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The Nuggets Emerge From the Magic’s Fire Sale As Real Contenders

Boston and Chicago also pulled off trades with Orlando, but Denver’s deal for Aaron Gordon has a chance to swing the title race

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Three teams traded for a Magic veteran Thursday, as Orlando decided to pull the plug on a perpetual 8-seed and shift its outlook to the far-off future. Nikola Vucevic joined the Bulls, Evan Fournier joined the Celtics, and Aaron Gordon joined the Nuggets. But it was that last trade, alone, that may swing this season’s title race.

Gordon has been involved in so many trade hypotheticals at this point, for so long, that it’s easy to forget he’s only 25 years old. The Idea of Aaron Gordon—the tantalizing potential that the former no. 4 pick would develop into the perfect combo forward for the pace-and-space era—is still very much alive, and perhaps perkier than ever now that Gordon joins a team with such a strong recent track record of player development.

In exchange for that upgrade, Denver sent Orlando Gary Harris, rookie R.J. Hampton, and a future top-five-protected first-round pick that can’t convey until at least 2025. That’s not a prohibitive cost for someone with the potential—there’s that word again—to elevate Denver to the next level.

First things first: Denver is a real threat this season; don’t let its record fool you. Although the Nuggets’ fifth-place standing in the West is worse than their second- and third-place finishes from the past two seasons, this team is stronger in its underlying numbers.

Nuggets Net Rating

Season Net Rating Rank
Season Net Rating Rank
2018-19 +4.0 8th
2019-20 +2.2 11th
2020-21 +4.6 7th

And with both of the Lakers’ stars injured and the Clippers’ roughly mediocre play through the past two months unlikely to budge just from the acquisition of Rajon Rondo, the top of the West looks rather more hospitable than usual. Neither Utah nor Phoenix, the conference’s top two seeds, is a proven playoff performer. Denver, meanwhile, has the now-leading MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic and is working to take advantage of his prime.

Perhaps most importantly, Denver added Gordon without sacrificing any key part of its current squad. The pick, of course, can’t help the Nuggets now. Hampton, last year’s no. 24 overall pick, was averaging just 9.3 minutes and 2.6 points per game as a rookie. And Harris had missed 23 of Denver’s past 24 games due to a thigh injury, which will keep him out for longer still.

Come the postseason, Denver will miss aspects of Harris’s game; he helped swing the Nuggets’ first-round series against the Jazz in the bubble, giving them a defensive option to cool the scorching Utah offense. Utah scored 122 points per game in the first five games of the series, which Harris missed, versus just 93 points per game after Harris returned.

But Harris had regressed ever since signing a four-year, $84 million extension before the 2018-19 season, with the continued degradation of his 3-point shot rendering him a much less effective two-way player.

Like Harris, Gordon will bring a spotty shot to Denver’s rotation; although he’s up to 37.5 percent on 3-pointers in a small sample this season, his career mark is just 32 percent, and he’s never been above 35 in a single full season. (Remember the start of the 2017-18 season, when he shot 60 percent from distance over 10 games? That didn’t last.)

Yet Gordon brings much more to the table. The priority is his defense: At 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, with acres of athleticism, Gordon is now the Nugget most suited to defending the LeBrons and Kawhis of the world should Denver face an L.A. team in the playoffs. Given the current standings and the Lakers’ injury woes, that clash could come as early as the first round—and with Paul Millsap aging and Jerami Grant in Detroit, the Nuggets didn’t have anyone, before Thursday, remotely capable of winning that matchup.

Gordon grants Denver coach Mike Malone plenty of lineup flexibility, with Gordon, Millsap, Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton, Monte Morris, and JaMychal Green all capable of fitting in different configurations around stalwarts Jokic and Jamal Murray. The Porter-Gordon pairing offers the most intrigue: Porter is a dynamite scorer with defensive questions, while Gordon boasts a near-reverse skill set. They could mesh even if neither player improves his current weaknesses. Gordon, at the very least, can scrounge for copious easy buckets off the ball, with so much defensive attention diverted to Jokic, Porter, and Murray.

Again, there’s good reason to think Gordon might improve, given the divergent track records for Orlando and Denver—the latter of which keeps developing so many promising young players that it doesn’t have sufficient roster space to keep them all. Denver will have time to work with Gordon, who’s signed for this season and next, before deciding whether he’s shown enough to warrant an extension; if not, his salary will come off the books just in time for Porter’s first extension.

In adding Gordon, and with Kyle Lowry surprisingly sticking in Toronto, the Nuggets also did more than any other contender to improve on Thursday. (With apologies to Miami, the Heat are .500 and Victor Oladipo’s Charmin-soft market reflects the fact that he hasn’t approached his peak level for three years now.) They’re still far from Finals favorites—teams like the Bucks and Nets, after all, made their big splashes in the offseason and January, respectively—but they’re clearly better now than they were before the deadline, and are building momentum as the season progresses. Since February 10, the Nuggets are 14-7 with the fourth-best net rating (plus-6.8) in the league.

The other two teams to add an Orlando vet are in much different positions than Denver. For Chicago, Vucevic will pair with Zach LaVine to make magic (sorry) on offense, but it’s hard to imagine a Bulls roster with so many remaining holes advancing far in the playoffs. And by trading Wendell Carter Jr. and two first-round picks to Orlando in return, Chicago is seemingly reorienting from a slow build to a win-now approach, just without the proper pieces in place to win now.

The Celtics, meanwhile, will surely benefit from Fournier’s secondary scoring, as a thin rotation means Boston’s margins have collapsed whenever Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown rests. But the Celtics are below .500, with a mediocre point differential to match, and Fournier will be a free agent after this season. He’s a short-term boost for a team that needs more to compete this season. There’s a reason Orlando nabbed only two second-round picks in return.

Gordon fetched more—but not all too much, considering how often he’s worn out the Trade Machine over the years. He’s finally on a contender, still so young he can both help his new team right now and continue to develop after stalling in recent seasons on a mismatched roster with an overcrowded frontcourt. The Nuggets have no such problems. They’re now positioned better than they have been all season long.