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How the Aaron Gordon experiment succeeded, and how it failed

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Against popular opinion, the Magic ushered Aaron Gordon into the small forward position. What’s worked, and what needs to change?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

With reports coming out about the Magic looking for opportunities to move Serge Ibaka, and in the process shift Aaron Gordon back to the power forward position, this is probably a good time to take stock of one of the Magic’s most controversial personnel decisions this season: The Aaron Gordon Small Forward Experiment™.

Frank Vogel famously compared Gordon to Paul George, saying “We are going to put the ball in his hands a lot.” That’s high praise for the Magic’s young wing-ish talent, but just about everyone knew there were a lot of gaps that’d have to get filled in to make that work out. Could Gordon handle the ball that well? Could he shoot the ball well enough, especially from long range?

As Vogel noted before Wednesday’s game versus the Pacers, Gordon’s done some things on offense that he likes, but also noted how some things haven’t come as easily:

He’s had some really good stretches. It’s been a little bit up and down. There’s been times where it looks like he hasn’t had the experience of playing on the perimeter, with his decision making, over-dribbling at times.

His three-point shot has fallen off a bit of late, but as he plays there more, it’ll be more consistent. But he hasn’t had a lot of opportunity, in terms of play calls. We’ve asked him to have a role, where he goes out and rebounds. His primary assignment is to guard the best player, knock down weak-side 3’s....

So it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, which is to be expected.

Personally, I’m in the minority of people that’s fine with him playing the small forward position. Defensively, it affords the Magic the opportunity to play him against the opponent’s best scorer in the 2-4 range, even point guards on occasion. That’s more difficult to do if Gordon’s the nominal 4, because if he shifts down to cover, say, James Harden, that leaves the team’s 3 shifting up to guard a power forward (though to be fair, in this specific example, that’d probably be a wise move given that the power forward would be Ryan Anderson).

That said, things haven’t gone especially smoothly, especially on the offensive end. Even if the Magic are steadfast in their belief that he’s really, truly a small forward wing-type player, there are ways they could better take advantage of his skill set.

Where it’s worked

Let’s start with the best skill Gordon’s exhibited this season: an ability to finish cuts with buckets or free throws. Per NBA.com, Gordon’s finished 46 possessions off of cuts, meaning that he either scored, drew a foul, or turned it over 46 times in those positions. Let’s break down his results on those 46 plays:

Gordon cuts

RESULT FREQ
RESULT FREQ
Made shots 35
Foul (no basket) 8
Missed shots 1
Turnovers 2
TOTAL 46

Feel free to have your double-take moment, then come right back. Indeed, of those 46 cuts, only 3 have ended negatively. NBA.com lists him in the 99.6th percentile in the league scoring on cuts—when I first looked it up about a week or two ago, they said he was the 100th percentile, which isn’t even mathematically possible. In others words, he is very, very good when he cuts off the ball. Last season, though his turnover rate and foul-drawing were comparable, he hit way fewer of those shots, just 65% instead of, well, almost all of them.

This makes sense, just thinking about who Gordon is. If he catches the ball moving toward the rim, there’s a very good chance he’s dunking that thing into the basement-level of the building. Still, he’s not good for just dunking. He’s improved his acrobatic finishes as well, finding ways to loop under the hoop and reverse it in, finishing through contact, and getting around defenders who step up to help.

Is this a product of his new perimeter play style? Hard to say. On the one hand, you’d imagine Gordon would have an easier time taking bigger defenders by surprise, dashing past slower guys to get to the rim in time to catch a lob or a bounce pass. On the other hand, maybe being guarded by wing players means his defenders aren’t shading toward the paint by default. Take this basket against the Hawks, for example:

This highlights another related explanation: better floor spacing from the bigs. With Ibaka and Vucevic dragging their defenders out of the paint, Gordon is wide open to fly into the paint with Korver hopelessly trailing behind him. This is more difficult when it’s Gordon playing at the 4, because his defender wouldn’t have to respect his shot they way they do Ibaka’s. Instead, his guy parks halfway between the 3-point line and the rim, making the cut much less available.

Beyond that, it’s clear that Gordon’s role has shifted in terms of what kinds of shots he takes, particularly attempting more difficult shots that he rarely tried before. He’s shooting more off the dribble, as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and when he’s being defended more tightly. For example, he didn’t hit any of the 10 3-pointers he attempted when “tightly” guarded by an opponent last season (2-4 feet away), but he’s 7-19 on those shots this year, a respectable 37% rate. He still takes most of his perimeter shots in catch-and-shoot situations or with zero dribbles, but he’s been compelled to expand his game by virtue of his wing responsibilities.

Where it’s gone wrong

“But Cory,” I hear you plead to your computer screen, smartphone device, or tablet, “You’re talking a whole lot about the kinds of shots his taking, but he’s not actually doing those things very well, right?”

