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Aaron Gordon Was Supposed To Be the Final Piece For Denver. Now, He’s The Key.

After their surprise playoff run in 2020 and a solid start to this season, the Denver Nuggets were looking for the final piece of their championship puzzle — and they seemed to find it at the trade deadline in Aaron Gordon. With Gordon in the fold, the Nuggets immediately won eight straight games, marking their longest win streak since their franchise-record 15 straight wins in 2012-13 and lifting their odds of winning the title, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast, to 14 percent.

Gordon found cohesion with Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and MVP candidate Nikola Jokić. From March 26 to April 9, that five-man unit sported a net rating of +33.9 over 90 minutes together, per NBA.com. In that span, Denver’s new starting lineup scored 133.9 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to just 35 percent shooting from deep.

Then Murray tore his ACL.

Current championship odds for longest-tenured NBA franchises that have not yet won a title

Team Current title odds Years in league
Phoenix Suns 3% 52
L.A. Clippers 29 50
Utah Jazz 14 46
Brooklyn Nets 14 44
Denver Nuggets 3 44
Indiana Pacers <1 44

Odds on April 19, 2021.

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Suddenly, Denver seemed destined to fall short again in its bid to end the NBA’s fourth-longest active championship drought among teams seeking their first, sitting now at 44 years. The Nuggets’ title chances have fallen to just 3 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. 

“It’s a sad thing, of course,” Jokić said of his longtime teammate’s injury. “Me and him, we have a lot of connections on the floor. We are really good with each other on the court, and we are going to miss him on the team …  but that doesn’t mean we are going to quit, you know?”

Replacing Murray will be no easy task. The fifth-year guard hit career-highs over 48 appearances this season in scoring (21.2 points per game), assists (4.8 per game) and true shooting percentage (59.2) — an impressive continuation of his 2020 playoff run in the bubble. There, he and Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell joined Allen Iverson (2001) and Michael Jordan (1988) as the only players in NBA postseason history to record multiple 50-point outings within a series. Murray’s offense powered the Nuggets, who became the first team to overcome multiple 3-1 series deficits in a single playoff run. In clutch time last postseason, Murray (39) trailed only Jimmy Butler (48) in points scored, with Jokić (30) landing at number five.

Denver must now adjust to the first extended separation of its star duo in half a decade. Can the team produce and stifle buckets at an elite level against the best of the West?

The Nuggets have finished with a top-10 defense once in Mike Malone’s six seasons as head coach (10th in 2018-19). This season, before acquiring Gordon, Denver ranked just 20th in defensive rating, trailing the woebegone Rockets (14th), Pistons (15th) and Cavaliers (17th) up to that point. The 2000-01 Lakers are the last champs to finish outside the top 15. 

Threading such a needle is within reach, though, given Jokić’s historic offensive output — even without Murray on the court. In those situations, The Joker is averaging a triple-double on a per-36-minute basis while shooting 39 percent from deep.

The Joker has excelled even without Murray

Stats for Nikola Jokić when playing with and without Jamal Murray on the court, 2020-21 season

Per 36 minutes
Points Rebounds Assists True shooting %
Murray on the court 25.6 11.4 8.3 65.6%
Murray off the court 29.0 10.9 10.6 62.3

Through April 18, 2021.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

Denver’s most-used lineup since Murray’s injury has been Jokić, Gordon, Porter Jr., Barton and fourth-year guard Monté Morris. Those five sport a net rating of +5.9 in 26 minutes together over two games. That lineup’s offensive efficiency is north of 140, but unfortunately for the Nuggets, so is its defensive rating (though the small sample size caveat applies here). 

And that’s another area in which Denver will miss Murray. Through April 12, Denver’s second-leading scorer ranked 11th among 64 qualified guards in field-goal percentage allowed (43.4).1 That figure was Murray’s best since his rookie season in 2016-17 (42.4). Without Murray’s ability to both score and pressure the ball, the Nuggets must trust Gordon to fill in the crucial gaps where his new team is weakest.

Since being drafted fourth overall by Orlando in 2014, Gordon has proven to be one of the NBA’s most versatile defenders, ranking ninth among 101 qualified players in field-goal percentage allowed on jumpers (35.6), according to Second Spectrum. That mark places him ahead of Kawhi Leonard (12th), Paul George (14th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (21st) and Jimmy Butler (26th) over that span, during which that quartet combined for three Defensive Player of the Year awards and 13 All-Defensive selections. Though Gordon’s career hasn’t been as decorated, he is readily confident in the value he brings to Denver.

This season, opponents are shooting 49.3 percent from the paint when guarded by Gordon, who ranks 18th among 293 qualified defenders

“I pride myself on defense,” Gordon said after his second game with Denver. “If I can help this team by defending some of the best players in the league, I’m more than happy to.”

The West has no shortage of high-volume scorers willing to give the Nuggets’ defense a workout. The Utah Jazz have hit 20 or more 3-pointers in 15 games so far this season, trailing only the 2018-19 Rockets’ NBA single-season record of 18. The Phoenix Suns are on pace to snap a decade-long playoff drought on the strength of their strongest offense since 2013-14. And, of course, no one is counting out the Leonard/George-led L.A. Clippers or the defending champion Lakers, who are set to get Anthony Davis and LeBron James back shortly.

Denver won its first two games without Murray by double digits. The true test, though, will come in a month, when the playoffs get started. Malone sees a path forward for the Nuggets as they adjust to a crucial addition and subtraction.

“Don’t go out there and try to be something you’re not. Be true to yourself and bring it every single night,” he said after Denver’s victory over Miami last week. “Play hard, compete, play with discipline, play with effort, and play on both ends of the floor. If they do that, we’ll have a chance to weather the storm without Jamal.”

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among players who’ve been the nearest defender on at least 400 attempted shots.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Currently with ESPN, he has covered the NBA since 2014, with work featured on ESPN.com, NBA International and SB Nation, among other platforms.

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