Welcome to the first in an ongoing series for the 2018/19 season. In ‘An Evaluation of Eight’ I’ll be breaking the season into octagonal chunks, tracking the performance of a single player across eight-game stretches. We’ll be digging into the numbers and employing the eye test, with an emphasis on figuring out how what we’re seeing matches up with what we know. Eight games is only a small sample size, to be sure, but it should still be a useful exercise in identifying trends and evaluating progress. Let’s dive in.
Our first name on the docket: Aaron Gordon. The Magic’s fifth year forward, possessor of a brand new contract guaranteeing him $76 million over the next four years, is a player the team is desperately hoping makes a major stride towards stardom this season. He’s the key piece the Magic have to show for the post-Dwight rebuild, and any chance of a serious tilt at the playoffs -- either this season or in the immediate future -- is likely tied to his output. His last campaign was a fitful one, with a few glimmers of significant progress ultimately interrupted by injury. Were those high moments a mirage or a sign of better things to come? Let’s see what this season’s first eight games have to say.
Vs Miami - 26 points and 16 rebounds on 9-18 shooting
Vs Charlotte - 5 points and 10 rebounds on 2-9 shooting
At Philadelphia - 20 points and 12 rebounds on 7-12 shooting
At Boston - 13 points and 3 rebounds on 5-11 shooting
Vs Portland - 17 points and 4 rebounds on 6-11 shooting
At Milwaukee - 9 points and 5 rebounds on 3-15 shooting
Vs Sacramento - 18 points and 10 rebounds on 7-15 shooting
Vs LA Clippers - 4 points and 3 rebounds on 2-5 shooting
The eye test
We probably need to establish this from the outset: it has not been a kind start to the season for Orlando’s great hope. Although he came out of the blocks strong with an excellent 26 and 16 performance against the Heat on opening night, he has failed to maintain that consistency or even hit those heights again. Gordon hasn’t emerged as a reliable option for the offense-starved Magic, nor has he shown the aptitude for high level defense that his first couple of seasons suggested might be a distinct possibility. Although he’s spent basically all of his time at the four he hasn’t really been able to leverage the expected advantage from that position, a result of pedestrian shooting, non-impactful playmaking, and variable off-ball energy. In short: he needs to be better.
Alarmingly evident across the season’s first eight games is the questionable decision making that has come to typify Gordon’s play. He consistently demonstrates a frustrating ability to be in a potentially advantageous spot or to be moving in the right direction, only to mess it up with a poor read or a forced play. In the most recent game against the Clippers this was something seen on both sides of the ball as early as the game’s first three minutes. After probing LA’s defense and forcing a collapsing rotation he immediately pulled the trigger on a step back jumper from the high post when he received the return pass. Clank. He followed this up in the next passage of play at the other end of the court by funneling Tobias Harris into the path of the help defense, only to give up a three-point play on a foul from behind by lazily swiping at the resulting jumper. These are just two possessions from an entire game, but they’re ones that Magic fans will recognize as all too familiar in Gordon’s game. The fact that they’re still evident in year five is a cause for concern.
It’s also telling that Gordon’s three worst games from this season’s opening stretch are the three blowouts that Orlando have suffered. It’s something that at various points has permeated basically the entire team, but there’s a visible lack of energy, effort and execution, particularly when things take a turn for the worse. For Gordon this can be seen in some of the lost elements of his game, like his tendency to camp beyond the arc instead of slashing to the hoop from the weak-side, or his minimal involvement down the stretch in the game against the Celtics (a game in which he was the only starter with a negative box plus-minus figure). Although in this instance the team eked out a solid win, it wasn’t on the back of the player they’re paying to be a superstar. That’s another cause for concern.
Ultimately, Orlando need more from the player that represents their biggest investment. They need a player who brings it every night on every possession. They need controlled energy and attention to detail. They need the type of box score returns that contribute to wins. They need Aaron Gordon to emerge as a leader.
The biggest concern regarding Gordon’s development at this point remains his shooting. If he were to maintain his current level of output across the entire season it would result in the most ineffective offensive campaign of his to date, a fact which is obviously not great for a guy who should be starting to figure out the league. His three point accuracy -- a skill so important for wings in the modern game -- has taken a step back from last season’s already mediocre numbers (30% through eight games), while there has also been a worryingly precipitous dip in his conversion rate from the charity stripe (a career-worst 63% through eight). He’s taking less shots from the corner, has gone frigid from the mid-range, and can barely sniff out a dunk. All in all: not great, Bob.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There can be found some cause for cautious optimism if one looks hard enough. For example: it’s unlikely that Gordon will continue to shoot 8% on shots between 10 and 16 feet; although these only account for a small chunk of his total attempts, even career average conversion from this distance will buoy his overall percentages. Similarly, one would expect a player of his athleticism to find more opportunities in the open court and at the rim. There’s also a chance his stroke from distance shifts closer to last year’s numbers.
Realistically, we know that Gordon is incredibly unlikely to develop into the kind of knock down shooter from deep that bends opposing defenses merely with his presence. For this reason (and again, it’s a small sample size!) it’s actually pleasing to see that the three-ball has accounted for a lower percentage of his total attempts this year when compared to last: down from almost 40% to a shade over 34%. He’s also making slightly more of his attempts that come off the dribble and unassisted, although that’s something you’d probably like to see removed from his game almost entirely. Still, let’s claim the silver lining.
Looking at the parts of his game that don’t involve putting the ball in the bucket generate a similar muddled sentiment. There are moments of positivity: a more palatable usage rate hovering around 22%; a healthy block rate of 2.6%; an increased likelihood of drawing free throw attempts (on average he’s shooting a free throw for every three field goal attempts). These are all elements of a game developing in the right direction.
However, they have to be considered alongside some of the more concerning numbers. Gordon’s turnovers are currently through the roof, as he’s coughing the ball up on almost 15% of all possessions. His defensive rebounding has taken a hit despite playing exclusively at the four. He hasn’t really shown any progress as a passer. Plus, you know, all of the shooting stuff. It’s tough to spend any time unpacking his accumulated data and leave feeling good about how things are going (goink?).
This is probably going to be tough for Magic fans to swallow, but as it stands these eight games place Gordon closer to conversations about his relative trade value than his All-Star chances. This could turn in a heartbeat, of course, but it would be going against the evidence we’ve collected so far this year (small sample size reminder!) as well as the broader trends across his career (large sample size reminder!).
There’s no doubting that Aaron Gordon is a talented NBA player. But it is fair to wonder whether or not Orlando, as currently constructed, is in a position to maximize his potential. In a season already running short on optimism he’ll still be given every chance to prove that he’s a key part of the foundation.
To that end, let’s hope that the next batch of eight are better than the first.