The final half of last season saw Aaron Gordon emerge as a single glimmer of hope that shone through the swamp of the Orlando Magic’s mediocrity.
After being injured, mismanaged, and generally buried on the bench for most of his first year and a half, coach Scott Skiles finally took off the chains so that Magic fans could see him fly.
And fly he did. Gordon’s electrifying performance in the 2016 NBA Dunk Contest put him on the map for the casual NBA fan, but on the court he was providing more than just acrobatic slams.
After taking over the starting role on January 22nd, Gordon posted averages of 11.1 points and 8.2 rebounds in just under 29 minutes per game. Though his game was still raw, the most appealing skill he began to develop was that of a lockdown perimeter defender.
It was Gordon who became trusted late in games to stop the opposition’s best player, and though it wasn’t always perfect, the signs of promise were there:
The momentum of Gordon’s strong finish propelled him into an offseason of high expectations – expectations that saw him compared to an NBA All-Star.
When the bristly and out-of-touch Scott Skiles was replaced with a proven winner in Frank Vogel, he made it no secret that Aaron Gordon would be the focus of his new-look offense.
“Aaron is going to be playing [small forward],” said Vogel, “We are going to put the ball in his hands a lot. We're going to use him like Paul George.”
With his first healthy NBA offseason ahead of him, and these expectations looking more than possible, it looked as if the year of Aaron Gordon was just beginning.
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Julius Randle in La La Land
As the season progressed, it was proven that this blueprint could work – but it wasn’t happening in Orlando. Two members of Aaron Gordon’s 2014 draft class started to see the very same success that Gordon spent the summer preparing for.
The first was Julius Randle.
Randle’s new coach, Luke Walton, was a winner. He joined the Lakers after guiding the Warriors to an amazing record of 39-4 during Steve Kerr’s absence. Also like Vogel, Walton saw one of his former players in Randle – Draymond Green.
Despite missing all but a few dribbles of his first season, Julius Randle has taken a huge leap forward as a player in 2016-17. In Walton’s motion-based offense, Randle has been transformed from a blocky, post–oriented four man that sucked up rebounds to a bona fide playmaker.
Keying in on a skill that very few saw at Kentucky, Walton turned the wide-bodied forward into a freight train on the break – letting him make mistakes as he became acclimated to his new role.
The most impressive part of Julius Randle’s season so far is not only that he is much more effective than last season, but that he is doing his damage in about as many minutes per game. His 29.6 minutes per game this season are only a shade higher than Gordon’s 27.
Zach LaVine Feasts with the ‘Wolves
Though Zach LaVine was able to narrowly edge out Aaron Gordon in last year’s Dunk Contest, their on-court similarities end there. For his first two years, LaVine was a reliable shooter and not much of a defender.
The arrival of Tom Thibodeau this past offseason turned him into a genuine scorer.
Thibodeau fits the same profile – a winner with Chicago who believed in the Timberwolves’ young core. He didn’t specifically compare LaVine to anyone, or even praise him as the best among their young options. What he did do is give him a bounty of minutes and a long enough leash to let his offense flourish. LaVine is tied with Kyle Lowry of the Raptors for first in the league with 37.4 minutes per game.
Just like Randle, LaVine happily took to his new role. His Responsibilities within the offense increased slightly on a per-possession basis, but the real key to his success has been an increase in nearly every imaginable shooting metric.
His offseason of work has combined with his increase in minutes to create a confident scorer that could add to nearly any team in the age of floor-spacing in the NBA.
Back to Orlando...
So what makes Aaron Gordon different from these two classmates from the 2014 draft? Why has he made essentially a linear move from last year while they have taken the leap that he was expecting?
The easy answer to those questions would be that Gordon has been asked to learn a new position. That seems plausible on its surface, but not when compared with Julius Randle. Despite playing the power forward position, Randle spends much more time with the ball in his hands.
The ball “being in Gordon’s hands”, as Vogel suggested isn’t the problem. The problem is that he has been turned into a glorified off-ball shooter.
Last year, Gordon played his natural position of power forward. Because of this, the team did not rely on him to sink the three ball. 75 percent of his shots were two-pointers, and the vast majority came at or near the rim.
This year, 35 percent of Gordon’s shots have been threes, despite him making only 32 percent of them. In fact, Gordon’s most attempted shot type is a three-point jump shot. Additionally, the former dunk specialist has already taken more mid-range two-pointers – a shot that he converts only 28 percent of the time – this season than last.
The especially strange thing about all of this is that Aaron Gordon has been wildly more effective when taking power-forward-esque shots this year. The converted four man is average a blazing 83 percent field goal percentage on paint touches and 75 percent on post touches from his small forward spot.
Gordon’s trends are nearly the opposite of LaVine’s, as his minutes have actually dropped compared to his run at the end of last season, while this new play style has caused his shooting percentages to decreased as well.
The issue is that Gordon still doesn’t have a clearly defined role beyond his position, and he has struggled to find consistency because of it. Some nights he’s a shooter, some nights a passer, some a defender, and rarely all three.
If we are to assume that Aaron Gordon truly is a better two-way player than both Randle and LaVine, then his minutes should reflect that. As the Magic’s most trusted defender alone, his minutes should mirror the stars he is guarding.
But Frank Vogel’s focus on veteran leadership has been quite the opposite of Walton and Thibodeau’s.
Just How Bad is Jeff Green?
The one obvious roadblock in Aaron Gordon’s development is the constant presence of rotational forward Jeff Green. Frank Vogel has said time and time again that he values Green for reasons that cannot be quantified, but it bears repeating just how bad the numbers truly are on Green.
Among players that play as many minutes as Green, he is last in VORP, last in box plus/minus, as well as bottom-15 in win shares, offensive rating, and PER. His defensive rating is tied for the fifth-worst among such players. Explanations for these stats can be found here.
Green is averaging a career low in field goal percentage, rebounds per 36, and his points per 36 and three-point percentage haven’t been this bad since his rookie year with the Supersonics.
Nearly every metric screams that the Georgetown product is an unreliable shooter, an uninspired defender, and a marginal rebounder. It would be pretty easy to make the case that Green is the Magic’s worst rotational player on both sides of the floor, and moreover, that his best days are behind him.
The advanced metrics are equally damning, as pretty much anything that evaluates individual value shows that Jeff Green is at a career-low.
However, with the Magic in “win now” mode, it seems that Jeff Green will be a heavy part of the rotation going forward. One luxury that Randle and LaVine have over Gordon is that their teams are willing to live and die with the youth on the roster. Despite the similar win/loss record for all three teams, Gordon’s low minutes are part of the Magic’s plan.
The Future is Still Bright
The conclusion here is that Aaron Gordon has been playing fewer minutes, while taking less efficient shots, all with expectations at an all-time high.
Last year, the switch was turned on for Gordon when the team was out of the playoff hunt and the young forward was able to figure out the NBA game at his own pace.
A sliver lining in Orlando’s recent struggles is that if they fall too far out of contention, the rotations could shift to evaluate and develop their young talent – namely Gordon and Mario Hezonja. Three years into Gordon’s career, it’s safe to say that the front office still has not seen him used effectively.
With the Magic currently in twelfth place, as well as 4.5 games out of the playoffs, that time may be just around the corner.
Barring some unforeseen trade, the talent on the Magic’s roster is coming to bare, and the reality is that this team cannot win without Aaron Gordon taking a big step forward.