NBA

Aaron Gordon's quiet start bodes well for the Denver Nuggets

New addition Aaron Gordon has made a solid if unspectacular start to life in Denver but with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the emerging Michael Porter Jr, it’s not scoring the Nuggets need from the former Orlando Magic forward.

It wasn’t anything special, but the 126-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Gordon’s first game with the Nuggets showed what had been missing for this rising Western Conference team.

It’s almost like the Mile High team needed a talented perimeter forward who is capable of scoring 13 points per game while defending the opposition’s wing player and picking up a couple of rebounds and assists. It’s almost like they never should have let Jerami Grant go in the off-season.

That’s right, the team had a good option at forward last season. Grant helped them reach the Western Conference Finals after coming back from two series in which they were 3-1 down, but he left in free agency.

It wasn’t all the Nuggets’ fault: the franchise reportedly offered Grant $60m, which was essentially the same contract that the Detroit Pistons offered, but Grant had his reasons.

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It was revealed in The Athletic that he moved to Michigan because of the Black representation in the front office and coaching staff, and Grant later confirmed this on The Lowe Post podcast, saying: “Knowing that I can look at my GM and know he has experienced similar things as me as a Black man in America.”

It’s often difficult for small market teams to sign or retain talent. The likes of Denver, Oklahoma, Utah, San Antonio, Memphis and Indiana will always struggle to attract promising free agents due to the draw of life off the court in coastal locations and bigger cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and even Detroit.

Most smaller markets are often situated in more conservative towns with a larger white population and these teams tend to build through the draft and trades, which brings us to the trade deadline last week.

Gordon was one of the most coveted wings available. He wanted out of the Orlando Magic, after making the playoffs just twice during his time in the league since 2014 – both of those being pitiful, first-round knockouts.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets have shown much better management, taking a step forward each season under head coach Mike Malone and increasing their winning percentage year on year, until last year’s confusing, interrupted situation, during which they still managed to make the Western Conference Finals.

For 2020-21, they are on track to win more than 60 per cent of their games for the third season in a row but the competition has improved, so Denver were on the hunt to replace some of the talent they lost.

While Grant has flourished as a leading scorer in Detroit, he would have never averaged 22 points, four rebounds and two assists in Denver, who have Jokic and Murray as leading scorers. Now Porter Jr has also stepped up to replace Grant’s offense.

At his best, Gordon has been a secondary scorer as a power forward on a young team searching for direction while in Orlando. More recently, Gordon split his time more between the small forward and power forward position and was not as productive.

Last year, Grant’s role in Denver favoured a power forward position, guarding bigger bodies and using his speed on offense to beat players off the dribble occasionally, but more often using cuts to receive passes from Jokic – one of the best passing bigs ever – for open shots from distance.

Neither Grant nor Gordon are great from three-point territory, shooting 35 and 37 per cent respectively. Gordon, however, has a first step and a nose for the rim that has seen him become one of the league’s most high-volume dunkers since he started averaging more than 24 minutes per game. Since 2016-17, he has finished in the top 26 in the league in terms of the number of dunks he catches each season – territory typically reserved for centers.

This is relevant because, while Gordon has an ability to shoot from distance, he fills spots on the floor where the Nuggets have found themselves lacking.

Jokic can be dominant in the low post, but he can be dominant anywhere. He boasts an ability to shoot from all over the floor thanks to being 6ft 11in with a long wingspan, as well as having a high release and an arcing shot. He hits 42 per cent from three, 60 per cent from two, and up close to the rim he misses only one in four shots.

Murray and Porter Jr also shoot better than 40 per cent from distance, which draws their defenders away from the basket when they play on the perimeter. Having three great shooters create that much space means Gordon can attack the basket at will, knowing that Jokic – as well as Murray and flashy point guard Facu Compazzo – will find him with a pin-point pass if there is a split-second gap.

The area where the Nuggets have arguably taken a step back is on defense.

Gary Harris was probably the best perimeter defender on the team, so trading him for Gordon will impact that end of the court, despite Harris being out injured in recent weeks.

The Nuggets were relying on Harris to continue his offensive development, which looked promising when he averaged 17 points per game in 2017-18 as well as 1.8 steals. These numbers have steadily declined, and this year he is scoring 10 points and averaging less than one steal per game.

Injuries have been cruel. Harris has never played 82 games and his career high (by some way) is just 76, thanks to concussions, a foot injury, a groin tear and hip issues – he sat out the entire run in the bubble last year.

All of these appear to have reduced his explosion in recent seasons and while big men can often survive on defense when their athleticism declines – as they don’t always need to leap to block shots, they just need to be in the right place to impact their opponent’s shooting percentage – it is more difficult for perimeter defenders.

Defensive stats are difficult to parse though, because the best defenders – especially on the perimeter – often match-up with the best player on the opposition. They are also kinder to bigs, because it’s easier for them to affect shot-making ability at the rim, unlike guards and wings that have to chase around the perimeter and fight over screens.

Even so, Harris’ defensive rating has been slipping in recent seasons. In 2018-19, he allowed 111 points per 100 possessions according to Basketball Reference. Last year that increased to 113, and so far this season he has allowed 116 points, but at present remains on the injured list with a thigh strain and isn’t expected back soon.

This team’s defensive performance also hasn’t been helped with Denver missing Grant.

The Nuggets sent RJ Hampton to the Magic, and Orlando threw in Gary Clark. These youngsters project a similar level of success in the future – nothing special – so the main pieces are Gordon and Harris (plus a first round draft pick).

Thanks to his development, Porter Jr more than fills in the offensive numbers for Grant, but the defensive drop off is big. Gordon’s drop off from Harris is not as simple to calculate, as they play different positions and Harris doesn’t look like the same reliable defender he was a few seasons ago.

Losing two good defenders and adding or developing offense-first players that better fit the team has made Mike Malone take on a more offensive approach so far this season. His team has typically scored between 110 and 111.7 points per game, while allowing less than 109 points per game.

In 2020-21, the team is built better than ever to score and this should only improve by adding Gordon. The Nuggets are scoring 115.8 points per game, fourth highest in the NBA, but more importantly their net rating (the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) is the fifth-best mark in the league – the highest the team has ever been under Malone.

Denver need to make up some ground after a slow start but Jokic is putting himself in the MVP conversation, Murray is building a great partnership with the big man and Porter Jr is a good third scorer with a high ceiling for growth.

Each year, this core takes one step further: from making the playoffs to reaching the Conference Semi-finals two seasons ago, to reaching the Conference Finals in the bubble.

Gordon doesn’t have to be anything special for this Nuggets team, but if he can be good enough defensively to outscore his opposite number most nights, we could see Denver represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this season.

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