Aaron Gordon: A Pre-Bubble Analysis

Setting the Table

Drafted with the 4th pick in the 2014 draft, Aaron Gordon is in the midst of his sixth season in the NBA. Still only 24, Gordon has seemingly been in the league longer than remotely possible. Is he pulling some sort of Benjamin-Button stunt? While Gordon has yet to age, there have been noted debates and concerns over the apparent stagnation of his development as a prospect.

Gordon hasn’t shot league average from beyond the arc in any of his six seasons. His shot appeared on track last year when he shot 34.9%, a career mark, on ~4.5 attempts per game. However, his shot cratered this season, falling to a hair over 30% on similar volume.

After being a positive on-court for the first time last season, he fell back to on-court negativity in 2019-20 (-2.8 pts/p100) per Cleaning the Glass.

Every player has hole’s in their game. It’s inevitable. I’m not here to shame Aaron Gordon’s season; quite the contrary. While many see Gordon’s season as a regression to the mean, I think we FINALLY have found out what his role might be in the NBA. After the All-Star break, there was a significant shift in Gordon’s game, as he became a legitimate offensive hub when Steve Clifford handed Gordon the keys to the offense (His defense is coming later).

In the era of position-less basketball, this is a promising flash from Gordon. It’s important to note that this is only a nine game sample size, but I think a great deal can be gleaned from his play without extrapolating.

Over that stretch, Gordon generated 6.8 assists per game with a 3.4 Assist to Turnover ratio. The Magic offense skyrocketed from 27th (105.5 ORtg) over the first 55 games to 1st in the league after the break (117.8 ORtg) and went 6-3 for the nine games Gordon played in. I can’t/won’t attribute this solely to Gordon, but he’s certainly been a significant factor in Orlando’s offensive dynamism.

Offense

What’s most interesting about Gordon taking the reins of the offense is the way in which he facilitates. Normally, offensive initiators are going to operate out of the pick and roll. While Gordon did handle some PnR duties, he heavily created from the high post and the top of the key.

Gordon sets the play in motion and orchestrates from the top of the key

This sort of creation is just the tip of the iceberg for Gordon. He routinely shows above polished floor vision in half-court sets. Gordon excels at whipping quick passes from beyond the arc.

Beyond the Arc

These passes aren’t superhuman feats, but the lack of hesitation and ability to read the floor so quickly are what’s most encouraging. Gordon operates quite a bit from the top of the key and the threat of his ability to get to the rim off the bounce in tandem with his floor vision adds much needed layers to Orlando’s offensive scheme.

Enjoy this nifty look off and cut. Orlando ran this play regularly after the ASB, overloading one side, looking off, and hitting a quick cutter.

Gordon’s Post-Play Quandary

The next phase of Aaron Gordon’s play-making comes out of the post. In watching, it’s arguably where he’s at his best as a passer. He flashes exceptional ability to find cutters and work his angles.

With passing chops like that, “what’s the dilemma” you might ask. Gordon is fairly average as a post scorer and pretty inconsistent. He scores 0.92 Points Per Possession from the post on the season which is in the 51st percentile, according to Synergy. He scores with ease against smaller defenders, but really struggles against more sturdy post defenders, and Gordon does NOT discriminate who he takes to the block.

This is fanatstic and the kind of post-up you want to see. If you’ve got a much smaller defender on you (LeVert), taking him to the rim and bullying your way inside is perfect

This is not to berate Gordon. It’s necessary to point out how rough some of these possessions are. Right now he relies so much on his athleticism, and he’s one of the most athletic players in the league so I can’t fault him, but it really shows when he doesn’t have a mismatch. He tends to struggle with opponents that can match his length and strength and this ends up leading to more whiffs at the rim than you’d like to see. Gordon will fall back into the step-back I showcase a few times in the above video when he gets bumped off on drives or can’t bully to the rim.

While his playmaking out of the post is solid, his overall post up play makes you question how this area translates to a post-season series.

