According to Sean Deveney of Heavy.com, the Orlando Magic “tried hard” to trade Aaron Gordon prior to the trade deadline. Teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, and Indiana Pacers were some of the teams cited in the article as interested parties. Looking purely at career averages, Gordon failed to increase his scoring averages (14.4 ppg down from 16 ppg), while other box score stats also remained relatively flat. Gordon’s primary issue is his fit on a team with a glut of centers, wings, and forwards. In addition, the ascension of Jonathan Isaac has also, at times, caused Gordon to lose his mantle as the “glue guy” who would often check the most dangerous ball handler on the opposing team.
Aaron Gordon is currently in the second year of his 4 year/$80 million deal with the Orlando Magic. With a rather hefty financial commitment made to Gordon and his perceived suboptimal fit in the Orlando Magic system, it’s worthy question to ask whether or not the Orlando Magic could make any alterations that could maximize Gordon’s skillset. If not, then in what types of scenarios can Gordon be truly optimized?
A large proportion of Aaron Gordon’s defensive value stems from his isolation defense. The combination of strength and quickness is truly oppressive, with opposing players recording a meager 0.70 points per possession against Gordon in isolation for the 2019-2020 season thus far. This places Gordon in the 85.2 percentile in terms of points per possession against. What makes this defensive effort even more impressive is the fact that Gordon often is tasked with defending against the opposing team’s most proficient point of attack player (w/o Jonathan Isaac). In a homestand against the Milwaukee Bucks, Aaron Gordon was matched up against Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was successful in denting the Greek Freak’s ballistic drives by using his lower body strength to dislodge drives to the basket. This often forced Antetokounmpo to deviate from a direct path of attack to the basket and allow help defense from Vucevic to smother rim attempts. Aaron Gordon’s unique combination of strength and speed was also demonstrated in a game on the road against the Houston Rockets. Gordon was tasked with the unenviable role of guarding Russell Westbrook in the Rockets five-out spacing. Throughout the matchup, Gordon was not totally impervious to Westbrook’s explosive attacks towards the basket, yielding layups on several occasions. However, the totality of Gordon’s defensive effort was effective, as he was able to cut off Westbrook quite frequently with his surprising lateral quickness. Along with wilting drives with his frame and strength, his length played a factor in contesting or even blocking shots. While Aaron Gordon does not boast particularly impressive length and height for his position, his combination of strength, athleticism, and lateral quickness is rarely found in players of his position.
Unfortunately, Gordon’s on-ball brilliance is entirely antithetical to his maladies guarding the pick and roll. Coach Clifford of the Orlando Magic often opts to utilize a multitude of different looks when defending pick and roll. The Magic have frequently employed “show and recover” and “blitz”, the most frequent coverage being the “drop” coverage that sees the defending big drop into the paint and the point-of-attack defender play over the screen. This scheme specifically aims to take away dribble pull-up threes and shots at the rim by giving up the less efficient mid-range jumper. The “drop” coverage has risen to prominence because of Mike Budenholzer, Quinn Snyder, and Kenny Atkinson’s successful integration of this coverage into their stifling defensive game plan. The idea of employing a defensive scheme that incentivizes mid-range jumpers while taking away the most efficient shots at the rim is beautiful in theory. The differentiating factor for the Orlando Magic is the lack of a dominant rim protector like Brook Lopez (w/ Antetokounmpo for help defense), Rudy Gobert, and Jarrett Allen/Deandre Jordan. Thus, this coverage really only serves to incentivize opposing ballhandler to attack downhill against a much less threatening Nikola Vucevic. It also does not help that Aaron Gordon is not proficient at navigating on-ball screens to bother the ballhandler. The scenario that Gordon is able to play over a screen and get even with the ballhandler is incredibly rare. This is not because of a lack of effort on Aaron Gordon’s part. Relegating a 6-8, 220lbs forward to chase smaller perimeter players around perimeter screens is simply not an optimal solution. In situations that allowed Gordon to switch -specifically with James Ennis and Jonathan Isaac as the participating defender- he flourished. Those scenarios are unfortunately so few and far between with the way the defensive game plan is designed. This is not to fault the coaching staff, as the crowded front court of the Magic often causes the role of point of attack defense to be delegated to Aaron Gordon. Adopting a more switch heavy defense would certainly be a worthwhile option to at least consider, seeing that Vucevic actually performs surprisingly well in switch scenario against guards. The sample size of Vucevic switching is certainly small, but the eye-test actually depicts a rather nimble center who exhibits above average lateral quickness at his position. The obvious tradeoff of this approach is the energy expenditure Vucevic would experience, being that he is also the primary driver of the Orlando Magic offense, leveraging his versatility as a playmaker in the post and sprinkling in three point shots for a team starved of floor-spacing.
