Welcome to the latest in a new series that aims to keep the basketball conversation flowing as we patiently wait for the games to return. With each entry I’ll be zeroing in on a different player, examining a key talking point to emerge from either the wins and losses already banked, the looming playoffs, or the seasons still to come. Expect a little less in the way of statistical deep dives as we head more in the direction of dialogue, debate, conjecture, and prognostications. Let’s get started!
Hypothesis: Orlando’s top priority this offseason should be trading Aaron Gordon
The case in favor
It’s evident in the eye test, and the numbers over the last few seasons have largely backed such observations up: Gordon plays better when he’s allowed to exclusively occupy the power forward spot. On offense this position on the floor allows him to better leverage his athletic advantage, while minimizing the negative impact of his below-average outside shooting. Defensively he can hold his own, whether it’s on the block, in a necessarily sticky matchup on the perimeter, or in a role that requires switchability and versatility. However, there’s one problem for the Magic with such a deployment: Jonathan Isaac, the jewel of the recent rebuild who thrives in the exact same position.
It’s long been the case, but the pair simply don’t perform fantastically when sharing the floor. It’s hard for either player to thrive because of the positional overlap and skillset redundancy. Most damagingly of all, neither has emerged as a long range shooter that opposing defenses have to respect, further cramping the court for a team starved of outside shooting and that wants to create space in the middle of the floor for athletic guards and wings to attack. It’s a metric open to all sorts of wonkiness, but it feels telling that this season the Magic had 28 two-man units that put up a positive net rating while sharing the court for at least 50 minutes — Gordon and Isaac are not among that group, ranking just 51st with a -3.4 score. Any team in the league would love to have just one of the duo; very few are equipped to position the pair in such a way that they’re likely to peak alongside each other.
If this Floridian town ain’t big enough for the both of them, it inevitably boils down to the question of who to keep. Unfortunately, for AG, that answer is almost unanimously JI. He’s younger and therefore cheaper, already an elite defender, and demonstrating some growth in an admittedly sheltered offensive role. He’s also a pick of the current regime, so he’s got sentimentality working in his favor. And while it’s unlikely that Gordon is a finished product, we certainly know more about his ceiling than we do Isaac’s; decisions in professional sports often come down to the promise of potential.
If such a decision is likely locked in, the reality of the circumstances also dictate that action is required sooner rather than later. Keeping Gordon blocks Isaac’s development, which should be the franchise’s priority as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal. Also encouraging decisiveness is the fact that AG has just two more years after this one left on his contract, and the later a move is made the smaller the return is likely to be. It’s tough to think he’ll ever be more valuable than he will be this offseason, particularly with a depressed free agency market making trades a more viable route for contenders looking to improve their championship odds. This could be the best chance the Magic get to secure real value in a transaction and to decisively set the future direction of the franchise.
The case against
Victor Oladipo. The Magic traded him not long after his 24th birthday, wary of having to cough up for his first non-rookie scale deal. He blossomed into an All-Star just eighteen months later on a salary comparable to what the team currently has invested in the two-guard slot.
Tobias Harris. Orlando punted on the then-23 year old less than a year after signing him to a four year, $64 million pact. He played so well across the remainder of the deal that the next time he put pen to paper it was for $180 million over five.
Elfrid Payton. The point guard was just 23 when … okay, fine, not every example stings the same way.
Still, those desirous to jettison Gordon from Central Florida would be well-served to reflect on recent transactions of players in similar circumstances and ask whether the juice was worth the squeeze. AG will remarkably still be just 25 when next season eventually tips off, still in his athletic prime and with necessary experience under his belt to handle the more cerebral aspects of the game. It’s incredibly easy — and terrifying — to envision a scenario where he ascends to the mid-season showcase for more than just his dunks in a uniform bereft of pinstripes. Why would the Magic want to be on the wrong side of that history again?
There’s also the fact that as the Magic surged late in the season it was in large part thanks to a vastly improved Gordon. He was jetting up and down the court, shooting at a sweet clip, and attacking the hoop like a man possessed. He had also emerged as a legitimate playmaking four, dropping 6.7 dimes per-contest across his last dozen. Although each season he has made an incremental improvement to his assist rate, the absurd 28.0% that AG accumulated during this closing stretch is more than double his career average and over 10 points greater than the career-best mark he established this season (17.2%). He wasn’t exactly John Stockton incarnate, but he was a game-impacting force unleashed in a new and exciting way.
Orlando’s closing stretch showed that there is a different beast lurking within the current lineup, one with far sharper teeth offensively than they’ve ever been given credit for. Gordon, undoubtedly, was one of the straws stirring that potent drink. In that context his current contract represents tremendous value, with the possibility of even better production still very much alive. Well run teams don’t just toss aside legitimate NBA talent; instead, they find a way to support, nourish and ultimately develop it. There’s evidence to suggest that head coach Steve Clifford is starting to figure out how to achieve just that, and if he does the Magic stand to reap the rewards.
I love Gordon. He’s exciting, has shown serious flashes, and is still young enough to have more beyond what we’ve seen to date. He’s the exact type of player that the Magic have too hastily moved on from in recent history, and I have no desire to revisit that heartbreak.
However, the realist in me recognizes that he’s likely a victim of Orlando’s current roster circumstances. It’s clear that the pieces still don’t really fit, and with Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu and Chuma Okeke all sharing the same locker room, there are only so many opportunities to go around. Gordon might have the strongest case in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean it also serves the best interests of the team moving forward.
With limited avenues towards improvement it’s clear that the Magic need to make a move somewhere. Gordon is likely the easiest deal to make with the greatest chance of netting a solid return. He wouldn’t be my first choice as a trade chip, but all things considered he might be the best one that the team has to offer.