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What’s going on with Aaron Gordon?

The Nuggets needed Aaron Gordon to be at his best to have a chance in this series. Instead, they’re getting the opposite.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The theory of Aaron Gordon is everything.

Selected fourth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, Aaron Gordon has long been a tantalizing player dripping with potential. When he was 18 years old leaping past the moon on his way down to where other basketball players played their game, it was easy to talk someone into Gordon developing as a starter, or at least a high quality starter. There were holes in his game, but Gordon had enough avenues going forward to become a starter caliber player. Often, those conversations were paired with the following hypotheticals:

“If Aaron Gordon developed his three-point shot...”

“If Aaron Gordon was a better pick and roll creator...”

“If Aaron Gordon was a better team defender...”

Rather than focus on one particular area to develop as a role player, Gordon has focused on all of them in the hopes of becoming a star. From his outside shot, to his post game, to his 1-on-1 defense, to his playmaking, Gordon has improved in a bunch of areas since entering the league. As a result, he’s become a quality starter by becoming one of the better “jack-of-all-trades” players in the entire NBA. Gordon isn’t elite in any one category (outside of perhaps big wing on-ball defense) but he’s average to above average in just all of them.

That versatility was what initially drew the Denver Nuggets to Gordon. His ability to guard bigger wings, switch onto guards and bigs, and do a bit of everything offensively was seen as the “finishing piece” for the Nuggets starting unit. With Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. already on board for the long haul, the Nuggets needed an athletic defender, and Gordon was obviously a great candidate. Gordon didn’t have to be elite at any one thing in Denver. Instead, he’d be asked to fill in the gaps.

Then, Murray tore his ACL. About seven months later, Porter aggravated an already tender lumbar spine and needed a third surgical procedure.

Suddenly, the Nuggets needed a whole heckuva lot more from Aaron Gordon than they expected. Monte Morris and Jeff Green stepped into the starting spots as placeholders for Denver’s injured stars, but the two players Denver needed most were Gordon and Will Barton. Initially, the Nuggets were just fine with this group with the biggest culprits for bad minutes being an ill-conceived bench unit. As the season wore on though, the bench figured some things out with some personnel and role changes, but the starting unit began to wear down. There was only so much that the 35-year-old Uncle Jeff, 31-year-old Barton, and Morris (first year starter) could offer with regard to dynamic energy.

The Nuggets needed extra oomph, and though he had his ups and downs, Gordon largely delivered in the regular season. Gordon and Jokić shared the floor for 1,999 minutes in the regular season and produced a +423 plus-minus, the third highest plus-minus in the entire NBA across the 2021-22 season.

The top plus-minus lineup duos during the 2021-22 NBA season

Team Duo Minutes Played Plus-Minus Rank
PHX Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges 1,983 +456 1
BOS Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum 1,463 +434 2
DEN Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić 1,999 +425 3
BOS Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum 1,766 +418 4
BOS Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams 1,444 +407 5
BOS Jayson Tatum, Al Horford 1,495 +402 6
PHX Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges 1,823 +387 7
DEN Monte Morris, Nikola Jokić 1,903 +385 8
PHX Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder 1,708 +358 9
BOS Jaylen Brown, Al Horford 1,308 +350 10
BOS Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams 1,253 +350 10

The most important aspect of every lineup is whether it works or not. Sure, it wasn’t pretty, and it involved a lot of Jokić doing Jokić things, but the role Gordon filled as a screener, cutter, mismatch hunter, and offensive rebounder was one of the primary aspects of Jokić ball this season. Gordon found his points in creative places. He wasn’t a good outside shooter (33.5 3P%), but he was decent as a post up option (0.97 points per possession, 60th percentile), good as a cutter (1.42 ppp, 78th percentile), good as a offensive rebounder (1.18 ppp, 63rd percentile), and even found some success as a handoff option (1.02 ppp, 75th percentile). Being above average in a number of categories made up for Gordon’s bigger weaknesses of spot up shooting (0.98 ppp, 48th percentile which really isn’t that bad) and isolation scoring (0.83 ppp, 39th percentile). Mitigating weaknesses by being good in a variety of categories is always a good option for flawed players.

Unfortunately, the Golden State Warriors understand Gordon’s weaknesses well. Outside shooting, shooting off the dribble, and creating shots in tight spaces just isn’t the best part of Gordon’s game. He’s at his best when he’s taking advantage of a spaced floor, and the Nuggets have anything but that whenever he touches the ball without Murray and Porter out there too.

But there ARE things Gordon can control from possession to possession. For a player as physically powerful as he can be, goes up soft around the rim way too often.

Several of Gordon’s misses around the paint were the result of missed turnaround jumpers, altered layup finishes through contests by defenders, and other shots that weren’t simply taking the ball up strong.

Now, compare the above shots to a possession against Draymond Green later in the same quarter, and it’s easy to see the difference in intent. Gordon was getting to the rim and he wasn’t about to finish soft. He was going to cram the rock on any player unfortunate enough to be in his way.

