulfills the marital trope of taking on aspects of your partner’s personality. In the same way that dating someone for a long time might increase your appreciation for squishmallows (wait, is that just me?), Gordon’s time spent sharing the court with a passing savant has made him a worthy facilitator in his own right:
Aaron Gordon plays 50 games with Nikola Jokic. All of a sudden he’s one of the best passers at his position. pic.twitter.com/PRysqnp5FS
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) February 7, 2022
The numbers appear to back up Wind’s observation as well. According to BBall Index’s Playmaking Talent database, Gordon is experiencing a career year in passing creation quality, passing versatility and playmaking. He’s still by no means the guy you want running the show, but he’s more than equipped to connect the dots when the heavyweights start the thread.
A Defensive Swiss-Army Knife
While Gordon’s strides on the offensive end have been substantial, it’s the defensive evolution he’s undergone that has been the most necessary for the Nuggets this season.
Aaron Gordon Defensive Roles by year:
14-15: Perimeter Big
15-16: Perimeter Big
17-18: Perimeter Big
18-19: Perimeter Big
20-21: Wing Stopper
21-22: Point of Attack
— Mat Issa (@matissa15) March 9, 2022
Initially brought in to provide additional backline support to his more floor-bound companion, Gordon has transitioned to a new seat right at the head of the table, playing the part of the Nuggets’ go-to, point-of-attack stopper. This year, Gordon has spent a whopping 45.4% of his possessions guarding point guards and shooting guards — the largest percentage of his career by a wide margin (per BBall Index).
Most of this shift in role has been out of necessity, with frailer guards like Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo and Bones Hyland occupying backcourt minutes; the burden of mixing it up with the best offensive engines in the league has been placed squarely at Gordon’s feet. And man, for someone that is learning this gig on the fly, is he holding down the fort.
I implore you all to take a brief 60 seconds of your day to marvel at the defensive clips above. Take note of all the different variations of player archetypes Gordon has been tasked to go up against. Guile-based miniature guards like Trae Young, hyper-athletic slashers like Anthony Edwards, Earth-pushing forwards masquerading as ball-handlers like Luka Doncic. Gordon has managed to annoy all of them at different points in the season.
In fact, according to BBall Index’s database dating to 2013, Gordon owns the highest Defensive Versatility score of any point-of-attack defender on record, ranking 2 points higher than the next closest player (2020-21 Ben Simmons).
This versatility was on full display in a crucial possession of a late-game overtime thriller against the New Orleans Pelicans earlier this week. Here, after stonewalling Brandon Ingram from his attempt at getting to his sweet spot, Gordon picks up CJ McCollum and lands a textbook jump-shot-altering contest:
Gordon’s block percentages are down from past seasons, but that’s mostly because his new responsibilities on the perimeter make it difficult for him to consistently challenge shots in the interior. He’s currently contesting one less shot within 6 feet of the rim per game than he was with Orlando from 2017-20 (per NBA.com).
However, when the moment calls for it, he’s shown he’s still capable of filling the void that he was originally intended to:
Indeed, Gordon never blossomed into the sky-walking, scoring superstar the Magic and I imagined he would be after his 40-point eruption in 2017. But that’s okay because he’s still developed into a great player in his own right. He’s Jokic’s new favorite offensive partner in crime, a tissue-connecting passer, and the basketball equivalent of a multipurpose weapon of destruction on defense.
Simply put: Aaron Gordon is not the player the Magic wanted him to be, but he’s the player that the Nuggets need him to be.
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