After realising his full potential, Aaron Gordon is no longer a nice role player, he’s essential to winning a title. Could his improved skillset carve a route to an NBA championship for the Denver Nuggets?
Aaron Gordon's hot shooting isn't a fluke anymore, the sample size is big enough and it's great news for the Denver Nuggets. (Sean Carroll illustration)
The Denver Nuggets are title contenders this season but heading into the 2022-23 NBA season, there were several questions about their chase. Can Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. bounce back after major injuries? Can Nikola Jokic protect the rim at the highest level? And is there a lineup with enough defence to compete in the playoffs?
Through the first few weeks of the season, those questions seem to be answered.
The Nuggets are currently second in the Western Conference, separating themselves in the crowded standings and MPJ looks better than he ever has. Jamal Murray is playing through an expected slow start, but there are enough flashes of brilliance to assume he’ll regain his form later in the season.
Amongst the narrative of returning superstars, Aaron Gordon is playing the best basketball of his career and this play might be another reason why Denver is a true title contender this season.
On the season, AG is averaging 15.8 points a night with 6.7 rebounds while shooting 61 percent from the floor and 38 percent from the three-point line. His 66 effective field goal percentage trails only Yuta Wantanabe and Sam Houser among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.
We’re currently at the intersection between athleticism and veteran intelligence for Gordon. He’s not the same guy who jumped over Stuff the Magic Dragon in Toronto, but he still has enough athleticism to get around NBA defences and this season, he’s finding it easier to get to the rim.
When the Nuggets traded for AG, he was a toolsy defensive forward who had struggled to make a serious impact with the Orlando Magic. He was a role player trying to glue together the pieces of a perennial eighth seed.
For some, this made the former fourth-overall pick a draft bust, but the Nuggets saw the potential in AG and pushed a lot of their trade chips in for the defensive forward, sending a 2025 first-round pick, R.J. Hampton and Gary Harris to the Magic.
Because of his shooting struggles, AG is often the player left open by defences. In the first round of the 2022 playoffs, the Golden State Warriors were more than happy to leave Gordon open and let him shoot.
This season, he’s stroking it from long range, and while it’s on a paltry 2.8 attempts a night, he doesn’t need to hit several, he just needs to stress the defence.
Last season, when the Nuggets were treading water without MPJ and Murray, Gordon was forcing the issue a bit, looking for his own shot given the desolate state of the roster around him. We knew this wasn’t who he was, but with so many injuries, he had to be aggressive.
Entering this season, I was excited to see him in a minimised role, filling the gaps on offence and benefiting from the attention others drew. But that simply hasn’t been the case. He’s still looking for his own shot, but with a better supporting cast, AG has much more room to work with.
And AG’s offence is also leading to a healthier ecosystem for his teammates. With defences respecting Gordon more, he’s able to pass people open.
I used to think that the best version of this Denver team had Jokic at the five and Porter Jr. at the four. It’s an absolute dream on offence and would let the two-time MVP work anywhere he wanted inside the paint.
A lot of possessions are starting with AG feeding Jokic in the paint, cutting to the rim and if the defence wants to help on the centre, the Big Honey has a lob option primed and ready, an open shooter somewhere on the court or a one-on-one post up.
In the playoffs, when defences can lock in on weak spots, I don’t know what teams are going to do. If you’re somehow covering MPJ, Murray, Jokic and this AG, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is hitting a cool 50-fucking-percent of his three-pointers…
In the 2021-22 NBA Finals, we saw two of our generations’ best defences go against one another. In a way-too-short rendition of what happened, Steph Curry proved too good and even if the Boston Celtics did everything right, he just found a way to score.
In postseasons past, the Milwaukee Bucks put the clamps on the efficient Phoenix Suns, the LA Lakers had one of the more versatile defences in NBA history, [insert large asterisk for 2018-19] and the Warriors dynasty was built on a revolutionary switching defence.
The Denver Nuggets don’t have the defensive chops to stop teams but if they force every team into a shootout, they might be able to make some noise. The rise of Aaron Gordon is turning this team from a good to a great offence and I don’t know who stops it.
The league average offence this season is 112.8 points per game (112.9 per 100 possessions) and when the Nuggets score over that number this season, they're 11-0.
The old mantra is defence wins championships but with the unstoppable force of Stephen Curry and potentially this supercharged Nuggets offence, could we be witnessing a new way to win an NBA title?
All stats are as of 1 December 2022.
One half of The Deep Two NBA Podcast and blog, Sean is an painfully optimistic Golden State Warriors fan who will let you know about it. Previously at Nugg Love (Site Expert), Sir Charles in Charge (Contributor) and The Knicks Wall (Contributor).