NBA regular season

Aaron Gordon: Missing puzzle piece that completes Nuggets’ picture

Joe Viray
Aaron Gordon: Missing puzzle piece that completes Nuggets’ picture

KEY ACQUISITION. Aaron Gordon gives the Nuggets versatility on both offense and defense with his impressive skillset.

Photo from Instagram/@nuggets

Despite the small sample size, Aaron Gordon has proven to be a positive impact player for the Nuggets on both ends of the floor

Jerami Grant left behind a glaring void when he left the Denver Nuggets to sign for the Detroit Pistons this past offseason. His emergence as a two-way wing was crucial during the Nuggets’ run toward a Western Conference Finals appearance in the bubble playoffs.

Grant can reasonably stretch the floor – he shot 38.9% in the regular season with the Nuggets – and he meshed seamlessly within the offensive ecosystem centered around Nikola Jokic as an off-ball mover and cutter. As the Nuggets’ best wing defender, he was a highly valuable commodity; he could switch up and down the positional spectrum, and was often tasked with defending the monstrous wings of the league – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James, to name a few.

Upon his departure, the Nuggets struggled to find a suitable replacement. They signed JaMychal Green in the offseason, expecting him to make up for the shooting and defense that Grant took with him to Detroit. But Green has largely been an insufficient substitute; he has had trouble staying healthy, and hasn’t had the same kind of defensive value that Grant had provided.

Michael Porter Jr is well on his way to becoming the Nuggets’ third star behind Jokic and Jamal Murray. But his value has largely been on the offensive end of the floor. His defense is still a work in progress, even if said progress has been anything but stagnant. He has defensive upside; effort isn’t one thing that people can knock him for. But awareness and positioning come and go. He occasionally makes the right reads and rotations, but his mistakes stand out the most at this point.

Porter has found his comfort zone as a dynamic stretch 4. He can bend defenses and bring slower defenders to their limits with his range – he is shooting 45% on threes this season on 5.5 attempts per game. His athleticism and bounce off the dribble allow him to penetrate for layups and dunks. He fits brilliantly as an off-ball target for Jokic to find on one of his eye-popping passes.

With Green being limited and Porter finding his niche as an offensive unicorn at the power forward position, the Nuggets sought to fill in the void created by Grant’s departure, firing up their trade machine to seek a capable wing at the 3 who can be a complementary scorer on offense and a versatile stopper on defense.

Despite rumors of several teams being frontrunners for Aaron Gordon – the Boston Celtics being the most prominent one – the Nuggets were able to acquire him through a bargain package, giving up the oft-injured Gary Harris, rookie RJ Hampton, and a protected 2025 first-round pick to obtain the Orlando Magic’s prized swingman.

Since the trade, Gordon has only played 3 games for the Nuggets – a miniscule sample size. Extrapolation of his performances and how it has affected the Nuggets is an exercise that one must tread carefully with, especially with 24 games to go and with variance and luck still lurking around the corner. 

But those 3 games have been extremely eye-catching, making it hard not to see the immediate value that Gordon has given the Nuggets on both ends of the floor, and how such short-term impact can help the Nuggets be a better team in the long run.

Gordon on offense: spacing, cutting, and screening

Gordon’s natural fit within an offense centered around the skills and wizardry of Jokic has been wonderful to watch. He is a disruptor on offense in a similar mold to that of Porter – a moderate spacer who keeps defenses honest and can punish them with off-ball movement and weak-side cutting. His ability to shoot the three at a reasonable rate will make defenders think – he is only a career 32.3% shooter from behind the arc, but he is shooting at a rate of 36.7% this season on 4.3 attempts per game.

Gordon doesn’t need to shoot the three like Klay Thompson or Joe Harris. But occasional shot-drilling such as these provides an additional layer of breathing room for an offense that already has it in spades:

Gordon’s two threes above have been the only threes he has made during his 3 games with the Nuggets so far, on a total of 8 attempts. That hasn’t been up to par with his season average. But a small-sample size should be no cause for alarm. With enough reps and time to get more comfortable than he already has been within the offense, those shots will start falling at a consistent rate.

More so than Gordon’s potential threat as a spacer, being a cutter and slasher has been his main role and value on offense with the Nuggets. With the best big-man passer in the league being his teammate, Gordon has seamlessly immersed himself within the Jokic ecosystem. 

