For the time being, Aaron Gordon is the Orlando Magic’s centerpiece, yet they haven’t surrounded him with the proper supporting cast.
The Orlando Magic are one of those franchises that can’t seem to do anything right. They’ve spent most of the decade as a meme, a place where talent goes to die. Last season, they won 25 games. The one before saw 29 victories. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2012. However, in the midst of the sorrow, Aaron Gordon has been a bright spot.
About five years ago, Gordon, a wiry, 6-foot-9 forward from San Jose, was arguably the best high school player in the country. His incendiary athleticism and smooth playmaking generated national buzz that followed him from Archbishop Mitty to the University of Arizona, where he’d spend one season. The Magic picked him fourth overall in the 2014 draft. After four seasons, he earned a four-year, $84 million extension and is slated to be the franchise’s next star. But, time and time again, the team has failed to complement their cornerstone adequately.
In 58 games last year, Gordon averaged 17.6 points (a career-high), 7.9 rebounds (also a career-high) and 2.3 assists (another career-high). It was a considerable leap and one that proved he’s more than just a dunker. In addition to the aerial acrobatics, Gordon dropped in 115 threes at a modest 33.6 percent clip. He’s embracing the all-around expectations bestowed on modern forwards, but there are still some gaping holes in his game. Gordon struggles to create for himself. His repertoire on the perimeter is limited, and it’ll stay that way until he becomes a craftier ball handler. He also doesn’t look to punish opponents on the block, which is peculiar given his physical attributes. According to Synergy, Gordon had 96 post ups and finished in the 60th percentile.
Aaron Gordon is unquestionably at his best when others create for him. Teammates assisted on 59.5 percent of his made shots last season. Inside the restricted area, where he finished at a rate of 69.7 percent, that number dropped slightly to 54.8 percent. As the roll man, he averaged 1.25 points per possession (83rd percentile); as a cutter, he recorded 1.39 points per possession (80th percentile). The confounding part is Orlando hasn’t made acquiring ball handlers and playmakers a priority.
Gordon developed robust chemistry with Elfrid Payton, and the once-floppy-haired guard was a reliable orchestrator for Orlando. They went and shipped him to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round draft pick — a second-round draft pick. The deal left Shelvin Mack and D.J. Augustin sharing time at the point. Combined, they averaged 7.7 assists per game. Augustin is under contract for the next two seasons. He’ll battle Jerian Grant for minutes this year, a 25-year-old guard traded from the Chicago Bulls. He had a decent campaign and averaged 7.3 assists per 36 minutes, so there’s the chance that he develops into a player similar to Payton: a lead guard who lacks flash but puts the ball where it needs to be. That would be ideal.
Occupying the other guard spots are Evan Fournier (don’t google), Terrence Ross and Wesley Iwundu. Fournier is a terrific scorer and led the team with an average of 17.8 points a night. But that’s the extent of his efficacy. He’s a below-average rebounder, horrid defender and doesn’t look to set up his teammate. That’s not an indictment because he can alleviate some of the pressures from Gordon, but neither Ross nor Iwundu is the type of role player whose skills can benefit the team’s star. I supposed that’s fine. But remember, Orlando has just one player to feed Gordon. Their roster composition gets more interesting upon moving into the frontcourt.
Orlando had the sixth pick in the most recent draft. They decided on Mohamed Bamba, the monstrosity from Texas whose arms are so long he could shake your hand from across the street. They now have a logjam up front. Aaron Gordon will remain the full-time four until he proves he can play the three. Alongside him are Jarell Martin and Jonathan Isaac.
There are four centers on Orlando’s payroll for this upcoming season: Vucevic, Bamba, Timofey Mozgov and Khem Birch. We’ve already discussed how Gordon and Vucevic cancel each other out. Perhaps things would be different if Bamba got the bulk of the playing time. He is very similar to Rudy Gobert offensively. He doesn’t have a post move to his name yet inhales anything lobbed within four feet of the basket. The separator between the two is Bamba working on his outside shot.
With the Longhorns, Bamba dropped in just 14 of his 51 attempts from downtown, a 27.5 percent clip. It’s pitiful, but maybe, just maybe, he develops into a stretch big. Should things play out that way, he and Gordon could co-exist, alternating who goes onto the block and who hovers on the perimeter waiting for the kick out. (Gordon went 89-for-227 on catch-and-shoot threes last year.)
John Hammond, the Orlando Magic’s general manager, is focused on rebuilding and wants the team to get younger. It’s conceivable that he’d prod Steve Clifford to start Bamba if he’s playing well, likely signaling the end of Vucevic’s time with the team. Vucevic turns 28 in October and could return a decent haul.
The Orlando Magic are committed to Aaron Gordon; the enormous contract serves as evidence. It’s now up to the coaching staff to forge an identity. Gordon should be heavily involved as a screener, using his frame to wall off defenders and create unobstructed passing lanes for his guards. Clifford should also put Gordon in constant motion. The movement will prevent the offense from stagnating. Once he becomes more skilled in regards to creating shots, he’ll be that much more dynamic.