First of all, Happy Birthday, Aaron Gordon! Gordon turns 26 today. He’s younger than Nikola Jokić.
This team is good enough to win an NBA championship during the next two seasons and beyond.
It’s a bold proclamation to make, but when you pay a solid starter who doesn’t profile as an All-Star player $20 million or more annually, it better be for a good reason. The lasting image that Nuggets fans have of Gordon in the playoffs is scoring six, four, and eight points in Games 2, 3, and 4 of the Western Conference semi-final beating that took place at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Gordon didn’t acquit himself well in that series, and there are enough questions about what he can be in a less-than-ideal situation.
Well, it’s a good thing the Nuggets are a perfect fit. At least at full strength.
When the Nuggets acquired Gordon at the 2021 NBA trade deadline on March 25th, it overshadowed what was an ugly, terrible loss at the hands of Toronto Raptors, who finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season. They started an athletic, small ball unit that blitzed the Nuggets off the floor, scoring 135 points and putting Denver’s biggest weakness on blast: athleticism. While the roster had a couple athletic players sprinkled up and down the roster, there was nobody to catch up to Pascal Siakam. There was nobody to body OG Anunoby. Hell, the Nugget struggled with then Raptors small forward Norman Powell, who dropped 22 points on 12 shots and cooked every player in front of him.
While Paul Millsap had ranged from serviceable to elite for the better part of four seasons, the writing was on the wall for the Nuggets. They needed an athletic wing defender to pair with Michael Porter Jr. They needed a strong, defensive minded forward to cover for Nikola Jokić. They needed a player who could take on the toughest assignments in the NBA so their star players wouldn’t have to.
There WAS no choice other than Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.
Gordon’s career arc with the Orlando Magic was fraught with potential, flashes of stardom, and ultimately, disappointment. Not just with Gordon himself, but with the Magic organization. Ever since the 2014 NBA Draft when Gordon was drafted fourth overall by Orlando, Gordon has never been paired with an elite creator before. He’s had Nikola Vucevic has the starting center next to him for a long time, but Orlando’s weakness has long come from their dearth of backcourt talent.
Here’s the list of starting point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards in Orlando in every season of Gordon’s tenure there:
2014-15: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris
2015-16: Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier
2016-17: Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Gordon (who started at small forward with Serge Ibaka at power forward)
2017-18: Elfrid Payton (then D.J. Augustin after Payton was traded), Evan Fournier, Jonathon Simmons
2018-19: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac
2019-20: Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac (who got hurt and was replaced by Wesley Iwundu)
2020-21: Some unfortunate mixture of Cole Anthony, Evan Fournier, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis, and Al-Farouq Aminu
To say that Gordon’s prime years in Orlando had been marred by a dearth of playmaking and talent on the perimeter would be the understatement of the year. The Magic cycled through a variety of uninspiring options, and the duo of Vucevic and Gordon did what they could.
With Gordon in his seventh season with the Magic and a little over a year away from his next big contract, the trade to the Nuggets came at the perfect time for all parties involved. The Magic, given the injuries and the overall direction of their roster, decided to bottom out and add young talent and draft picks to their roster for a full-scale rebuild. The Nuggets, given their desire to get bigger and more athletic on the wing, were willing to part with considerable pieces for the opportunity to add Gordon to their considerably better offensive talent.
Most importantly, Gordon was absolutely due for a change of scenery. The comparison between Murray, Porter, and Jokić to Payton, Fournier, and Vucevic had to be refreshing for a player only too used to cramped spacing, a lack of dynamic playmaking, and a legitimate chance to compete at a high level. The Nuggets gave him a chance to take a step back and enjoy the game of basketball again, and Gordon most certainly enjoyed it when he arrived in Denver.
From the moment Gordon arrived in Denver, the vibes were absolutely through the roof. The Nuggets, with Jokić the MVP on their side, with Murray the dynamic bubble star, with Porter the rising young talent, and with the entire rest of the structure intact, took off like a rocket immediately in Gordon’s debut, and they weren’t looking back. They won their next seven games in a row, four by double figures, and were finding a rhythm that very few teams in the NBA could even match, let alone exceed. Their starting lineup was ideal, the conditions were right, and several people smarter than I were close to declaring them the favorites to win a title.
And then Murray went down.
