The Denver Nuggets knew they needed to pivot when Jerami Grant blindsided them this offseason.
All indications from Denver and around the league were that Grant would be coming back on a long term contract, sliding into the starting power forward with Michael Porter Jr. finally assuming a role at starting small forward. The Nuggets knew the direction their team needed to go to optimize their championship window by surrounding Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić with long, athletic forwards that possessed shooting, a versatile skill set, and defensive upside.
When Grant decided to go to the Detroit Pistons, that threw a wrench in their ready made plans. Very few players in the NBA have the versatility necessary to do what Grant would be asked to do in Denver’s starting lineup, defending some of the top forwards in the NBA while also playing a supporting role offensively.
Aaron Gordon fills that void.
Playing for the Orlando Magic for the better part of seven seasons, Gordon has been under-appreciated and underrated as his skills have improved. The numbers are fine, with Gordon averaging 14.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 25 games played this season. The shooting percentages are okay, with Gordon shooting just 47.5% on twos and 37.5% on threes this season.
What really stands out is the situation. This season, the five players Gordon shared the floor with most commonly were Nikola Vucevic, Dwayne Bacon, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, and Khem Birch. That’s before we get to Cole Anthony, James Ennis, and Gary Clark (coming to the Nuggets in the trade). The Magic struggled to surround Gordon with ideal pieces to maximize his talent. They never paired him with an elite playmaker. They never surrounded him with elite shooting. They barely let him play his natural position of power forward.
The Nuggets will be able to do more for Gordon than the Magic ever could. With Nikola Jokić organizing the offense and Jamal Murray improving as a guard scorer/playmaker every day, Gordon will have easier shots coming his way than ever before. Duck-ins for a post entry from Jokić at the top of the key, kick-outs after Jokić-Murray two-man game, and flying through the lane while defenses stick close to Michael Porter Jr. as an outside shooter.
An underrated aspect of Gordon’s game: he’s a good playmaker. 4.2 assists per game ranks 15th in NBA among all qualified forwards. When the ball is in his hands, he’s a willing playmaker and will fit into Denver’s cutting and spacing offense like a glove.
More than that, Gordon is a great 1-on-1 defender. When he’s engaged, he’s one of the best players in the NBA at matching up with other great forwards. He moves his feet well, is strong enough to handle tough defensive assignments, and he can rebound the basketball. As the Nuggets look toward the playoffs, they know they will have to face the Los Angeles Lakers and/or Los Angeles Clippers at some point. Much like Grant last season, Gordon will be asked the impossible: match up with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George in a playoff series. He won’t be perfect, but Gordon has a better chance than any Nugget on the roster to not be completely embarrassed in those situations. That matters, and there’s a butterfly effect for the rest of the defense too.
This is going to be a Core 4. The Nuggets are going to build their entire rotation around this group of Murray, Porter, Jokić, and now Aaron Gordon. With the versatility it has on both sides of the ball, the Nuggets are going to be really fun to watch. They’ve recovered nicely at the trade deadline with this addition and an upgrade at backup center over JaVale McGee. Now, this team has options going forward in their rotation. Michael Malone can mix and match lineups to find the best possible combinations. The best possible buttons to push.
The Nuggets are back to being a serious threat in the West. With a shaky start and some serious questions in the middle of their playoff rotation, it was reasonable to question Denver’s playoff ceiling. Now? Denver has the firepower and versatility to be a threat against anyone in the NBA. The Nuggets weren’t afraid of the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns before the trade deadline, and they certainly aren’t now. The Lakers and the Clippers were the teams Denver knew they had to game plan for, and now, they have. The addition of Gordon to a playoff rotation that will probably include Will Barton, PJ Dozier, Michael Porter Jr., and JaMychal Green at various wing positions gives Denver an anchor point for their defense. Murray and Jokić will handle the offensive responsibilities, and Gordon ties the defense together against many opponents.
It will take some time to build the chemistry, but by the playoffs, expect the Nuggets to be rolling again. I’m looking forward to the fireworks.