The Denver Nuggets have had as many hurdles to overcome to start the 2021-22 season as any team in the league. Starting point guard Jamal Murray is still recovering from his ACL tear from last season and is out indefinitely. Micheal Porter Jr. has missed Denver’s last five games with low back pain after slipping on a fast break going up for a layup and was abysmal to begin the season prior to that. Denvers mix of anemic three-point shooting and wildly inconsistent bench play has only further plagued their offensive production.
Still, despite all of the hurdles placed in front of them, the Nuggets stand at 9-5 after 14 games which places them as the fourth seed in the Western Conference and their defense is the biggest reason why.
For the most part, everyone on the Nuggets roster has put forth a fantastic effort on the defensive end of the floor this season. Everyone from rookie guard Bones Hyland to defensive Swiss army knife PJ Dozier has sold out in order to keep games close. Even Nikola Jokic has taken dramatic steps forward as a defender near the rim and out to the 3-point line while upholding his magnificent offensive production.
Despite most of the roster giving every ounce of their energy on defense, there is one catalyst in particular which has allowed the Nuggets to thrive on that end of the floor.
Aaron Gordon has been crucial to the team’s defensive success in this young season.
“I think he is a big reason that we, as a team, have the number two defense in the NBA which is incredible,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “It is not just Aaron, but I do think he kind of leads that charge.”
As of Tuesday night, the Nuggets defensive rating is 10.6 points worse with Gordon off the floor. With Gordon, the Nuggets are posting a 97.2 defensive rating, which would be the best mark in the NBA, but with Gordon off the floor their defensive rating jumps up to 107.8 which would be 15th in the league. He has limited the opposing team’s best player, roamed the baseline as a weak-side defender to protect the rim, and locked down some of the best offensive threats in the world. He has been the leader of the Nuggets third-ranked defense and his impact has allowed the Nuggets to slam the door shut on opponents.
“When you have a guy who can guard, who can contain, who can play one-on-one, it allows you to stay away from helping and committing two bodies to the ball,” Malone said. “You get beat when you cannot contain the ball and you get beat when you have to send a double team. Teams are going to generate open looks because of that. That is what happens when you put two on the ball defensively. When you have a defender like Aaron who can guard, cover, and, even when he is beat, he has the size, speed and athleticism to get back in the play and have an impact that helps everyone on the floor.”
Gordon has taken on the task of defending the opposing teams best player every night regardless of position. It does not matter if he is taking on the task of limiting Trae Young, CJ McCollum, Ja Morant or any other quick and lethal lead guard or battling with an elite wing player such as Luka Doncic or Jimmy Butler. He will defend the likes of Anthony David and other power forwards going forward as well. That versatility is a godsend for Malone as he prepares his team to limit opposing offenses.
“Having a guy like Aaron Gordon, who in my opinion is one of the better defenders in the NBA, it allows you to put him on the likes of Luka (Doncic), Ja (Morant), Trae Young or CJ McCollum, whoever it is, and hopefully make life difficult for those players,” Malone said. “I think, to this date, Aaron has done a great job of that.
“Having a guy like Aaron Gordon is comforting for a coach knowing that you can put him on the opposing teams best player.”
The best example of this was when the Nuggets defeated the Atlanta Hawks and Gordon hounded Young all night long. Young was able to get to the foul line and had his way against the Nuggets bench, but when Gordon was on the court, the Hawks offense was defunct which allowed the Nuggets to extend their lead even if Young was able to score from time to time. That is what makes Gordon so valuable. Even if he is unable to keep Young from scoring less than 30 points, he was able to disrupt all flow and rhythm for the Hawks offense. When Hyland was asked postgame what makes Gordon such an effective defender within a team construct, he pointed to his physicality and tenacity while staying under control.
“Just how he knocks players off their path and their angles and how he frustrates them,” Hyland said. “He is bigger than most guys and he does not get over-aggressive and just stays in front of guys so they cannot get their shots off. Just like tonight it felt like he made it rough on his opponent.”
Gordon’s impact goes far beyond the box score. He knows that defensive impact is not measured by total number of steals or blocks. He understands the ideal way for the Nuggets defense to succeed as a team and will always play with that as his priority even if it means giving up a high scoring night to an opposing player. The cherry on top of his game against the Hawks was his fantastic night on the offensive end of the floor. He had arguably his best offensive game as a member of the Nuggets or, if you ask Malone, the best all-around game his head coach had ever seen him play regardless of the jersey on his back.
“Aaron Gordon, what else can you say about Aaron, right? The defense on Trae Young — and you don’t guard Trae with one player; you need everybody else — but I thought Aaron led that charge,” Malone said. “He goes out there and gets 23 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks. Aaron Gordon was just phenomenal tonight.
“I felt last game that was Aaron Gordon’s most complete game not only since I have coached him, but that I have ever seen him play. I thought he was terrific on both ends of the floor so if we get that from him every night I think we have a chance to be a very special team.”
When the Nuggets traded for Gordon last season — losing promising guard R.J. Hampton as well as Gary Harris and a first-round pick in the deal — this was exactly what they envisioned from him. It was undoubtedly a steep price to pay, but it was nearly inconceivable the Nuggets could reach this level of defensive dominance prior to acquiring Gordon. Now that Denver is at this level, the Nuggets front office is looking prophetic.
“One of the reasons we traded for Aaron was knowing that he had that ability to guard literally one through five depending on matchups and depending on who is on the floor,” Malone said. “I think if you go back to last season – in the postseason – especially in the Portland series guarding their smalls and in the Phoenix series guarding Chris Paul and Devin Booker; he has done that. If he does not have the same quickness of another player, he has his size, his strength, and the athleticism to get him back into plays if he gets beat initially. His ability to rear-view pursue and contest, not die on screens, and use his size, length and wingspan to make life hell has been so impressive to early in the season.”
Now that the Nuggets have reached this level, they know what their identity is; they are a defensive-minded squad with the best offensive player on earth destroying worlds on the other end of the floor. Without both, the Nuggets are vulnerable. They will rely on Gordon’s defense a similar manner to the Nuggets relying on Jokic’s incredible offensive production; something Malone admitted outwardly.
“Aaron is a guy we are going to lean on a lot on that side of the floor,” Malone said.