When Aaron Gordon was utilized as the drop coverage big, his effectiveness in neutralizing the opposition craters. Gordon actually allowed 1.46 points per possession defending the roll man, slotting him in the 8 percentile. Looking at film, his primary struggles is the inability to dictate the ball handler like an adept drop coverage big like Rudy Gobert. He is not long enough to tag the rolling big and track the ballhandler, often having to hard commit to either in the P&R. This often leads to massive returns for the defense in the forms of open layups or floaters in the lane.
Off the ball defensively, Aaron Gordon can be described as inconsistent with his effort and awareness. He does show some awareness of being able to stunt off-ball and rotate on pretty obvious pick and roll plays. At the same time, his effectiveness is also dented by some questionable tendencies. For example, while defending against the pick and roll in a single-side-tag (Gordon operating as the lone man in the weakside). It was confounding to see his aggression ramp up to rotate onto the roll man when he is the lone defender in the corner. In almost all cases, this gives up an open corner three, a high return shot. As a result, it was even more confusing to see an instance where he did not react to a rolling big when he played the short corner with another fellow Magic player on the same side. A team like the Boston Celtics favors using the side with two defenders to contain an initial pick and roll because it opens up the possibility of an “X out” where the short corner defender contains the roll and the wing defender tracks the pass and the player that receives it (likely the corner offensive player due to the initial rotation). The short corner defender then scrambles back to cover the other offensive player – likely located on the wing- to take away the extra pass. Please refer to this video posted by Basketball Immersion for a visual representation of this defensive scheme. Understandably, there certainly are scenarios that justify for the rotation of the short corner defender on a single-side-tag scenario. If the corner shooter is a poor shooter, the defensive returns can certainly outweigh the returns of defending using the “X-out”. Nonetheless, a wide-open, catch-and-shoot corner three (easiest three point shot) is not a shot that should be yielded frequently. Nevertheless, even if he fails to track off-ball movement carefully, his recovery speed, as outlined in the video, can serve to erase these defensive mistakes. Despite some inconsistencies with tracking off-ball action and executing advanced defensive concepts, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses comfortably.
Looking at the totality of Gordon’s defense, he grades out as a highly effective player on despite being thrusted into roles that often expose his weakness. Using the ESPN’s Defensive Plus-Minus, Gordon placed in the 92.4 percentile. He can be prone to inconsistencies in terms of his awareness off the ball as well as being generally weak as a screen navigator and drop coverage big. Nonetheless, he provides massive value in terms of his stifling defensive effort in isolation and his incredible recovery speed that add an extra layer of resistance for the defense.
On the other hand, Gordon’s offensive value debases his overall value quite substantially. This can mostly be attributed to Gordon’s lackluster shooting, which is often at the focus of many defensive schemes. Throughout the 2019-2020 season, Gordon recorded a catch and shoot effective field goal percentage of 46.2% and 32% on three pointers according to NBA.com. As such, a common scheme employed by opposing offense is to simply leave Gordon open behind the three point line in favor of stymieing action in the paint. Looking at Basketball Reference’s league averages, the effective field goal percentage of the league was at 52.8%, which conforms three pointers and two pointers into one percentage (shooting 32% on a three pointer is equivalent to shooting 48% in terms of EFG%). This means that a catch and shoot possession by Gordon yielded 0.132 less points per possession than the average possession. This is purely based on catch-and-shoot, as Gordon’s pull up possessions ranks even more unfavorably with a EFG% of 32.9. As pointed out in the video, this knowledge is not lost among NBA teams, as slotting Gordon on the perimeter often means defenses can play 5 on 4.