Well...no. Not at all. Actually, it was really hard to find examples of offensive improvement in his new role beyond the cutting statistics. You really have to cherry-pick stats to make the case that he’s performing well (like the 7-19 figure above, on tightly guarded shots). For every small victory you find scanning his tracking data on NBA.com, you could find five more examples of lousy shooting.

Most of Gordon’s possessions are used on spot-up shots (the most of anyone on the team, in fact). As Vogel noted, Gordon’s often chilling in the corner to hit those weakside 3-pointers, a perfectly fine role for a small forward on a lot of times, but a challenge for Gordon, who shoots 46.5 eFG%. That’s not awful, but it’s solidly below average.

The second most-common use of his time: handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations. Last season he only finished 37 PnR possessions as the ball handler, but he did very well in those limited opportunities, scoring in the 94th percentile league-wide. This season? He’s finished 83 possessions, on pace for about 145 by the end of the season. That’s obviously a massive jump, but here’s the problem: he’s shooting an absolutely horrid 26.5% on those shots, while barely drawing any fouls.

You can probably remember how a lot of these possessions go; you’re ready to chuck your remote across the room when he pulls up for one of these:

Every once in a while Gordon will pull out a nice jump stop or fade on these pick-and-roll or iso drives and you’ll think for a moment that maybe he’s figuring some things out, but most of the time it’s a wasted possession. Is it possible he grows into this skill, that he gets better as he plays the role more and more? You’d hope so, but it still doesn’t make sense for a “win-now” team like the Magic—or at least, how they perceived themselves at the start of the season—to use him in such a suboptimal way.

In fact, suboptimal is probably the word that best describes Gordon’s usage. I brought his absurd success rate on cuts, and I’m not sure what’s worse: that he finishes less than one cut play per game on average, or that he shoots out of the pick-and-roll as a ball handler almost twice as often.

Another curious omission from his game: roll-man opportunities on pick-and-rolls. When you look at a player like Gordon and see his incredible athleticism, ability to finish around the rim (see the cutting numbers above), and 2016 dunk contest championship trophy, getting him opportunities to catch the ball running at the basket seems like a natural choice. Instead, it’s been nearly absent, just 7 possessions, and just 1 made basket.

Vogel didn’t offer any complicated reasons for this trend:

“He plays the 3, and all his pick-and-rolls are switches and post-ups. It’s that simple. That’s one of the things you see when you move someone from the 4 to the 3.”

It’s certainly true that he’s taken more shots in post-up situations, but still not that many, less than one per game on average based on NBA.com’s data. He’s not doing so hot on those possessions, shooting about 42%, without drawing many fouls.

Really, it’s just not clear that he acts as the screener that often, regardless whether it leads to post-ups or switches or rolling chances, at least not in productive ways. According to NBA.com’s “hustle stats,” Gordon’s screens have directly led to just 5 Magic baskets the entire season. With so small a sample size there’s definitely room for the NBA’s tracking to be off on this, but based on their numbers Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, and D.J. Augustin have each screened for more baskets than Gordon has, the latter two in fewer total minutes.

As a Random Blogger Dude On The Internet, it’s hardly my place to question Vogel’s tactics (except, y’know, for all those other times I’ve done exactly that, but work with me here), but it’s hard to believe there’s no opportunities at all for Gordon to play the role of roll-man. There are times when he’s legitimately the worst shooter on the court for Orlando, outclassed not only by the guards, but Ibaka and Vucevic, too. Gordon may not be the team’s center, but in situations like that, he needs to act like one. Let Ibaka and Vuc spot up, and let Gordon play the two-man game with Payton, Augustin or Fournier. If they do switch, the team can always keep the ball in Payton’s hands and let him attack the bigger defender off the dribble.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Bottom Line

Gordon’s biggest problem, arguably, isn’t that he’s an unskilled player or offensively deficient. The problem is that he’s being asked to perform the skills he’s worst at, while barely exercising his greatest strengths.

That’s no surprise to Magic fans, certainly. That very complaint is at the heart of the problem, the reason people have doubts about this decision.

On the one hand, Vogel’s hands are tied. At the start of the season, he was upfront about the reason they play him at small forward in the first place, explaining “If Serge Ibaka weren’t here, Aaron Gordon would be my power forward.”

That makes some sense, but the team has been firm in their rotations, not playing Gordon as the obvious power forward even in situations it would have seemed obvious, such as when Vucevic was injured in December.

Regardless, something has to change if the Magic want Gordon to be a productive player again. It comes down to two choices, the first being to find a way to break the mold, to get Gordon rolling and cutting even when he’s the small forward on the court.

If that’s not possible, as Vogel seems to suggest, then maybe it’s time the experiment comes to an end, after all.