The biggest question mark for the Orlando Magic organization heading into this past off-season was not about who the next head coach would be, or who Jeff Weltman and John Hammond would select with the sixth pick in the ‘18 NBA Draft. These were pressing issues, no doubt.
But the most significant looming decision Orlando’s front office had to make heading into the summer, one that had potentially far-reaching implications one way or the other, was the pending restricted free agency of forward Aaron Gordon.
Well, he’s back.
Gordon is locked in for the next few years as one of the integral centerpieces of the Weltman/Hammond Orlando rebuild 2.0. Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, two young and enticing prospects the Magic have selected in the lottery over the last two years, are still in the infancy stages of their NBA careers. For now, Gordon is rightfully transitioning into (and assuredly embracing) his role as the face of the franchise.
At 23-years old, with four seasons of NBA experience already under his belt, Gordon is ready to soar. I have no doubt that Gordon’s best days as a professional basketball player are still easily in front of him.
By the numbers in 2017-18
17.6 PTS, 7.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.0 STL
43.4% FG%, 33.6% 3PT%, 69.8 FT%, 53% TS%
Gordon recorded career highs in counting stats during the ‘17-’18 season across the board. He played a career high 32.9 minutes per game, primarily at the power forward position, while attempting just under 15 field goal attempts per game.
His career high marks in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, free throws made per game, and three-point field goals made per game last season certainly stand out to the naked eye. But Gordon’s efficiency while on the floor took a hit as the year went on.
The proficiency was certainly there out of the gate; Gordon began the 2017 season as hot as he could be. Through the first 25 games of Gordon’s fourth NBA season, the former fourth overall pick (‘14) was shooting just under 50% from the field (seven different games with 20+ points, including two contests with 40 or more points in a game). What was even more impressive during that opening stretch was his newfound ability to consistently knock down outside shots. Gordon had a three-point percentage of 40% (55-137) on the season as deep into the year as December 8th.
Gordon’s season began to take a slight downturn in mid-December. First, Gordon suffered a concussion in a home contest against the Denver Nuggets. After missing a week, Gordon returned to the lineup, only to strain his right calf against the Portland Trail Blazers. That injury sidelined the California-native for two more weeks. When Gordon returned, he really struggled to regain the consistency and efficiency in which he had been playing with before he missed a good chunk of the month of December (Gordon failed to shoot over 50% from the field in 12 of 13 contests from December 28th - January 27th).
Another nagging injury, this time a strained hip-flexor, would keep Gordon out of action for two weeks in late January/early February. And to add salt to his already wounded body, Gordon suffered another concussion against the Los Angeles Lakers in March, which caused him to miss another two weeks of action. All in all, Gordon missed 24 games in ‘17-’18. Being in-and-out of the lineup over multiple stretches of the season is one reason why I think Gordon’s shooting numbers fell off. You could just see that he was trying to regain the feel at times, and at other points he was just forcing the issue entirely too much.
With Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, and Jonathon Simmons all missing a significant amount of games for the Magic last season, it’s also understandable why Gordon may have felt that he needed to be more of go-to scorer on certain nights. Too often in the second half of the season, Gordon forced the action, failed to take advantage of in-game mismatches, and settled for a lot of bad/contested/low-percentage shots.
Don’t get me wrong, Gordon showed steady improvement last season (compared to his first three NBA seasons) in some key areas. Gordon converted a career high 72% of his attempts at the rim, while also knocking down a solid 37% of his three-point attempts from the corners (although, only 20% of his three point attempts were taken from that area on the floor).
Gordon scored 30 or more points in a contest four times in ‘17-’18. His incredible potential was on full display last season in a late November contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder (a game the Magic won, 121-108). Gordon, who was often checked in the game by All-Star forward Paul George, electrified the Amway crowd with a 40 point, 15 rebound, 4 assist, and 4 steals line (6-12 3PT, 8-11 FT).
No one can expect that kind of performance from Gordon every night, but it’s important to keep those kind of moments in mind as a ceiling for a player who the organization has now confidently committed money and years to moving forward.
4-years, $76 million dollars
Because Aaron Gordon was classified as a restricted free agent this past summer, the Orlando Magic brass had the opportunity to match an offer sheet that any other team in the NBA could provide him with.
The Magic were in a favorable position when it came to re-signing the versatile forward. A large number of teams around the league lacked the available cap space to send a competitive offer Gordon’s way, and the few who did (Indiana, Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles) decided to spend their available money elsewhere.
It was always in Orlando’s best interest to match any offer for Gordon. With or without Gordon on the payroll, the Magic possessed little to no available cap space to improve their roster in the off-season. Still, I’m sure some front office members hoped they wouldn’t have to entertain the idea of a Gordon maximum contract.
