It wasn’t an extensive debut for Aaron Gordon for the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night, but it was an impactful debut for sure. In a game the Nuggets won 126-102, Gordon played just 21 minutes in an ancillary role within the starting unit. He mostly tried to stay out of the way of what the Nuggets were already doing, but there were plenty of moments when he found some synergy with the Nuggets starting unit, a great sign of things to come.
All in all, Gordon scored 13 points, grabbed two rebounds, dished out one sweet assist, and was a plus-17 in 21 minutes. It was an understated debut, but Gordon did exactly what he was asked to do and then some.
Here are some of the best moments:
The best thing any teammate of Nikola Jokić can do is to learn how to be a smart cutter. That was one aspect of Gordon’s game that stood out in his film while playing for the Orlando Magic; he’s already a smart cutter. At 6’8” with boundless athleticism, he provides passers a big window for cuts, something that Jokić will feast upon for as long as Gordon is in Denver.
The above play is one the Nuggets often run for Paul Millsap to clear out some space for a clean shot right under the rim. With Aaron Gordon running the set instead, Jokić has ample opportunity to hit the athletic forward right under the rim for an easy dunk. It might have been one of the easiest reads of Jokić’s career, and it might have been the most open dunk Gordon has ever had on a set like that. Jamal Murray deserves an assist for a great screen as well. Nobody on the floor can help out John Collins either. Clint Capela is already pressuring Jokić (which is bothering him...not at all), Tony Snell can’t leave Michael Porter Jr. in the opposite corner, and Trae Young has to stay attached to Jamal Murray.
It’s a great play that’s a sign of things to come.
Here’s another Gordon cut that showcases his high basketball IQ:
Cutting through the lane immediately following the Porter cut is a great way to take advantage of vacated space. That 12-foot range isn’t the most efficient spot on the floor to get a clean look, but Jokić is happy to oblige and gets the ball to Gordon on time. If Gordon can hit 50% of those shots, that’s a pretty good percentage, and a good late-clock option for Denver in different situations.
Getting down the floor quickly
Despite the pace of last night’s game being pretty slow overall, the Nuggets found some opportunities to get out in transition with their starting unit. With Jokić on the floor, he often likes to throw hit-ahead passes that can put the team in advantageous situations. He isn’t a runner himself though, and neither is Paul Millsap.
Replace Millsap with Gordon, and the Nuggets suddenly appeared like a dramatically more scary team on the fast break.
Porter in particular had some good moments pushing the tempo last night. In the above clip, he gets the rebound and pushes the fast break with Gordon already streaking down the right side of the floor. With Murray emerging to his left, Porter makes the right read and gives up the ball to Murray as soon as Kevin Huerter commits to stopping Porter. Murray gets an easy layup out of it, all with Gordon putting pressure on the other side.
In this play, Porter again pushes the tempo after grabbing the rebound. Nobody stops the ball until he gets all the way to the left block. Gordon relocates to the corner, already ahead of the defense, and hits the open corner three after Porter sets him up with an easy catch and shoot opportunity. Does Gordon take advantage of Trae Young lolly-gagging around? Of course. That’s what smart, driven players do.
Impressive secondary playmaking
Gordon had just one assist on the night, but it was an absolute beauty.
After Murray drives baseline against Trae Young, a matchup Murray had been feasting on all night, Tony Snell moves off of Porter and comes to double along the baseline, stopping Murray in his tracks. Gordon reads the floor well and flashes to the front of the rim from the opposite wing, and Murray does a great job of finding him.
What I definitely didn’t expect to happen next was for Gordon to throw the next pass behind his head to an open Michael Porter Jr. relocating to the corner. Porter takes a short time to gather himself and rises up for a three-pointer that goes in as Snell is fouling Porter. And-1.
It was a great play and a really good example of why Denver’s offense is so dangerous. So many of Denver’s starters are capable of making incredible plays as shooters, passers, and scorers at the rim. Gordon needed about 15 minutes on the floor with his Nuggets teammates before making a highlight pass. Another great sign of things to come.
What stands out about the defensive possessions for Aaron Gordon was that there weren’t a lot of situations where the Hawks attacked him. They tried avoiding him altogether in a lot of cases, which is a great sign for Nuggets fans that Gordon’s defensive impact may be a lot more than it seems in the box score.
Here’s John Collins failing to post up Gordon. It wasn’t really close.
