One of the splashier moves at the NBA trade deadline was made by the Denver Nuggets when they acquired Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic. His numbers in three performance do not jump off the page, but he’s showing real signs of being a vital contributor for his new team.
When the Orlando Magic used the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to select Aaron Gordon, there was much intrigue about his long-term potential. He had (and still has) all of the athleticism you’d ever want in a wing player but the fascination was always about what he could become if he were to become a more fluid shot creator and facilitator within the half-court.
Gordon never quite reached NBA All-Star status with the Magic and it became abundantly clear throughout his tenure that he was not going to become a dynamic shot creator. He was often inefficient being a prominent option in Orlando’s half-court option when relied upon to do what the league’s elite wings do on a routine basis with the basketball in their hands.
With the Nuggets, Gordon’s role within their offense utilizes him in ways he’s both effective and comfortable. He’s primarily an off-the-ball threat that is capable of converting off-the-bounce within flow of the game and can hit open shots when the ball comes his way.
The Nuggets did not necessarily need more help on the offensive end. Nikola Jokic is playing at an MVP level and while Jamal Murray is an up-and-down type of scorer, the unit as a whole has been quite successful on that end of the floor for a while. Regardless, Aaron Gordon adds intriguing dimensions to Denver’ half-court attack that will make them a more potent threat come playoff time.
There may not be a more dynamic wing in terms of cutting off-the-ball than Gordon and playing alongside an elite facilitator like Nikola Jokic will fully utilize that. Jokic is routinely capable of threading the needle with his accurate passing and absolutely punishes the opposition for ball watching. This is where Gordon has already feasted off-the-ball and he’s only getting started.
The early return of what Gordon has achieved with the Nuggets’ offense has been impressive. In fact, his primary play type has been cuts, which have accounted for 29% of his offensive possessions. Next up, has been transition at 25.8% in frequency. He’s converting at legitimately high clips in both areas as his athleticism has been fully utilized.
When the Nuggets do get out in transition after forcing a turnover or by pushing the ball after a rebound, Gordon is more often than not going to get ahead of the opposing unit. Denver has the passing talent to maximize him on leak outs in addition to traditional fill-the-wing situations. He can also convert on catch-and-shoot attempts when the simple finish or lob pass isn’t there.
The Nuggets now have two athletic wings who are real threats in transition to have to worry about. Gordon can get ahead of the opposition with his speed.— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
Certainly doesn’t hurt that Gordon can convert on catch-and-shoot looks when the finish isn’t there, too. pic.twitter.com/0BP3sZ1uc9
It’s not easy to find wing players who have the athleticism and impact off-the-ball as a finisher that Gordon poses while also receiving respectable catch-and-shoot production. The Nuggets will not need him to hoist up a lot of perimeter takes throughout games, but he’s at least more than capable of converting when the ball comes his way in those situations.
Gordon isn’t limited to just catch-and-shoot takes when he’s spacing the floor in spot-up either. In fact, he’s a legitimate threat to drive off-the-catch and has become a patient lane penetrator in such circumstances. He’s not going to straight line drive and force a bad take, he’s going to be savvy and methodical using counter-moves when the initial path isn’t going to lead to a favorable finish.
Gordon isn’t a knockdown shooter in spot-up but he provides some intriguing layers. He’s more than just a capable shooter in catch-and-shoot situations, his ability to get to the rim makes him a threat off-the-catch, too. pic.twitter.com/WtUtXj3d5z— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
It may not happen frequently throughout games but the Nuggets do have the option of involving Gordon as a ball screener in hope of utilizing his explosiveness as a roll threat. With the passing talent and floor spacing Denver has within the half-court, these are dynamic sequences that will apply intense pressure on the opposition’s defensive unit. When a player like Jamal Murray gets hot and commands blitzes and hard double-teams in the playoffs, these sequences will be nearly impossible to stop.
One of the benefits for Gordon playing for a team with more playmaking talent and shooting is that he can be maximized as a roll threat after setting ball screens. pic.twitter.com/o7V2M6fHki— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
On a team with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the perimeter in addition to Nikola Jokic as the main fulcrum of the offense, having Gordon is a luxury. The Nuggets haven’t utilized Gordon much yet in dynamic shot creation sequences but he’s still capable of converting on simple sequences like one or two dribble pull-ups coming off ball screens or handoffs. In fact, he’s been used slightly more as a roll man (9.7%) than as a ball handler in pick-and-roll (6.5%) sequences.
Having a wing with Gordon’s athleticism that is still more than capable of converting on pull-ups when needed is a real a plus for the Nuggets. pic.twitter.com/pltpRuCPRq— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
The benefits of adding Gordon into the mix are apparent for the Nuggets. He’s essentially in a perfectly comfortable role where he’s not asked to do too much and his athleticism and instincts are fully maximized. Nikola Jokic is able to pinpoint passes to him within the flow of games while the floor spacing fully neutralizes the opposition’s team defense from hindering him.
Where the Nuggets sorely lacked prior to the NBA trade deadline was in the perimeter defense department. Denver lacked a ‘go-to’ option to assign to elite wing threats like Kawhi Leonard and that consistently held them back in a Western Conference that is loaded with such talents. Now, that is a role that Aaron Gordon has shouldered and has proven to flourish during his time with the Magic.
The Nuggets primarily needed a boost on the defensive end. Gordon has provided this as an on-ball defender and displayed this against Kawhi Leonard.— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
Gordon’s size and athleticism enable the Nuggets to match up more appropriately with teams that have elite wing threats. pic.twitter.com/DRH8ewBBG1
The impact that Gordon provides defensively isn’t limited to just on-ball situations. His high basketball IQ and awareness makes him a genuine weapon in off-the-ball situations. During his recent performance against the Los Angeles Clippers, he put this on full-display. He successfully defended from the dunker’s spot and ripped Leonard on a drive in addition to blowing up a lob pass to the roll man from the weak-side as the low-man.
The impact Gordon provides defensively extends off-the-ball, too.— NBA Analysis Network (@HoopAnalysisNet) April 2, 2021
-Responsible for the dunker’s spot, Gordon stays in position to prevent pass and makes successful play at the ball vs. Leonard.
-Rotates from weak-side corner as ‘low-man’ to blow up the lob pass to Zubac. pic.twitter.com/Nos9E2X612
With the set of intangibles that Gordon brings to the table as a defender, he helps raise the floor of the Nuggets’ defense significantly — making them a far more formidable NBA championship threat. Ranging from being able to handle switching better to executing X-outs, there are many sequences throughout the course of a game that improve by having Gordon in the lineup.
Despite receiving an MVP caliber season from Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets never quite managed to crack the top-tier of the Western Conference standings this season. They have since won four consecutive games with three coming with Aaron Gordon in the lineup and that has helped them to ascend to the fifth spot. Now, they are the same number of games back from first place as the Los Angles Lakers and are just one game back from the third-ranked Los Angeles Clippers.
Overall, the results the Nuggets have achieved with Gordon playing alongside their regular starters including Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton, and Nikola Jokic has been intriguing to see, to say the least. The group has logged 64 minutes together and they have achieved a 132.3 offensive rating, a 94.3 defensive rating, and a 37.9 net rating. Over the last three games, it has been the most effective lineup of every group that has logged at last 20 minutes.
Come playoff time, it will be fascinating to see how the impact Aaron Gordon provides can translate for the Denver Nuggets. At this point, the team has to feel confident they can compete with any Western Conference team in the playoff picture with their current makeup.