Another great example of Gordon not settling for a Jokić post up and pressing a clear size advantage, He brings the ball up the court against Klay Thompson, and Klay doesn’t take his driving capability seriously enough. Gordon makes him pay by attacking the shoulder and finishing on the other side of the basket.

Unfortunately, the above possessions are counteracted by the shots Gordon takes that are either out of rhythm or take the wind of the sails of potential scoring possessions for Denver. There’s a time and a place to take a three, but Gordon clearly didn’t strike those chords well in the first two games. He shot 1-of-7 on those shots, but it wasn’t just that they were threes but rather when they were attempted.

That HAS to be a kickout-swing-swing-swing three. Jokić gets doubled, delivers an accurate pass to the perimeter, and the next three shooters after Gordon are Barton, Morris, and Bones Hyland. Gordon has to make the correct the read and trust his teammates in that situation. The Warriors make that decision every time, and if they don’t, it’s because the ball found a historically talented shooter. Gordon isn’t that. None of the Nuggets are. They have to work for the best shot possible.

Now, every single one of the clips above comes from Game 1. Not a single clip of comes from his 3-of-9 performance from Game 2 was shown. I’m going to spoil it now, it looked much of the same except Gordon rattled around a corner three that dropped. The other two makes were a driving dunk in the fourth quarter, and an offensive rebound tip layup. There were no improvements made to his process, no added aggression driving to the basket. Klay Thompson drew a charge on Gordon at one point, and perhaps that persuaded him to do something different, but it simply didn’t work.

Perhaps more alarming than Gordon’s offensive concerns are the defensive lapses. One of Denver’s most consistent defenders all season long, Gordon has failed to stay in front of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole when matched up with any of the Warriors’ top shooters.

Now, the entire five minute clip above wasn’t just Aaron Gordon mistakes. I would know. I watched the whole thing and relived that absolute nightmare of a shooting barrage over again.

But Gordon is supposed to be the best of the bunch, and he’s perhaps the worst defender on the court in the first two games of the series. The quickness of Poole was just too much for Gordon to handle in Game 2. The shooting of Curry is hard for anyone to handle, but Gordon still doesn’t press high enough up on him and has been susceptible to dribble moves creating threes. Beyond that, his ability to read and react to the Warriors sets and Denver’s rotations has seen him be the culprit of leaving open a corner or wing shooter multiple times. Often, it’s Klay Thompson, and that’s just not a great idea.

Playing defense against the Warriors is hard, It’s especially hard if the point-of-attack defense is bad. Gordon has been surprisingly bad in that regard this series, and the Warriors are taking advantage of almost every single mistake. Gordon was supposed to be the guy in Denver’s lineup that could be relied upon consistently. Instead, it feels like every single option has been horrible.

Perhaps the best case scenario for Gordon is to move to power forward more frequently during this series. In 52 minutes this series, Gordon has played about 2 minutes at power forward. The rest have come at small forward next to Jeff Green and Nikola Jokić (as well as a two-minute stretch at small ball center after Jokić’s ejection). That’s simply not enough, and it’s highlighting Denver’s lack of perimeter spacing and perimeter defense against a Death Lineup that feasts on those flaws. Take Jeff Green off the floor, move Gordon to the 4, and let him defend Andrew Wiggins for a bit instead of chasing around Curry, Thompson, or Poole. Gordon’s probably a better defender in Golden State’s “Draymond at the 4” lineups as well because the Nuggets can switch those actions more consistently. In addition, Gordon should have better spacing offensively to roam around the dunker spot and take advantage of the attention Jokić draws if Jeff Green isn’t also trying to do the same thing in the same spots on the floor.

It’s unfair to put the blame at the feet of one player. For Jokić, he carries the responsibility of the entire offense on his shoulders, and he’s often tasked with beating the best defender of this generation, Draymond Green, in a game of 1-on-1. For Barton, he should never have been tasked with more than the burden of being the fifth starter this year, yet he’s tasked with being the second leading scorer against a championship caliber team. For Morris, he’s a backup point guard forced into a starter role. He’s one of the best backups in the business, but this isn’t a good matchup for him. For Jeff Green, he’s 35 damn years old. Nobody born in the 1980’s should be tasked with chasing around this Warriors team for long stretches. No offense, Jeff.

For Gordon though, he’s locked into a four year, $92 million extension with the Nuggets that kicks in next season. The Nuggets gave him the most amount of money they possibly could because they believed in the vision of his role as a connector between Jokić, Murray, and Porter. Obviously, that hasn’t manifested, and it’s nobody’s fault. Still, the Nuggets need someone to step up and help Jokić as a scorer and lead defender this series, and it’s fair to wonder if Gordon’s up for that task. It’s more than what the Nuggets paid him to do, but they need somebody to do it.

It’s fair to want Gordon to step up and to be disappointed if he can’t do it.