Looking forward, it is worthy to question whether or not his lack of shooting can improve. Throughout his career, Gordon converted 70.1% of his free throws and is currently slotted at 67.5%. While free throws itself is not the best predictive indicator of good shooting in the future, it does signal good mechanics or consistency. Furthermore, film of Aaron Gordon shooting off the dribble and catch and shoot shows a lack of smoothness and effortlessness good shooters often have. When these shots go up, they also have a proclivity to miss in all sorts of directions. As a whole, common indicators of shooting improvement film and stats wise seem to work against Gordon. Thus, it would be difficult to imagine a future Aaron Gordon becomes even a serviceable floor spacer.
Gordon’s lack of floors-spacing ability is not ideal, as it reduces his scalability next to better players. According to Ben Taylor, the concept of scalability relates to skillsets that continue to have value off the ball such as shooting, finishing, rebounding, and defense. The ability to at the very least threaten a high return open jumper ties down a defender to the offensive player, regardless of other skillsets. This has a constant, albeit small, return on offense throughout the course of gameplay. Since Gordon almost completely lacks this ability, he compensates for this weakness by leveraging his superior physical tools in the form of weakside duck ins for a high percentage post finish. Gordon often employs these weakside blitzes against smaller and/or weaker defenders. When his defender is preoccupied with paint protection, it allows Aaron Gordon to cut baseline and seal his defender for a post finish. When employed correctly, this approach often yields a high percentage shot or foul; however, these opportunities occur quite infrequently. Unfortunately, this off-ball movement can sufficiently lose value when a rim protector or larger player is placed on Gordon. This only highlights the debilitating effect of not having competent level of spacing the floor.
On the ball, Aaron Gordon can add value operating as a ball handler in the pick and roll or generate scoring opportunities in the post. Unfortunately, he is not especially effective in any of these situations, especially in the pick and roll. Aaron Gordon does indeed exhibit knowledge in running the pick and roll, making use of concepts such as “jail”, “snaking”, and being adequate at passing to the popping big. However, Gordon is certainly weaker in more advanced P&R settings that require hitting the diving roll man. In addition, his scoring ability is also muted due to his inability to punish sagging bigs that go under screens or drop. Therefore, Gordon sits in the 18.8 percentile in pick & roll ballhandling, converting 0.64 ppp. By simply going under the screen or playing drop coverage, Aaron Gordon’s P&R skillset is largely mitigated. While Gordon is a rather weak pick and roll operator, he does add value in increasing the total offensive variables available to the team.
With the ball in his hands, Aaron Gordon derives most of his value from the post. He stacks up as a fairly average scorer in post-up situations by recording 0.92 ppp (51.7 percentile). His scoring returns are fairly average, but film also suggests that Gordon is a decent passer. He especially shines in reading “split” actions in the high post and perimeter, able to hit shooters or the popping/rolling big. In the post when pressured in a double team, he exhibits the awareness to make skip passes to the weakside. Generally, this means that it is difficult to double team him in the post. However, larger forwards and centers have more success bottling up his post efficiency. Even with the strength of his passing, Aaron Gordon does not operate his passing game in unison with his scoring game, which often results in tunnel vision. Gordon certainly is not elite in the post, often relying on strength and athleticism as opposed to skill and finesse. In most scenarios, he is also matching up against weaker post defenders, demonstrating the lack of priority the defense shows towards Gordon. All in all, Gordon does exhibit some on-ball playmaking and scoring that can punish the defense for placing weaker defenders on Gordon; however, the returns yielded cannot be relied on for long term success.
