Aaron Gordon hasn’t yet become the player the Orlando Magic envisioned when they drafted him. Perhaps it’s time for them to move on?
If it weren’t for the 2016 Dunk Contest, I’m not sure most casual NBA observers would even know who Aaron Gordon is.
(Quick sidebar: That year’s edition was the best dunk contest I’ve ever seen, and it gave the event a needed jolt after several years of lethargic, boring, seen-it-before dunks and strange format changes. In any other year, Gordon’s under-the-legs dunk would’ve given him the crown but he was stuck going against the human pogo stick that is Zach Lavine. With Chicago playing host this year, here’s hoping we get Lavine/Gordon Round 2.)
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Gordon has been the most athletically gifted player on the floor for most of his basketball existence. In high school, it’s a distinct advantage that these types of players can use to propel their team to state titles and AAU championships. It’s harder to rely on athleticism alone in the college ranks, though there are still some notable examples of guys who have done so (Blake Griffin comes to mind). In the NBA? It’s damn near impossible. The margins are thinner and everyone is much more skilled.
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Obviously, being a high-level athlete is a prerequisite to playing this game at the highest level. Gordon has that part down pat. In a league with some of the best athletes in the entire world, he ranks as one of the most impressive in that regard. He can sky for dunks that others around the league can’t even dream of attempting.
Thus far, his sublime athletic gifts have yet to coalesce into anything resembling an All-Star level player, which is likely what the Orlando Magic thought they were getting when they made him the 4th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Sure, LeBron is also in this elite athletic class, but he combines his unique blend of size and speed with a preternatural understanding of the game.
He’s a basketball historian and savant, capable of operating two-to-three steps ahead of any defensive scheme.
Sometimes it appears Gordon believes that he belongs in this elite class. And who can blame him? Since the Magic drafted him, they have whiffed on pretty much every one of their first-round picks. (We’re in wait-and-see mode with Jonathan Isaac, though early returns are very promising.) They traded away Victor Oladipo before he had a chance to reach his full potential. For some strange reason, they turned Oladipo into Serge Ibaka, even while having Gordon and Nikola Vucevic already on the roster.
Acquiring another big was a curious move at the time – most of the teams in the league were beginning to embrace the four-out, shooters-and-playmakers everywhere model that propelled Golden State to a title – but this trade aged horribly as the Magic then flipped Ibaka for Terrence Ross and a couple second-rounders.
(Rob Hennigan, the mastermind behind these moves, is no longer employed by the Orlando Magic. I know, shocking.)
Without a true star on the roster – Vucevic’s 2018-19 All-Star campaign notwithstanding – Gordon was miscast as the franchise savior. ESPN’s Zach Lowe brilliantly summed up Gordon’s identity crisis in one of his recent 10 things columns.
There are three theoretical Gordons: the player Gordon wants to be; the player Orlando wants him to be; and the player Orlando needs him to be because of their roster construction. The actual Gordon is paralyzed in some sort of existential tension between all three.
Gordon came into the league just as it was beginning to change, as a “tweener” – a classification that was reserved for players who didn’t slot neatly onto the positional spectrum. Did he profile as a traditional big man or a prototypical wing player? No one knew. In today’s league, teams covet these players, provided they have enough skill to complement their positional versatility. (Even when they don’t, the ability to toggle between two, three and four positions defensively is sometimes so enticing that GM’s can’t help themselves.)
Over the course of his time in Orlando, Gordon has often found himself stationed on the perimeter, with the team opting to play two traditional bigs a lot of the time. The Magic have only recently begun to resemble a modern basketball team, which has coincided with the hiring of John Hammond and Jeff Weltman away from the Milwaukee Bucks, a team obsessed with length, modernity, and positional flexibility.
Occasionally, Gordon will do things like this. And this. These plays are flashes of all the possibilities that exist within Gordon. In these moments, you can seduce yourself into thinking that he could become a star on the wing, not unlike the players who have ruled the NBA for decades.
Later on in the aforementioned 10 Things column, Lowe suggests a new, ideal role for Gordon in the modern NBA: a facsimile of Draymond Green. Green quarterbacked the Warriors defense throughout their dynastic run, able to switch across the positional spectrum while simultaneously serving as a deterrent at the rim. While Gordon may never possess Green’s one-of-a-kind basketball brain, he does have significantly more athletic gifts, which should theoretically enable him to seamlessly slide into this role.
No one is asking Gordon to singlehandedly conduct traffic behind every opponent’s pick-and-roll, as Green often does. But, given his tools, he should be able to switch most screening actions and hold up adequately against opposing lead ball-handlers. This season, he’s fared pretty well when someone sizes him up and tries to take him one-on-one – yielding just 0.59 points per possession while defending 0.7 isolations per game.