Gordon has the versatility to stonewall players like Collins in the post on a consistent basis. Collins is a good post scorer and pick and roll threat, but Gordon has the strength and mobility to cut him off in many cases when Collins tries to get to his spots. Having another player who can do that is a good thing for Denver.
Here’s a possession where Gordon is switched onto Trae Young, one of the most lethal guards in the NBA against switches. Trae doesn’t even think about trying to take Gordon off the dribble, instead pitching the ball into the post to Collins being guarded by Murray.
Gordon tips the pass, another indicator of his defensive impact, and he nearly comes up with the steal. After a...unique...“scram” switch by Murray and Porter, Collins still ends up with the ball and finds his way to the rim where Jokić easily pokes the ball free. Denver will have to work on the mechanics of plays like this, but having a player like Gordon that can survive on an island against Trae Young to the point that Young doesn’t even consider isolating against him? That’s a win.
Where the bread will be buttered for Gordon is finding a way to guard the below action.
The Nuggets have struggled to guard this action throughout Jokić’s career. With Jokić often playing at the level of the screen in pick and roll coverage, the weak side defender has to retreat back to the roll man and guard against a quick entry to the middle of the paint. That in turn creates a vulnerability on the weak side wing. Very few forwards can cover the ground necessary to prevent the lob AND get out to the three-point line on the weak side.
In theory, this is something Gordon can do better than most. He might misread the play at times, and there will be other times where a good shot is simply made; however, if Gordon can cut down on the number of open shots generated from this action, it will be the best thing he could possibly do for Denver’s team defense.
The Nuggets have the ability to creative with Nikola Jokić as the ball handler in pick and roll because of Jokić’s unique skill set and passing vision. With shooters all around, the Nuggets can run pick and roll often because they have great playmakers in the middle of the floor, Jokić chief among them.
Now, the Nuggets have another legitimate pick and roll threat in Aaron Gordon. Jokić draws multiple defenders when Gordon comes and screens for him, and the way Jokić gets Gordon the ball allows the athletic forward plenty of runway to make decisions based on what he sees in front of him. He sees open floor and rises up for an athletic dunk, giving the Nuggets another dynamic set they can throw at opposing defenses.
In the next play, Gordon pokes a loose ball free of Collins’ hands that flies right to Will Barton, who then drives and kicks to Gordon in the corner. Gordon could have shot the open three, but instead, he lets Collins fly by on the perimeter, spins away from Bogdan Bogdanovic, and generates a layup for himself.
Nuggets fans are going to be upset at times when Gordon freestyles like this instead of taking the initial open shot; however, it’s a good reminder that Gordon was often a first or second option in Orlando as a creator. He has skills to go off the dribble against a lot of teams, and the Nuggets would be wise to let him continue to attack advantageous matchups. He doesn’t need to go at Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James unless he’s trying to draw a foul, but an open lane with only Kevin Huerter in his way? Green light.
Finally, the Nuggets added a guy in Gordon who can occasionally run pick and rolls and dribble hand offs with Nikola Jokić in a way that Millsap and JaMychal Green can’t.
After setting a back screen for Barton, Gordon receives the pass from Jokić on the right wing and goes into a comfortable pick and roll. Bogdanovic tries to go under the screen, but he runs right into a rolling Jokić, who has as much right to that space as Bogdan does. With Clint Capela already playing drop coverage, Gordon finds himself wide open for a jumper at the top of the circle that he hits easily. If he pulls up and fakes the jumper, he might even find an easy post up opportunity for Jokić against a mismatch as well.
There are so many different ways that Gordon accentuates the strengths of what the Nuggets already do, and he masks their weaknesses well on the defensive end as well. The Nuggets used him as a spot up shooter, cutter, pick and roll handler, and pick and roll roller on Sunday night. They will most definitely use him in transition going forward, as well as the occasional set coming off a screen or DHO opportunity. His versatility is going to make a Nuggets starting unit that was already hard to guard nearly impossible to guard now.
As the Nuggets continue to develop chemistry, look for them to continue using Gordon in sets and actions that can help him get acclimated to Denver’s offense as quickly as can be asked. He already has plenty of basketball IQ to handle reads in different situations, and as long as Denver matches that IQ with quality concepts, spacing, and decision making, this transition period will go more smoothly than many assumed it would.
In the meantime, enjoy the fun actions the Nuggets run consistently for Gordon. He’s going to create some highlights and have a lot of fun in Denver’s movement and cutting system.