Aaron Gordon is one of the Orlando Magic’s best players, but they need to figure out the proper way to use him before they squander his talent.
At 21-years-old, Aaron Gordon averaged 12.7 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Orlando Magic last season. Despite a respectable group of talent that includes Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton, Orlando finished a measly 29-53 in 2017 and was one of the NBA’s most forgettable teams. They’re like the NBA’s Bermuda Triangle, talent goes there and sometimes disappears, leaving everyone flabbergasted.
Often, we just forget that a player is down there; their abilities don’t regress, but the Magic are one of the least-covered teams in the league. However, the young guys have shown flashes, and that includes Gordon. He just wrapped up this third campaign, and the 6-9 Arizona product has had issues finding his role with the team. Gordon’s greatest asset is his ridiculous athleticism. He soars over defenders and hammers down alley-oops that only a select number of guys can get to, and that makes him a terror in transition and also the halfcourt.
Unfortunately, Orlando flummoxed his third go-around. They wanted their high-flier to play more small forward and act as a LeBron James-type of player. There’s one problem with this — Aaron Gordon is not, and will never be, LeBron James. That’s not a knock on Gordon. James is a once-in-a-generation player with a combination of size, skill and IQ that we won’t ever seen again. Trying to have Gordon be a similar player is asinine because he’s got a vastly different skill set.
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The two have comparable size and explosiveness, but James’ ability to play point guard, forward and center is the separator. That, however, doesn’t mean Gordon can’t produce.
If Orlando wants to extract the most from Gordon, they have to tailor their offense more to him. Statistically, he’s the best isolation scorer they have. With 1.15 points per possession, Gordon sits in the 97th percentile. High efficiency is possible because AG has some guard skills, even though he doesn’t use them as much. He’s comfortable when handling the rock and quick enough to take bigger defenders off the dribble and explosive enough to finish over them.
One of the most overlooked parts of Gordon’s repertoire is his mid-range jumper. The sample size is small, but he shot 43.3 percent on 60 attempts between 10 and 14 feet. If the defense cuts off his driving lane, Gordon can create space and knock down a little stepback jumper.
When AG plays the three, the odds of Orlando involving him in the pick-and-roll are less likely. In 2016, Gordon had 51 possessions as the roll man and landed in the 51st percentile; according to Basketball Reference, 60 percent of his minutes were at the four. This past year, he had 47 possessions but rose to the 80th percentile while spending 63 percent of his minutes at the three.
Gordon’s volume is impacted by the lack of his perimeter jumper and also his 10-to-14-footers. Once those become staples of his game, teams are going to have issues guarding him because he counters those with hyper-athleticism and can easily slip behind the defense.
What maddens me about Orlando is that they have two solid guards (Fournier and Elfrid Payton) to complement their wings. On top of that, they have Frank Vogel on the sideline. Vogel turned the Indiana Pacers into an elite defensive unit, but at the expense of their offense. (Here comes Devil’s Advocate: maybe Vogel placed more emphasis on defense because he knew his teams wouldn’t be able to compete offensively with the others.) I may be old-school, but I believe that the best way to manufacture offense is putting the ball in the hands of your best players and letting them work. When those guys are stars (LeBron, James Harden), they can do the job themselves; if they’re below that threshold, running set plays can help tremendously.
Payton put together a campaign last year that’s highlighted by a career-best assist percentage (35.7) and a career-low turnover percentage (15.0). He was also slightly-above average as the pick-and-roll ball handler (56th percentile), but Fournier picked up the slack (79the percentile). Those two are smart players who do an outstanding job facilitating an inadequate offense, and Vogel hasn’t leveraged that. The Magic were 19th in the NBA with 1,406 pick-and-roll possessions, per Synergy, but they finished in the 41st percentile, so it’s obvious why the team was reluctant to run them.
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Since Gordon can’t create for himself that often, Payton and Fournier are vital to his success — more so Payton. AG made 95 shots off of Elfrid’s passes, 62 more than second-place Vucevic. Given the skills of the two players, the Magic can slowly implement more motion sets just to try and get easy baskets for Gordon. If they work, Payton can deliver the pass accurately more times than not, and I imagine the playbook would include a lot of quick-hitting, off-the-ball screens that end in backdoors.
Now it’s time for your surprising stat of the day: Aaron Gordon is in the 99th percentile on cuts, per Synergy. Ninety-nine. He had 79 total cuts in 80 games, resulting in 58 makes on 66 attempts.
Orlando, as a team, wasn’t as extraordinary. They’re slightly below average at 1.26 points per possession, but I’m not saying they need to revamp their system to favor something that doesn’t work as much as it should. However, if they want to get Gordon more involved, then it’s necessary. It generates easy buckets for a player who doesn’t have much else — yet — and the rest of the team can feed off of that.
Luckily, the Orlando Magic haven’t destroyed Aaron Gordon’s career. There are significantly worse stories about players just falling off when they get to a particular franchise. With Gordon, it’s just a case of being in a weird system. The Magic haven’t figured themselves out yet, and the coaching carousel doesn’t help; Gordon’s had four coaches in three years. This upcoming season also isn’t make-or-break. Gordon’s a free agent next summer, and it’s entirely possible he bolts for an organization that can help him reach his potential. That, of course, is all speculation.
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