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The Sixth Man: Aaron Gordon has revived his career and might be Denver’s key piece to a championship run

There are not many players with the strength and athleticism Gordon displays on the floor. This year, he is assembling those attributes with more chemistry to bolster Denver’s success

Denver Nuggets v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, Aaron Gordon has burdened high expectations since leaving Arizona. While at school, he compiled five awards in his one season. He won 2013-14 All Pac-12, All Pac-12 Tournament, Pac-12 All-Freshman, Pac-12 ROY, and NCAA All-Region. He bursted onto the NBA scene after leading the Wildcats to the top seed in their region and an appearance in the elite eight. After losing to Wisconsin in the elite eight, Gordon decided to enter the NBA draft and would be taken 4th, 37 spots ahead of our very own Nikola Jokic.

At the time nobody could have foreseen Gordon and Jokic playing alongside each other and Jokic being the star player. That being said, Gordon is still arguably a top-five player in that draft. The only clear-cut top pick in the draft that panned out was Joel Embiid as Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Embiid were taken ahead of Gordon.

As time went on, Gordon was known more for his dunks than his production. His 2016 dunk contest against fellow draft classmate Zach LaVine is one of the more memorable moments in the contest’s history. Unfortunately for Gordon, he would lose the 2016 and 2020 dunk contests despite popular opinion. He shined bright on one of the NBA’s largest stages but would be overshadowed by the depths of mediocrity and failure that consumed the Orlando Magic.

His best season came in 2017 at the age of 22 when he averaged 17.6 PPG and 8 rebounds on 43% shooting from the field. Unfortunately, the Magic would finish 25-57 and the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. It was much of the same throughout his career there except for two straight playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019, but they would lose in the first round each time. Knowing the franchise could not compete for a deep playoff run, they traded both their best players in Vucevic and Gordon as AG’s career received a new trajectory.

A player with the talent he possesses carries a lot of scrutiny and it was not lost in Denver. The Nuggets were winning games but fans did not see the Aaron Gordon the media portrayed. Following the Murray injury, Gordon stepped into larger shoes with an unfamiliar team and did produce but inconsistently. Now with a full year under his belt, he looks to have gained the chemistry and confidence to flourish on this team.

In his 39 games with the Nuggets, he posted a career-high in field goal percentage, two-point shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage. He is steadily increasing his production with Denver and as his comfortability increases so does Denver’s record. The Nuggets have been injured all year but despite that, they hold a 9-5 record, and much of that can be attributed to Gordon’s play. His defense has been absolutely elite at that wing spot but he is guarding every team’s best player no matter the position.

He also looks a lot stronger and more confident offensively. Throughout this season, when he gets the ball in the post he is making the opponent feel him. Several times I have seen him bully players in the post on his way to a bucket. He is also recognizing the soft spot in the defense relative to where he can get the ball. When Jokic is doubled, he often dives straight to the rim for an easy dunk, or if the opponent's rotations are off, he will glide to the corner for three. He is playing physical and cerebral basketball right now and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let me show you Gordon’s impact beyond the box score.

This is one of the most clutch plays of the season so far and it doesn’t happen without Aaron Gordon. Justin Holiday begins glued to Barton as he sets up the offense. Gordon then runs to the three-point line and posts himself right there for the screen and Barton does a great job of leading Holiday into that screen. This is a hell of a screen here folks. It frees Barton completely and gives Denver options offensively. Sabonis wants to help on the screen but Gordon immediately sprints to paint, compelling Sabonis to take one wrong step towards Gordon. That one wrong step gives Barton the space he needs as he kisses it off the glass for the dagger. Barton may receive praise for the shot but it is Gordon who made it happen.

Here is another reason why he has such a massive impact on this team:

Luka Doncic is one of the best offensive players to touch a basketball and it is evident throughout their matchups, Gordon bothers him. In the first matchup this season, Luka had 16 points on 5-18 shooting and in the second matchup, he had 23 points on 9/23 shooting. Those numbers are well below his usual as he typically shoots around 46% from the field.

This clip displays the strength, intelligence, and instincts of Aaron Gordon. Initially, Luka tries to bump Gordon to achieve deeper position on the elbow but after two or three bumps Doncic realizes Gordon is not relenting. Once he realizes it, he quickly tries to put up a shot and possibly draw a foul but Gordon remains in perfect position. Gordon knows Luka exploits the free throw line so as he rises for the shot, Gordon positions himself vertically with a hand in his face so he is unable to draw the foul.

Some defenders might lose focus on a player like this. For example, once Luka gives a couple of bumps to gain position, a defender might expect a third bump so they prepare for it but Luka already rises for the shot. Gordon is smart but he also relies on his eyes. He doesn’t let anything fool him, stays focused on his job, and it often ends with a missed shot by the opponent.

There is a reason Michael Malone thought his team was championship-bound after beating the Clippers last year when Murray was healthy. That reason is Aaron Gordon. He finally gives Denver a person who can guard the opponent's best player whether it is a guard, a wing, or a forward. Per many statistics, the Nuggets are the second-best defense in the NBA. That is due to the whole team buying in, but it is facilitated by talented players displaying defensive IQ and intensity.

Gordon might not be the best player on this team but he seems to be the glue that holds it together. Against Houston, when the Nuggets couldn't buy a basket in the 4th, Gordon hits two threes in one minute to reclaim the lead and win the game. When Denver loses their rhythm offensively, Gordon does not lose his rhythm defensively. He creates a few stops and gives Denver’s offense time to relocate their tempo. Given standard production from Denver’s big three, Aaron Gordon is actually the key to a championship.