Aaron Gordon's Career-Year Recipe? All The Dunks.
Typically, when an NBA player finally puts together the best season of his career, it’s the result of some sort of expansion in his game. He adds some stretch to his jumper, improves his ball-handling, finds the balance between scoring and playmaking, or at long last masters the nuances of team defense.
Such is not the case with Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, who in the ninth year of his career is doing the most, mostly by doing less than ever before. According to most all-in-one metrics, Gordon has been a top-30 player in the league this season: He checks in 23rd in Estimated Plus-Minus, 28th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and 29th in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR plus/minus — each of which peg him as being worth between 3.9 and 4.6 points per 100 possessions to the Nuggets’ scoring margin so far this season. In the cases of EPM and RAPTOR, the figures also are by far the best of Gordon’s career to date.
As mentioned, though, Gordon has achieved these results not through an increase in his role, but by narrowing its focus.
Back in 2016, when Gordon was still with the Orlando Magic, he practically gushed about the possibility of expanding his game under then-incoming head coach Frank Vogel. He told ESPN’s Zach Lowe, “I’m gonna be like a third guard. I’ll have a much bigger ball-handling responsibility, and I’m all for that.”
That’s a far cry from what he told The Denver Post last month: “If I need to hit threes, I’ll hit threes. If I need to post up, I’ll post up. If I need to make plays, I’ll make plays. If I need to just rebound and do dirty work and play defense, I’ll do that. I’m here to do anything that I can to help this team win a championship, to help [Nikola Jokić] win a championship, to help Jamal [Murray] win a championship, to help Michael Malone win a championship. That’s it. Winning is the end-all, be-all, so I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
To his credit, Gordon has put his money where his mouth is. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, for example, Gordon has been directly involved in fewer actions per 100 possessions this season than at any time in his career.
The Nuggets hardly ever run plays for him. Instead, Gordon makes a living offensively by lurking on the edges of the action. He slices through the defense with perfectly-timed cuts. He has become extremely adept at ducking deep into the lane, sealing his man and giving Jokić a huge target to hit with a pass. When on the weak side, he spaces properly and punishes closing-out defenders by making quick shoot-pass-drive decisions.
And at the tail end of his plays, he finishes quite often with dunks. Sooooo many dunks. Like, an absurd number of dunks. So far this year, an incredible 27.8 percent of Gordon’s shot attempts have been dunks. How outlandish is that? Consider the following: Last season, when Gordon established a new career high with 130 slams (far surpassing his previous mark of 104, set back in 2018-19), dunks accounted for 17.3 percent of his shot attempts.
Gordon accumulated those 130 jams in 75 games, meaning he powered the ball through the rim 1.73 times per night. Again, that was his career high. So far this season, the Nuggets have played 52 games, of which Gordon has participated in 46. And he already has 125 (ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY FIVE!) dunks. That is almost a full dunk more per game (2.72) than he had last year. He’ll soon set a new career high once again, perhaps by the time you’re reading this sentence.
Gordon is dunking up a storm this season
Dunks per game and dunks as a share of all shot attempts for Aaron Gordon by season
Unsurprisingly, a fair number of those dunks have been created by Jokić. According to Second Spectrum, no player has assisted a teammate on more dunks than the 60 on which Jokić has assisted Gordon.1 If those 60 dunks were Gordon’s only dunks of the season, he would still be tied with LeBron James and sit ahead of Jayson Tatum (57) in total dunks. That’s how often Jokić is finding Gordon for the easiest finishes.
So it’s no wonder that this has been (by far) the most efficient shooting season of Gordon’s career: Shots within 3 feet of the basket (i.e., dunks and layups) make up a majority of his attempts for the first time ever, while he now rarely attempts long or even medium-length midrange shots.
Gordon has benefited greatly from being attached to Jokić in the Nuggets’ rotation. Denver used to match Jokić and Murray, but the chemistry between Jokić and Gordon has led to a change, and you now rarely see Gordon on the floor without the two-time reigning MVP. He has been on the floor sans Jokić for just 16.1 percent of his minutes played this season, according to PBP Stats, and a significant share of those minutes have come in the games when Jokić has sat out.
It makes sense that Denver would pair the duo together. The Nuggets have absolutely demolished their opponents with Jokić and Gordon on the floor at the same time. Across 1,165 minutes, they have a plus-14.3 net rating, according to PBP Stats. That’s compared with plus-3.5 in Jokić-only minutes, plus-3.0 in Gordon-only minutes, and minus-12.9 in the minutes with both on the bench.
The reason they fit so well is that they accentuate each other’s strengths while mitigating each other’s weaknesses. When Gordon was tasked with creating his own offense, his efficiency suffered. But there is perhaps no greater creator of efficient offense in the league today than Jokić, and he has weaponized Gordon as an elite play-finisher.
Meanwhile, Jokić is not a particularly mobile, nimble or versatile defender. But Gordon is one of the NBA’s most athletic players, and one who can handle just about any defensive assignment the Nuggets throw his way. According to Bball-Index, Gordon ranks 37th out of 306 players who have played 500 or more minutes this season in Matchup Difficulty, and is one of just 25 players who has guarded point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers on at least 12 percent of his half-court defensive possessions each. He’s also one of just seven players2 who appears on both of those lists.
That type of synergy between frontcourt players is enviable, and it makes Gordon fit like a glove alongside the most important player on his team. His versatile skill set also means he can fit equally as well alongside Denver’s supersized 3-point sniper Michael Porter Jr. as he does with miniature Swiss Army knife Bruce Brown. He and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can smother opposing scorers. He and Brown and Bones Hyland can get out on the break, while he and Murray can provide disparately challenging inverted pick-and-roll partners for Jokić. Michael Malone has been reluctant to use Gordon as a small-ball center (only 15 non-garbage-time possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass), but probably could against certain opponents if he wanted to.
Such is the benefit of a player with Gordon’s skill and athleticism and, now, willingness to do whatever is asked of him. While his All-Star candidacy ultimately fell short, that doesn't diminish what he's accomplished this year. It sometimes takes a while for hyper-competent role players on contenders to get their recognition, after all. But if Gordon continues to play at this level, the Nuggets will continue to win — and the accolades will eventually follow. Even if they don't, there's something to be said for recognizing that the best way you can contribute is by doing only the things you do best, as best as you can, and then doing exactly that.
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