Jokić and Porter were talented enough to carry on, and the Nuggets’ structure was stable enough to keep winning games in the regular season, but there was no point in hiding just how big of a loss Murray was for Denver’s championship dreams. He knew it, the Nuggets organization knew it, and it was only a matter of time before Denver ran into a team that simply had too much talent to overcome. The important of a dynamic pick and roll playmaker with Jokić cannot be understated, and with Will Barton, Monte Morris, and P.J. Dozier also hampered by injuries, it was clear that Denver was going nowhere fast this season without their second star.
It was also clear that Gordon lost some effectiveness without that playmaker in the lineup. In the four games Gordon had with Denver while Murray was also in the lineup (let’s not count the Golden State game) Gordon averaged 14.3 points per game on 64.1% from the field. The Nuggets, in the minutes when Gordon was on the floor, outscored opponents by 15 points per game on average during that stretch alone. Gordon was playing well. The team was playing well. The formula was clearly there, even against some really good teams.
Now, it’s up to the Nuggets to rediscover that winning formula. They will be without Murray for the time being, but he won’t be gone forever. In his place, the Nuggets are trusting backcourt responsibilities to Will Barton and Monte Morris at the outset, with five candidates to come off the bench: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, Bones Hyland, and Markus Howard. Can the Nuggets get enough production and dynamic scoring from that group for the bulk of the regular season? Probably. Barton remains a steady, versatile scoring option, while Morris and Dozier are due for a jump in production. Bones is the wildcard, but just about everyone believes in his ability to get buckets.
But the real magic will happen in the frontcourt. Jokić may or may not continue to get better. We just don’t know. He has set the bar so high for himself that it’s almost impossible to believe he can’t continue to improve...almost. Porter, on the other hand, is perhaps the most likely player to improve in the entire league. After a breakout second season that saw many highs and many lows, Porter appears ready to assume more responsibility as a scorer and playmaker in the Nuggets offense. That will be important in the absence of Murray at the outset. Jeff Green and JaMychal Green are the steady backups to fill in the gaps. Zeke Nnaji and Bol Bol are the young bigs hoping for a chance to enter the rotation permanently.
And then, there’s Gordon himself. The former Orlando forward has played just 35 total games in a Nuggets uniform. He’s still adjusting to being a member of the Nuggets organization, what his best role may be, and how he can maximize his talent. As the Nuggets and Gordon become more familiar with each other, there will be a natural improvement that occurs from simple recognition of concepts, game plans, and a million repetitions.
Gordon will begin to know the Nuggets offense and defense like the back of his hand rather than cramming notes during the middle of a global pandemic. He will have the opportunity to spend time with his teammates, getting to know them and understanding the culture of the team. Perhaps more than anything, Jokić has the opportunity to spend time with the dynamic, 6’8” forward, and there’s perhaps no one in the NBA who benefits more than Jokić when it comes to familiarity, repetition, and understanding of teammates, opponents, and himself.
So, when someone asks me if the Nuggets overpaid for Aaron Gordon’s contract extension, it’s a pretty simple answer.
They paid to maximize their championship odds. They paid to keep a player, who fits perfectly with this team, around for several more years. They believe that Gordon, despite pedestrian per game counting stats, has more of an impact on winning basketball than the numbers make it seem. They have a pretty good case too.
Denver is built in a unique way that requires unique solutions. Not just any player can fit with Jokić. In order to accentuate his greatest strengths as a scorer and playmaker, he must be surrounded by dynamic scoring (Murray), elite shooting (Porter), and athletes than defend at a high level.
The Nuggets are betting on Gordon filling in that last bit as he adjusts to the Nuggets, and it’s a great bet to make. Very few players in the NBA have had success defending big wings the way Gordon has. He isn’t a perfect defender, and his off-ball defense needs work, but there’s still potential there as he transitions into the next part of his career. He doesn’t have to be the elite scorer he wasn’t asked to be in Orlando. He doesn’t have to do everything all the time for the Magic to just have a chance to make the playoffs. The Nuggets are giving Gordon the very best ecosystem they can for him to focus on the things he does best. By doing so, the Nuggets can become the best version of themselves too.
Will it work? Time will tell.
The Nuggets are putting their best foot forward though, and that includes Aaron Gordon filling in the gaps along the way.