As it turned out, they didn’t have to. Gordon agreed to re-sign with the Magic within the first 24 hours of the NBA’s Free Agency period (midnight, July 1st).
“Everything gets taken into consideration when you’re doing this sort of thing: the player’s intentions, the fit, and the marketplace itself has to be considered,” said Jeff Weltman, the Magic President of Basketball Operations.
“That being said, we wanted to show A.G. the respect that we thought he had earned over his four years of just playing hard, working to develop himself as a teammate, as a player for the Magic and his investment in the city. We didn’t come in low. We kind of got to the heart of the matter pretty quickly and wanted to show him that respect. I feel like we did an equitable deal for everybody.”
There are no player or team options included as part of Gordon’s deal, it’s a straight four-year contract. The deal was considered by many to be a huge victory for the organization. The salary structure of Gordon’s deal decreases each season ($21.6 million, $19.9 million, $18.1 million, and $16.4 million), allowing the organization a little bit more room to work with down the road when Isaac and Bamba hit their free agency years. According to spotrac.com, Gordon is set to become the 38th highest-paid player in the NBA this upcoming season (7th highest among power forwards).
Ready to launch
Gordon now finds himself in a really good spot heading into the ‘18-’19 season. He got his bag, his free agency status has been resolved. He’s playing for a coach who has tremendous confidence in him, and he’s once again flanked by a roster that has returned to full strength. With Augustin, Fournier, Ross, Simmons, Isaac, and Vucevic all sharing the floor with Gordon at times, he shouldn’t feel that same need to press and force things as wildly on the offensive end as he did last year.
“I think, as much as everything, he’s made a jump every year offensively,” Coach Clifford told John Denton of OrlandoMagic.com in a recent interview. “Now, it’s about purpose of play on the offensive end. He can put up similar numbers or even better with increased efficiency.”
Its actually at the defensive end of the floor where Clifford has already challenged Gordon to lead the way this season.
“All-Defensive team,” Clifford exclaimed, interjecting during a Gordon interview during Media Day. “Tell them that you’re going to be first-team All-Defense.”
The challenge from Clifford to Gordon is clear. Defend, rebound, don’t take plays off, lead. And coach expects Gordon to lead stemming from energy he provides the Magic at the defensive end. Gordon was a net positive defender through his first two NBA seasons, but his defensive consistency (and reputation) has taken somewhat of a hit the last couple of years. Gordon has worked so tirelessly to improve his offensive game, now he just needs to tap back into his defensive mentality this season in order to put it all together.
Another step in Gordon’s maturation as a leader will come when he begins to play more to his offensive strengths. In year four, I think Gordon was still out there on the floor figuring out who he was as an NBA player. The offensive freedom he was afforded last season (due to so many guys missing games because of injuries) led to a few questionable shots taken by Gordon (actually, a little more than just “a few”).
If Gordon can eliminate some of his “pull-up” attempts off the dribble, and focus on “catch-and-shoot” opportunities within the flow of the game, I’m confident his offensive efficiency will greatly improve in ‘18-’19 (compared to last season).
Last season, Gordon shot just under 22% on three-point attempts in which he pulled-up off-the-dribble (according to NBA.com). However, on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, Gordon knocked down just under 40% of those attempts. If he can eliminate some of his “pull-up” shots off-the-dribble (31% of his FGA’s last year), and focus rather on getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line, and attempting more “catch-and-shoot” field goals (just under 33% of his attempts last year), Gordon will undoubtedly be a strong net-positive offensive player. Of course, increased open catch-and-shoot opportunities is something contingent on other players setting Gordon up in good spots.
Magic fans watched last season as former lottery-pick Victor Oladipo took a major leap in his NBA development, leading his Indiana Pacers to a playoff berth. Oladipo was named an All-Star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player. The thought of watching another promising star in Gordon blossom elsewhere was too much to think about heading into the summer.
Oladipo was always able to get his numbers, even in Orlando. But it was his leadership and ability to make winning plays that made a difference for the Pacers last season. Effort, defense, consistency, efficiency, and the ability to find a way to get it done (even on nights when things aren’t coming easy) - that’s what Clifford and the rest of the Magic organization will be looking for from Gordon this upcoming season.
By locking up Gordon in early July, Orlando’s front office held up their end of the bargain. If Gordon is going to become an all-star and ultimately the kind of elite NBA player he so desperately wishes to be, the onus is now on the uber-athletic forward to make it happen.
And if it happens, it will be happening in City Beautiful - that much we know.