It was late on a Sunday night, and the Nuggets looked sleepy. They’d sputtered through 24 sluggish minutes against the visiting Magic, the team they’d connected with just 10 days prior on a trade aimed at vaulting Denver into championship contention. A leaky Denver defense had allowed the league’s fourth-worst offense since the trade deadline—y’know, when Orlando jettisoned most of its good players—to score 65 points in the first half. The Nuggets had earned their 18-point halftime deficit; it felt kind of like they’d forgotten how much force they had to apply to ensure that an overmatched opponent actually couldn’t match up.
And then, they remembered. The Nuggets unleashed hell in the second half, turning what had been an 18-point deficit into a 10-point win, and it all started with them remembering one of the many benefits of their recent trade for Aaron Gordon: When you put him into action with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, flanked by shooters like Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton, there’s an awfully good chance you’re going to get a bucket.
Focus too much on preventing Gordon from cutting straight to the basket, and Murray gets loose to drill a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Sprint out to make sure Murray’s covered, and Jokic hits the newest Nugget slicing to the rim for an easy deuce. Bring the low help defender over early and you risk leaving a shooter open in the corner; bring him too late and Gordon is finishing through contact for an and-1. Even if you nail every defensive switch and handoff to stall the initial action, you still might wind up with Jokic posting up your 6-foot-4 rookie point guard. Adding Gordon to the mix allows Denver to ask different, harder questions of a defense, ones they can’t always answer.
That early-third-quarter sequence didn’t win the game for Denver, but it did seem to get the Nuggets on track. Before long, the ball and bodies were flying around again, priming the pump for 16 assists on 25 Denver field goals after intermission; all that movement fueled bucket after bucket, as the Nuggets poured in 72 points on 59.5 percent shooting in the second half.
Gordon is a complementary ball handler who can bring the ball into the frontcourt while Jokic and Murray take their positions for the initial set, a razor-sharp cutter once he gets off the ball, a gifted finisher when he gets the ball back, and a confounding variable that defenses have to account for. Leveraging him unlocked the Nuggets in that second half. Plugging all of that into the context of one of the NBA’s best offenses, in turn, unlocked Gordon, who finished with 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting against his former team.
This worked to devastating effect against Orlando, and that’s par for the course in what has looked like a perfect marriage between player and team that has resulted in nothing but offensive explosions and wins. The Nuggets are 4-0 since Gordon’s debut, with the league’s fourth-largest point differential in that span. That includes wins over a Hawks team that’s 12-4 since the beginning of March, the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the lineup, and a 76ers squad that had been surging even with MVP-caliber big man Joel Embiid on the shelf.
Denver is thriving on the strength of a new starting lineup that has absolutely incinerated the opposition: The unit of Jokic, Gordon, Murray, Porter Jr., and Barton is a plus-61 in 90 minutes, by far the best mark of any lineup in the NBA since the deadline. The Nuggets are now devastating on both ends, scoring a blistering 135.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions while allowing a minuscule 102.3 points per 100, according to Cleaning the Glass—both absolute top-of-the-pops-level elite marks.
Gordon has paired beautifully so far with Jokic and Porter Jr. in a massive, versatile, and talented young frontcourt. Any concerns about how Gordon’s presence might impact Porter Jr., whose season kicked into high gear when he began operating more as a stretch 4, have been assuaged in the early going by Gordon’s ability to assume more demanding defensive responsibilities and create even greater opportunities for mismatches on offense without reducing Porter Jr.’s touches.
Gordon already has stepped into the “big wing defender” role ticketed for him in Denver; in his first three games as a Nugget, he lined up primarily against John Collins, Ben Simmons, and Kawhi Leonard, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. That didn’t necessarily mean that Porter Jr. got the night off—he still had to deal with tough covers like Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris Sr.—but slotting him in on a less central role can help mitigate his defensive growing pains. So far, so good: Denver has conceded 107 points per 100 in Gordon-MPJ minutes, not far off the Lakers’ league-leading defensive rating.
“[Gordon] put everybody back in their place where now I can guard my natural position at the 2, instead of going into a lot of games undersized at the 3,” Barton recently told reporters. “He takes a lot of pressure off us guarding the bigger 3s, and now we can switch seamlessly.”
The forward pairing is paying dividends on the other end, too. Gordon isn’t a top-shelf scoring or playmaking threat, but he’s a big one, requiring a defender whom he can’t physically overwhelm. Porter Jr. demands one of those, too, though, and not many teams have more than one. (The meeting with the Clippers, which saw Kawhi take Gordon and Paul George pick up Porter Jr., is much more the exception than the rule.) Against the Hawks, Sixers, and Magic, Porter Jr.’s primary defenders were Tony Snell, Danny Green, and James Ennis—all sound players in their own right, but all 6-foot-6 swingmen who can’t do much when someone with Porter Jr.’s size (6-foot-10 and 218 pounds) and scoring touch either attacks the offensive glass or raises up for a jumper.
