The Magic look like a team poised to make a leap. They’ve got a newly-minted All-Star. A point guard playing the best ball of his career. An exciting player picked number one overall. Plenty of youth. Depth up and down the roster. A coach pushing the right buttons.
However, to scratch the surface of each of these individual factors is an exercise in the potential revelation of fool’s gold. Vooch might be an All-Star, but there’s a chance he’s only there thanks to a relatively weak position in a relatively weak conference. It’s unlikely that DJ Augustin is going to get better again at the age of 32. Markelle Fultz might be a bust. One of the key pieces of youth, Mo Bamba, was one of the least impactful contributors in the league last season. Normal injury expectations could potentially reveal a roster more shallow than initially thought. Steve Clifford might find that the second round continues to elude him.
That’s the pessimist’s view, sure, but one founded in potentially valid concerns. So, how do the Magic make up for the potentially lost momentum any of these outcomes might produce?
One element that basically always serves as an accurate portent of future success is an ascendant superstar. A player on the cusp of fully breaking out and establishing themselves as one of the league’s thirty-or-so best. Someone for whom the game has slowed down, allowing them to exert their will at either end. The realized metamorphosis from potential and athleticism to unbridled talent.
Could Aaron Gordon be that individual for the Magic?
There’s a genuine chance. Gordon, whose offensive versatility was on display against the Pistons on Monday, is just 24 and fresh off the most well-rounded season of his career to date. He possesses all of the necessary physical tools to be a difference maker at both ends of the court. He’s shooting better, passing more crisply, making more effective decisions, and playing better defense. He’s already a very good NBA player.
But can he be great?
That’s the question invariably rattling around the minds of the Magic coaching and front office staff, to say nothing of the die-hards in the stands and at home. For Orlando to build on last season’s success -- to establish themselves as a team doing more than making up the playoff numbers -- they need someone to not just play to their ceiling but to shatter it. They need a star capable of dominating game in and game out.
So what does the path to stardom look like for AG in season six? Let’s look to some of his contemporaries for inspiration and figure out if there’s a mold that would facilitate such a leap.
AG as LeBron James
Is there a world in which Gordon emerges as a member of the league’s truly elite, doing for Orlando what James was able to single-handedly do for Cleveland, Miami and Cleveland again?
Short answer: No.
Longer answer: No. Don’t be silly.
Both Gordon and James stand 6-9, but that’s about where the similarities end. Ultimately, the two are vastly different players. LeBron is a point guard in a power forward’s body, with the dexterous touch of speed skater and the physicality of a running back. He doesn’t contribute to a winning side so much as the side coalesces with his winning acumen. Throughout his career he has used almost a full third of his team’s possessions, a number, one could argue, is too low. How does anyone emulate a player who is invariably his side’s most effective playmaking threat, most precise passer, most efficient low post scorer, strongest slasher, most unstoppable cutter, and most devastating pick-and-roll initiator and finisher?
My feeling is that this is the player comp’ Gordon would most like to reach. On occasion it’s evident in the way he tries to single handedly deliver the team a bucket, or in his willingness to sabotage the rhythm of an offensive set and attack the opposition out of isolation. He’s shown a propensity for sometimes biting off more than he can chew with the ball in hand, although he improved his decision-making and court recognition last season. The desire to dominate speaks positively of his confidence, self-belief, and sense of responsibility, but over-taxing players in one role will inevitably impact their effectiveness elsewhere. Gordon’s strengths as a player don’t stretch to being the focal point of an offense, or a singular force of will to be exerted on every contest.
However, Gordon certainly has a developing toolbox with ball in hand. And, to be fair, James is almost inarguably one of the two best to ever lace up sneakers; we might go generations without another player on that level. So anyone ever dreaming that AG might one day scale those heights had set the bar impossibly high. It’s not a slight against him, just reality. Because even if he reaches his ceiling Gordon isn’t going to be to Orlando what LeBron has been to the franchises he has played for: the best player on a championship level team. Gordon’s potential is All-Star, not all-time.
Verdict: Nah, dawg.
AG as Blake Griffin
With the impossible eliminated, let’s look at an option more concretely within the realm of the possible: Blake Griffin. The Pistons’ power forward turned in his sixth All-Star campaign last season, essentially completing his development from Kia-jumping athletic marvel into a dependable offensive fulcrum fueled by nuance and careful insight.
While LeBron’s assist percentage has routinely hovered around an ungodly figure of 40%, Griffin’s post-rookie contract numbers have consistently reflected a more realistically aspirational goal for a player like Gordon: mid-to-high 20s. Last season AG established what was easily a career-best assist rate for him with 16.6%, so he obviously still has growth to make. By way of comparison, Griffin has only ever recorded a rate that low once, in his sophomore season. In the years since, he has steadily increased his passing proficiency, flourishing when tasked as the primary initiator in Detroit. It might not come as naturally to Gordon, but could he one day do the same for the Magic?