We can also look back to last season when he allowed just 0.66 points per possession while defending almost one isolation chance per game. Now, there is some noise in those numbers, as we don’t know who exactly he was guarding on each of these possessions. But, given the stats and his lateral agility, Gordon should be able to hold his own defensively against most lead guards.
Gordon may never become the ideal version of himself in Orlando. It hasn’t happened up to this point, and it’s looking more and more unlikely with every passing day. Besides, the Magic drafted Isaac, a player with similar defensive potential, and re-signed Vucevic, signaling, perhaps, that they’ve settled on those two as their future up front.
Where does that leave Gordon?
He needs a team that will let him grow into the best version of himself, rather than one who will stick him in a less-than-ideal situation where he’s overburdened with too many offensive responsibilities. I believe he’d slot in perfectly next to Kristaps Porzingis down in Dallas. Porzingis has spent the early portions of this season adjusting to life as the Robin to Luka Doncic‘s Batman.
While his counting stats are down, he’s having more success than he ever did in New York, thanks to an ecosystem where he hasn’t been asked to overextend himself. Rather than a franchise savior, Porzingis is a cog in the machine – one that rolls along efficiently thanks to Doncic’s ability to create scoring opportunities at will, whether in the form of his famous step-back or one of his nifty passes out to a willing and able 3-point shooter.
Luka is a legitimate superstar, seemingly on the cusp of taking over the entire league. He’s second only to LeBron in creating points off these passes – 23.4 per game. And many of his assists result in open 3’s, meaning his teammates need only to catch and fire, rather than create on their own. Five Mavericks – Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Tim Hardaway Jr., Porzingis and Justin Jackson – are fortunate enough to be attempting at least two wide-open 3-point shots per game (defined as shots that occur when the closest defender is 6+ feet away).
Gordon is slumping this year on his wide-open 3-point attempts – just 29.3 percent on 1.9 per game – but history tells us a different story. For the two full seasons before this one, he stands at a much more respectable 38.3 percent on 3.2 attempts per game. During that time, his overall percentage from deep was 34.3 percent with good volume – 5.2 attempts per game. That’s not great but it’s a far cry from the 29.3 percent mark he’s posting this year. This offers a glimmer of hope that this year is the anomaly, rather than the continuation of a multi-year trend.
We have no way of knowing the Magic’s asking price for Gordon. But the Mavericks can offer an intriguing combination – salary cap relief and interesting young players. The Magic currently sit roughly $21 million above the cap. Most of the teams hovering around them in terms of payroll are ironclad playoff contenders. The Magic, on the other hand, is a sub .500 team desperately hoping to win the competition for the privilege of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Bucks.
The Mavericks could part with Courtney Lee‘s expiring, which would shave $12.7 million off the Magic’s books, Jalen Brunson, Finney-Smith, and a couple of second-rounders. Would that be enough for the Magic to part with one of their franchise cornerstones? Roughly two years ago, trade talks involving Gordon never really got off the ground, due to Orlando’s insistence that they receive a haul in return. They’re right to expect that! Gordon is one of the few success stories from their player development system – a homegrown talent who’s improved each year.
There comes a time for every franchise when they have to make these tough decisions. Do they trust that the player they drafted will continue to evolve or do they go the other route and cut bait before said player’s value falls off a cliff? The return might not seem like a lot for a player of Gordon’s caliber, but Brunson and Finney-Smith are both enticing young players who likely project as rotation players, at the very least.
Due in part to their curious roster construction, it feels like the Magic never has enough competent guards. Brunson can help in that regard. He’s a dogged defender who can operate a second unit while also playing off-ball in two and three-guard lineups, a trait that would serve him well if slotted next to Markelle Fultz. Finney-Smith has improved each year, specifically as a shooter – 38.3 percent this season on 4.2 attempts per game, up to nine percentage points from his rookie campaign.
Opposing defenses have to respect him when he spots up around pick-and-rolls, something the Magic are sorely lacking. Surround Fultz with Ross, Finney-Smith, and Vucevic on the perimeter and he could do some real damage knifing into that extra space on his hard drives. (Both Brunson and Finney-Smith are also controllable, with each having three more years left on their deals.)
Gordon could slide right in as the 4 in Dallas’ starting unit. With Porzingis and Gordon, the Mavs would be able to trot out an elite shot-blocker and a switchable, uber-athletic, multi-positional defender. Combine that pairing with Doncic, Hardaway Jr. and Delon Wright and you’re looking at a monstrous group (the shortest player is Wright, who checks in at 6-foot-5).
Since Doncic functions as the Mavs lead ball-handler and creator, they can surround him with these bigger, complementary players without sacrificing playmaking or shot creation. (An added bonus: Gordon is under contract for two more years after this one, giving him, Doncic and Porzingis time to grow together and jell, as they learn the little nuances of each other’s games.)
Plus, imagine all the Doncic-to-Gordon alley-oops! If nothing else, this could somehow make Mavs games even more fun.