Driving Force

Where Gordon really pops on screen is through his ability to get to the rim, drive and kick out to shooters, and start/finish in transition.

Aaron is a special player in terms of his gravity. Often times when thinking about gravity, we focus on shooting. He has true gravity as a driver, forcing multiple defenders to sink into the paint when he comes in with a full head of steam. Coupled with his ability to pass out off the drive, this is the most lethal part of Gordon’s offensive game.

Per B-Ball Index, Gordon is shooting 64.2% at the rim, among the top 20% of the league. His Box Creation is another stat pointing out his value created by his driving; BC is cited as “An estimate of open shots carved out for teammates by drawing defensive attention.” Gordon has a box creation in the 65th percentile, 3.9. For a non-traditional initiator to propel himself to that level is impressive. As can be readily seen in the clips above, he routinely warps the defense on drives to the rim, opening up easier looks for his teammates.

Defense

On-Ball

Like his offense, Gordon’s defense is a mixed bag. He has the physical tools to be one of the best all-around defenders in the sport. At times, he flashes All-Defense caliber play, primarily when he’s on-ball.

Gordon tremendously defends Giannis in the post without fouling; quite the feat. He undoubtedly provided some of the Greek Freak’s stiffest one on one defense.

Gordon regularly flashed this ability to utilize his length and quickness on the perimeter this season against some of the top wings and forwards in the league.

One of Gordon’s greatest defensive attributes that contributes to his point of attack defense is his ability to contest or bother shots without fouling. On the season, he committed a defensive foul only 2.3% of defensive possessions per Cleaning the Glass. That puts him in the top 9% among forwards.

Off-Ball

However, the moment Gordon isn’t on ball, you get a glimpse as to why he has yet to receive All-Defensive team buzz.

Gordon completely sags off Siakam and enters No Mans Land, the point when a defender helps without actually even helping
Laying off Tatum this much is a surefire way to allow an easy basket

One of his worst habits off-ball is the way he reacts rather than anticipates. When ball screens come, he often doesn’t know it’s happening until he’s already been bumped off and it’s an easy bucket for the offense.

It would be unfair to call Gordon a lazy defender, but it’s not a stretch to say his attentiveness could improve when he’s not directly involved. Sometimes by trying to do too much or wanting to make a play, you end up being more of a negative than if you just stayed in tune to your initial assignment.

Verdict

With tweaks on the defensive end and a stronger commitment to off-ball focus, he has the athletic ability to be a perennial All-Defensive team nominee. I don’t throw that around lightly. There are a handful of player’s with the blend of size, length, quickness, strength, and floor vision that Aaron Gordon has.

On offense, Gordon rarely is ever used as roll man, but has flashed incredible ability when given the chance, scoring 1.27 ppp which is in the top quarter of the league. However, he’s only utilized as a roller 0.4 times p/75 possessions. In a similar vein, Gordon is one of the best cutters in the NBA.

When sagged off, Gordon does an exceptional job at creeping in for the quick cut and jam

He scores 1.6 ppp on cuts, which puts him in the top 11% of the NBA per B-Ball Index. With the ball in his hands slightly less, I posit that he might be able to do more with it if utilized as an off-ball cutter.

Upon diving into Aaron Gordon’s game, it’s become abundantly clear how miscast he is in Orlando.

Part of the issue is roster construction. Without real perimeter threats outside Evan Fournier and occasionally Terrence Ross, who is creating on this team? Nikola Vucevic is a good player, but he’s not a player that can craft his own shot at will. Aaron Gordon is routinely the player asked to create, and he’s just not well suited to take on that role.

That’s not an indictment of his quality; not every player should or can be an All-Star. Gordon is overtaxed as a quasi-star player for the Magic, and I firmly believe that damages his game and development. When asked to do star things, Gordon isn’t often able to produce star results, but if given the chance to actually be a role player, he would be among the league’s best.

Whether it’s in Orlando or with another franchise, Gordon could really enhance his game by minimizing what he’s doing.

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