After taking into consideration the various defensive skills Aaron Gordon excels in and is maligned for, the role that would optimize his ability would likely be a small-ball center functioning in a switch-heavy defensive scheme. Examples of such roles include Grant Williams at the 5 lineups for the Boston Celtics, Robert Covington’s role on the Houston Rockets, and also Draymond Green’s role in the Golden State Warriors’ “Death Lineup”. By switching one through five, it helps mitigate many of the off-ball defensive deficiencies Gordon has. By constantly switching every screen, it increases Gordon’s chances to showcase his incredible on-ball defense. It also serves to reduce the number of times Gordon will have to play over ball screen or as a drop coverage big. Furthermore, switching a matchup does not do a disservice to the defense due to his unique physical tools that allow him to matchup against big and small. Concurrently, it also decreases the need to have complex decision making exhibited by shrewd off-ball operators. By compensating most of the inconsistencies Gordon has off the ball and replacing it with his on-ball brilliance, it would be difficult not to view him as an elite defender impact wise. Even if Gordon is able to play within a system like this, it is also important to be aware that he will most likely never have the same defensive impact as elite paint protectors that acts as the main driver for a defensive scheme.
With many of Gordon’s defensive maladies accounted for, playing him in a small-ball, switch-all center also serve to offset some of his offensive deficiencies. While Gordon can demonstrate decent execution as a P&R ballhandler and through post creation, these moments should be reserved as low priority offensive option or to exploit a specific defensive matchup. Instead, Gordon should leverage his incredible finishing ability in the paint by operating as the primary roll man since he placed in the 72 percentile in P&R roll man scenarios, yielding a substantial return of 1.22 points per possession. However, this skillset has not yet been demonstrated thoroughly as he averaged 0.4 roll man scoring attempts per game.
As for his tenure in Orlando, it does appear that his strengths are not optimized and his weaknesses magnified. As such, the crowded front court involving Vucevic, Birch, Bamba, Isaac, Okeke, and Aminu also means that Gordon will not be able to play his preferred role. While the effort is there, he simply does not fit strongly as defender stationed primarily on the perimeter.
Playing Gordon as a switch heavy five appears to be the most favorable position for the skillsets he excels in. Even so, His mediocre length and height also takes away potential to be a paint protector that can influence an opposing player’s choice to take it to the basket. As such, post monsters like Embiid or Jokic can certainly net high returns against a small-ball lineup anchored by Gordon. Additionally, the sheer scarcity of this specific role around the league, playing him at the four seems to be a more realistic long term solution. Still, his questionable shooting and unlikely probability to improve upon it is an almost universally exploited weakness. While there certainly are players that can equalize this weakness with incredible on-ball creation and scoring, Gordon simply does not push the barometer enough with his current on-ball skillset.
Looking forward, the path to substantial improvement is not obvious. Shooting would be the most immediate aspect to improve Gordon’s viability as an offensive threat. However, the general discomfort in his shooting mechanics in combination with his subpar free throw shooting should make observers bearish on that prospect. By no means does improvement prove impossible, but the skillsets that Gordon lacks are primarily skills that require years of muscle memory and accumulated knowledge/feel for the game.
In reference to a study conducted on player progression in the NBA by Harrison Chase, Nathaniel Ver Steeg, and Daniel Smith of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, the age vs. BPM (Box Plus Minus) curve of a player typically peaks at around the age of 25, where the first order derivative of the curve approaches 0 before increasingly dipping into the negatives.
At his current age of 24 (hitting 25) it is more likely he does not improve significantly as opposed to the contrary. Gordon’s unfavorable contract creates barriers for a trade to materialize, but his awkward fit (and Isaac with Okeke’s imminent return) should give the Orlando Magic plenty of incentive to offload Gordon. Teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics seem to be parties that stand to gain the most from this transaction, as they favor defensive schemes that can maximize Aaron Gordon’s utility.