Porter Jr. hasn’t missed much, either. The sophomore is averaging 20.5 points per game, making 65 percent of his 2s and 53 percent of his 3s since Gordon’s first game as a Nugget, thanks in part to his newfound opportunities to prey on dudes who are, in the words of the sainted Ruben Rabasa, too small.
One of the big questions surrounding the Gordon trade was whether, after seven mostly middling seasons with the Magic in which he tried to stretch his game to become a lead scorer and playmaker, the 25-year-old was willing to accept a lower-usage role as a complementary piece who scores points off of activity in the flow of the offense. Through four games, the answer appears to be, “Hell yes.”
As it turns out, working as a high-end third or fourth option on a contender agrees with Gordon much more than life as a miscast first or second option on a lottery team. He’s surfing the usage-efficiency curve toward his best self, producing nearly as much as he did with the Magic despite getting a dramatically lower number of looks:
Sometimes Less Is Way, Way More
|Aaron Gordon||Touches||Time of Possession||Usage Rate||Points Per Game||Points Per Shot||FG%|
|Aaron Gordon||Touches||Time of Possession||Usage Rate||Points Per Game||Points Per Shot||FG%|
|In Orlando (25 gms)||63.9 per game||4.4 minutes per game||25.3%||14.6||1.081||43.7|
|In Denver (4 gms)||33.0 per game||1.1 minutes per game||14.8%||14.3||1.425||64.1|
That’s because the chances Gordon is getting are 100 percent USDA prime cuts, cooked to perfection and served up on a silver platter by Jokic, whose incredible season has him at the forefront of the MVP discussion. He is, by an almost laughable margin, the best table-setter with whom Gordon has ever played. Jokic is the main reason nearly 70 percent of Gordon’s field goal attempts as a Nugget have come in the paint, and the reason Gordon is shooting 21-for-27 on those tries in the lane.
Through 25 games in Orlando this season, just over 52 percent of Gordon’s field goal attempts were assisted; he had to create his own offense nearly half of the time, and didn’t always do so all that effectively or efficiently. Playing in Denver, and with Jokic in particular, has all but erased that problem; 80 percent of Gordon’s baskets as a Nugget (20 of 25) have been directly set up.
Jokic has already assisted on more of Gordon’s makes this season (11) than any member of the Magic did besides the since-departed Nikola Vucevic (15) and Evan Fournier (12). Gordon has very quickly grasped the lesson that nearly everyone who plays with Jokic learns: If you move, he will find you, and make your life a whole lot easier.
“He’s in the locker room, like, ‘Man, these are the easiest passes I’ve got my whole career,’” Nuggets reserve Monte Morris told reporters after the Orlando win. “He understands you can just cut on our team and you can fall into 15 or 20 points.”
Gordon’s returning the favor, too. He gives Jokic another huge target to haul in and finish his pinpoint passes, and another natural off-ball cutter to punish defenses that press up on him. Maybe most importantly for the Nuggets’ title chances, though, he also gives Nuggets coach Michael Malone a gap-filling defender capable of staying in front of Trae Young on a switch, bodying up Kawhi on a drive, and wrestling Dwight Howard under the boards.
“The biggest thing is the defensive versatility and athleticism that he brings,” Malone recently told reporters. “Even if he gets beat [on the perimeter], he has the size, strength, and length to get back into the play and make it tough for them.”
Before the trade, Denver was allowing 113.3 points per 100, 20th in the league. In 119 non-garbage-time minutes with Gordon on the court, that has dropped to just 103 points per 100—stingier than the best defenses in the league.
He’s not the only reason the Nuggets have started to improve defensively of late, but he provides a component that they’d lacked—at the point of attack, on help rotations, at the rim—and that they’ll need to go toe-to-toe with the best of the West come the postseason.
Thanks to this 4-0 run since adding Gordon—and the 10-3 run that preceded it—the Nuggets now sit fourth in the West, just a game behind the Clippers for third place, with the NBA’s fifth-best point differential. They’ve got the MVP front-runner, a backcourt playmaker who’s proved he can go on Steph Curry–like runs in the postseason, a young flamethrowing 6-foot-10 forward who can score on anybody, and now, just maybe, the missing piece that can bring it all together. The Nuggets won’t enter the playoffs as the favorites to come out of the West. But with Gordon unlocking them, and them unlocking him, they’ve got everything they need to trade haymakers with anybody.