A lot of Griffin’s playmaking action comes from the top of the arc, which might explain why, in his current circumstances, he’s a little better positioned in this regard. He shares a frontcourt with Andre Drummond, who lives almost permanently on the low block, only venturing out to set the odd screen before rolling back down the lane. Gordon instead lines up alongside Nikola Vucevic, who himself has shown some aptitude for playmaking from this spot on the floor. Griffin therefore has both more space and opportunity to create for teammates. For the foreseeable future it might be that it’s AG’s destiny to fill this role primarily for bench units when Vooch sits, but everything we’ve seen over the last eighteen months suggests that he’s capable of taking on a little more in terms of the passing and playmaking game.
Elsewhere, the Griffin comp’ continues to hold some weight. Both players have settled into a relatively similar shot distribution, stretching out beyond the arc at similar rates of frequency and success. Griffin shoots a better percentage from both the field and the free throw line, as well as possessing a much stronger ability to draw contact and get to the charity stripe in the first place (a career free throw rate of .423 versus .266 for Gordon). This combination of factors ensures that he’s a more efficient scorer than AG, which goes a long way towards explaining why his teams have consistently entrusted him with a much greater usage rate.
Gordon has shown enough in his career to date to suggest that a Griffin-like ceiling is within reach. He’s already had games where he plays the role of a competent playmaker who can also put the ball on the floor, work in the post, or hit a spot-up three as the possession demands. But can he do it consistently? For it to happen he would need to continue to work on his decision making and play reading, develop his handles, and become a little more dependable in the pick-and-roll. By bundling his athleticism with an improved finishing touch and some veteran wiles he could be well on his way to Griffin-lite. It doesn’t take too much squinting to see this as a distinct possibility.
Verdict: If one half of one preseason game is anything to go by then this is already happening.
AG as Draymond Green
It’s possible to envision another path to stardom for Gordon, although it’s one that’s vastly different from the version just discussed. Instead of becoming a dominant offensive presence, what might happen if he were to channel his energies at the other end of the court? What if he embraced the role of true defensive menace that many have long envisioned for him?
AG could score 14 points per game with his eyes closed (not literally!), slashing from the weakside wing and using his hops to feast on offensive boards when the opportunity presents itself. He’ll get a handful of wide open three point attempts simply by stretching the defense to the perimeter, and he’s already shown the capacity for offensive facilitation from above the break, reading plays and finding cutting teammates as they enter space. But by asking him to do a little less of the dirty stuff at this end it’s possible he could ramp up the output at the other end to unexpected and potentially defensively elite level. Sound familiar?
Draymond Green is just as otherworldly as some of the more high profile teammates he has played with over the years. His talents, however, don’t allow him to score at will; instead, he disrupts and dictates games defensively as the most dominant small-ball center of all time. He’s a basketball savant, reading the play moves ahead at any time while using his reach, astounding strength, and astonishingly low center of gravity to battle larger behemoths into submission. His swarming switchability provides options on defense while creating mismatches on offense, and is just as integral to Golden State’s recent success as Steph Curry’s preternatural shooting ability. Green can put his indelible stamp on a game without scoring so much as a single point.
Gordon has a long way to go to even sniff a level like this, but it’s not to say that it’s totally implausible. However, there are two major things already pumping the brakes on such hypothesising: namely, about 35 pounds of body weight and 260 pounds of Vooch. AG is currently too slight to seriously consider lining up at center; over the course of an 82 game campaign he’d be ground into dust. There’s also the little matter of his All-Star teammate. It’s tough to see the team limiting Vucevic’s minutes to facilitate an experiment of this nature, even if it were going to be in Gordon’s best long-term interests.
And yet, this doesn’t seem entirely crazy. AG is already incredibly switchable on the wings, with decent help instincts and a demonstrated ability to make life difficult for his direct matchup. He knows how to work in the post against both smaller and like-sized opponents, with extra bulk being the main thing currently holding him back against true centers. The pair are already similarly effective defensive rebounders, although the numbers would likely tilt in Gordon’s favor if he was being asked to patrol a little closer to the hoop. Green possesses far superior block and steal rates -- evidence again of his hyperaware instincts on defense -- but Gordon could potentially improve these if this end of the court was his primary focus.
AG has the athletic profile to be an all-world defender, and with a few extra pounds it could potentially be as a small-ball center. But the question is whether or not he could also develop the Draymond-like smarts and nous, as well as the absolute commitment and buy-in he would need to flourish in such a role. That type of zeal and sacrifice is hard to come by in any NBA player.
Verdict: Could he ever be an 85% version of Draymond? It’s a possibility, if an unlikely one.
The question regarding Gordon has never been one of talent. Since being drafted fourth overall in 2014, it’s been evident that his athleticism and comfort on a basketball court would find him a place in the league for seasons to come. Instead, the uncertainty has been about how bright his star might shine.
Could he be a top level, Blake Griffin-like offensive talent, conducting the play while scoring with efficiency? Might he emerge as a Draymond Green-like defensive menace, a flurry of limbs and activity forever frustrating the opposition? Is there a world in which he somehow combines both?!
The Magic desperately want to build on their 2018/19 success. Aaron Gordon has long looked like a player poised to make a leap. This coming season may deliver both.