Aaron Gordon, despite the Denver Nuggets ups and downs all season long, continues to wreak havoc in the paint as a scorer which has quickly become one of the very few reasons the Nuggets season is still afloat despite the constant additions to the injury report.
There was no better example than Gordon’s performance in Los Angeles during Denver’s loss to the Clippers. Yes, Denver fell short of the win, but Gordon shot 10 of 11 at the rim on his way to 30 points on 16 shot attempts and 12 rebounds to keep the Nuggets within striking distance as their lead disappeared as soon as the second half arrived.
Without Gordon’s scoring at the rim, there is no telling how bad things could be for the Nuggets, but even with so much going wrong, the Nuggets are holding onto the sixth seed in the Western Conference by a thread which would allow the Nuggets to avoid the play-in tournament. Gordon not only shares in that success, but deserves a large portion of it for his fantastic first half of the season thus far.
Going back to his Orlando Magic days, Gordon had to create shots for himself more often than Denver will ever ask him to, but that also means that Gordon has a deeper bag of tricks than he regularly shows and this crossover and dunk is the perfect example of just how skilled his can be when a possession breaks down.
All this is is simply attacking a closeout, but Gordon sees all the details of what is happening around him. Gordon knows that the defenses has been sucked into the paint too far before catching the pass. Despite that, he still hesitates knowing that he has many ways to attack Daniel Gafford. Instead of rushing a 3-pointer or immediately attacking the rim, he sizes up his opponent and goes back to his roots to create the wide open dunk on his own utilizing his obscene strength, above average handles for his position, and the understanding that only Davis Bertans will be able to rotate over to slow him down; a bad situation for Bertans to be in unless he feels like ending up on a poster.
Gordon’s skills shine brightest on the crossover. Yes the dunk is highlight worthy, but his ability to quickly transition into a crossover, despite the contact, while keeping his dribble low to the ground is most impressive. That skill allows him to breakdown opposing defenses is isolation, as a secondary creator, or as the initiator in the pick and roll.
Again, Gordon’s handles shine bright in the clip below. He backs out to the perimeter before bullying his way for another bucket in the paint with a lethal spin move, great footwork and a creative finish at the rim. This level of skill is rare for a player of Gordon’s size, but what makes his impact so important is how he picks his moments to assert himself on the game as an isolation scorer.
Jokic has already backed out of the play which has pulled Jakob Poeltl away from the rim and with Jeff Green in the corner, Doug McDermott is unable to rotate over in time to stop Gordon’s drive. Gordon also knows that his side of the floor is empty so spinning baseline will not put him in a compromising position.
With all of those factors in play, Gordon chose that time to open up his game and attack former Nuggets wing Keita Bates-Diop knowing he had multiple advantages already in play.
When that level of skill is paired with unselfishness, it becomes nearly impossible to slow down that type of offensive assault and Gordon has actualized that role. He only individualizes his game when the situation calls for it, but more often than not he is punishing teams off the ball using the gravity of others like he does below.
This is the perfect use of Jokic’s gravity as an off-ball cutter. Gordon sets and slips the screen he sets for Jokic so instead of getting in the way of Jokic’s post-up, he jumps out to the 3-point line to space the floor, but he doesn’t mentally check out of the play.
Gordon knows his defender, Deni Avdjia, will have his attention on Jokic posting up in the low block. As soon as Avdija puts both of his eyes on Jokic posting up, he dashes to the rim straight down the center of the paint for the uncontested dunk.
This entire sequence came down to three decisions from Gordon: the choice to slip the screen he sets for Jokic, the decision to pop to the 3-point line, and cutting to the rim as soon as Avdija turns his head away from him.
Without Gordon’s slipped screen, Jokic would not have the space to sprint into his post positioning. Without Gordon popping to the 3-point line, Jokic would not have the space to grab all of Avdija’s defensive attention. Without the willingness to stay connected to the play off the ball and cut to the rim, Denver would not have had such an easy bucket.
The same can be said for Gordon’s willingness to run the floor in transition, which is an unlocked facet of the Nuggets offense. Denver is 25th in pace this season so far so these moments can be far and few between, but Gordon’s dedication to running the floor when not rebounding has been apparent as he shows in the clip below.
Gordon’s combination of size, strength and speed makes him a devastating player in the open court; especially when he is one of the first players past half court creating a mismatch. Whenever that opportunity presents itself, Gordon prioritizes getting into the paint and sealing his man making him an ideal target for one of Jokic’s mesmerizing full-court passes.
Gordon beats Bates-Diop down the floor and keeps him on his shoulder that is furthest from the rim. As Bates-Diop attempts to get in front of Gordon’s drive to the rim, Gordon spins back to the middle of the floor — based on his understanding of just how far away the rest of the Spurs defenders are — and finishes on the other side of the rim to avoid the shot blocking of Poeltl.
Gordon is not only giving maximum effort, but he is fully aware of everything happening around him because his role in Orlando forced him to carry such a heavy burden. There is no role Gordon has not been asked to fill throughout his career which allows him to help elevate the Nuggets in a plethora of different ways.
Once again, Gordon knows he has a smaller player on him in transition and he has great positioning while the greatest passer on earth has the ball in his hands. Instead of overcomplicating an obvious situation, Gordon keeps it incredibly simple and just keeps his body into Hart until Jokic throws him a pass that only he can catch.
When Gordon keeps things simple as he does above, he will stumble into 8-10 points a night which has been a common occurrence all season long. Why not just keep Hart on his back and score through him? There is nothing Hart can do, despite being very versatile on defense, to stop the strength of Gordon rising up for the layup.
When Gordon puts all of these skills together — a willingness to play off the ball, the skillset of a primary scoring option, the understanding of his role, and how the gravity of his teammates impact the spacing on the floor around him — his impact becomes undeniable and the upside he helps create in Denver is intoxicating. I mean, how many teams have their center initiate a pick and roll where their forward sets the screen, rolls to the rim and finishes with a reverse dunk off the drop pass from said center?
Jokic and Gordon have fantastic chemistry already and this pick and roll featuring them both shows exactly what I am talking about.
Gordon having a smaller man, Derrick White, on him is the basis for this entire possession. No matter how strong of a defender White is, he has no business keeping up with Gordon or Jokic going to the rim. So instead of overcomplicating a simple situation, Denver runs an inverted pick and roll where Gordon sets the screen as Jokic handles the ball.
This puts all of the pressure on White to contain both Gordon and Jokic heading into the paint because Drew Eubanks has no chance to fight over Gordon’s screen and get back to Jokic in time to contain the Nuggets offensive action. Instead, Eubanks quickly switches onto Gordon, but not quickly enough.
As soon as Eubanks commits to the switch, Gordon keeps him on his back by slipping the screen knowing that Jokic will find him under the rim for a reverse dunk on Eubanks, who has little chance to get back into the play.
All of these skills combined have led to Gordon shooting an incredible 128 of 168 in the restricted area this season which equates to 76.2 percent. That mark is actually is better than Jokic, who is at 72 percent, and the third-best mark in basketball among all non-centers behind just LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That pressure on the rim is a massive reason why the Nuggets offensive rating with Gordon on the floor (112.9) is 14.3 points better than when he is on the bench (98.6). Gordon’s field goal percentage of 52.1 percent is also 4.8 percent better than his previous career-high set during his sophomore season all the way back in 2015-16 and he is doing so while shooting barely over 31% from three-point range.
His scoring at the rim has been the reason for his most efficient season scoring the basketball to date and that skill has been a major component of the Nuggets success so far.