Jokic makes life as a cutter easy, but the cutter also has to do his part. Cutting is a technical skill as much as it is an art form; the cutter needs to time his movement in order to be in perfect harmony with the pass. Gordon has previously never shown a certain proficiency as a cutter with the Magic, but with the understanding that he will spend less time on the ball and more time off of it, he not only has accepted such a role, he has embraced it with arms wide open.

Gordon is a natural cutter. He times his cuts well:

On the possession above, Gordon runs on a “flex” cut – with Murray setting a screen perpendicular to the baseline – and Jokic throws a perfect pass to him for the layup.

Gordon can also thrive as a cutter on chaotic possessions:

Look at how the Nuggets force rotation from the Clippers in the possession above. The ball being whipped around the perimeter makes the Clippers scramble in desperation, seeking to plug holes being created at a fast rate. But they cannot plug the hole created by penetration, opening a lane for Gordon to dive toward the rim, receive the drop pass, and finish the layup.

Defensive attention focused on stars such as Jokic and Murray is key to Gordon’s cutting success, especially when stationed on the weak side…

…as well as when Gordon is parked at the dunker spot:

Gordon has also been employed as a screener, both in the traditional sense – that is, screening for a guard and diving to the cup…

…as well as in a non-traditional manner: screening for the bigger man in Jokic, an “inverted” pick-and-roll that garners him an open dive to the rim for an easy dunk:

The sample size is extremely small, so Gordon’s impact on the Nuggets’ offense has to be taken with a grain of salt. But the advanced metrics have favored him so far: The Nuggets offense increases by 13.0 points per 100 possessions during his minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. Their shooting and scoring efficiency experience slight upticks with Gordon on the floor, a small trend that has promise and success written all over.

Gordon on defense: versatility

At 6-feet-8-inches tall with a wingspan of 6-feet-11-inches, Gordon has the ideal physical profile to defend most wings and guards in the league, while allowing him to switch onto bigger forwards and centers with relative comfort and ease. 

His role as the Magic’s go-to defender when guarding the opposing team’s best player was a huge reason why the Nuggets wanted him – the Magic were 4.1 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Gordon on the floor, per Defensive versatility is a scarce and much-coveted commodity; being able to snag someone of that nature is almost always a jackpot, and the Nuggets were fortunate that the Magic were willing to accept less than the pound of flesh that Gordon was expected to command.

In his 3 games with the Nuggets, Gordon has mostly defended opposing wings while occasionally switching onto smaller guards like Trae Young, whom Gordon spent a considerable amount of time defending.

Such an ability to stay in front of Young – a quicker guard capable of turning the corner and using counter moves to make slower defenders look foolish – is highly valuable.

But it was his matchup against Kawhi Leonard that was the most eye-catching. Such a matchup was exactly what the Nuggets got Gordon for. He is expected to be a sturdy ballast against the likes of Leonard, especially during a potential playoff series where individual one-on-one matchups reign supreme.

You can hear the collective gasp of Nuggets’ fans everywhere from the possession above. Gordon smothers Leonard and prevents him from turning the corner or even getting a shot up, using his length to bother Leonard and making him pass out of the shot attempt.

This possession from Gordon is even more definitive proof:

The Clippers run a pick-and-roll for Leonard. Gordon elects to go over the screen and trails behind Leonard, respecting his ability to make a shot from the perimeter by taking away that option and funneling him inside. He stays close without fouling and eventually blocks Leonard’s shot attempt.

“It’s the physicality,” Gordon said when asked about his success defending Leonard. “Over the years I’ve gotten a little bit stronger, so I can match that. It’s just about making it difficult for him. He’s a tremendous talent and very skilled, so it’s just [about] playing cat and mouse with him.”

Gordon’s defensive impact during his brief time with the Nuggets has been astounding: The team allows 20.2 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.

An even more ridiculous number: when combined with Gordon’s impact on offense, the Nuggets have outscored all 3 of their previous opponents – the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Clippers – by a combined 33.1 points per 100 possessions during his minutes, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Those are very much products of a small sample size of excellence – in other words, that won’t be sustainable. The numbers will normalize.

But based on everything Gordon has shown so far – as a spacer, cutter, and screener on offense, as well as being the Nuggets’ most versatile defender – it’s safe to assume that those numbers in their normalized form will continue to reflect the positive impact that he has provided them so far. –