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What Happened To Aaron Gordon’s Dunks?

Welcome to Four-Point Play, our weekly NBA column that pieces together four statistical trends from around the league and lays out what they tell us about where a team has been or where it’s heading. Find a stat you think should be included here? Email or tweet me at chris.herring@fivethirtyeight.com or @Herring_NBA.


Casual basketball fans who weren’t aware of the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon became familiar with him when he leaped over a mascot during last year’s slam dunk contest.

But now Gordon, perhaps the best dunker in the league, isn’t dunking nearly as much. And although there isn’t a sure-fire explanation, Orlando’s congested offense may deserve a lot of the blame.

The 21-year-old’s dunk rate — the percentage of his 2-point tries that are slams — is down 25 percent from last season,1 a surprising drop for a player so young. That a whopping 42 percent of his dunks have come in transition, according to SportVU, which tracks almost everything that happens on the court, suggests that he’s at his dunkiest before his teammates get in the way. His transition dunk rate has made a huge jump from 2014-15 and 2015-16, when 24 percent and 29 percent of his slams, respectively, stemmed from fast-break situations.

SEASON DUNKS PER 100 2-POINT SHOTS SHARE OF DUNKS IN HALF-COURT OFFENSE
2014-15 16 76%
2015-16 17 71
2016-17 13 58
Is Orlando’s half-court offense limiting Gordon’s dunks?

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, SportVU

Put another way: It’s becoming more and more rare to see Gordon dunk in routine, half-court situations. And simply watching the Magic try to run their offense shows part of the reason why.

Orlando, after hiring ex-Pacers coach Frank Vogel, overhauled its roster hoping that it could zig while most teams in today’s small-ball league have zagged. Despite already having young, talented bigs in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, the Magic invested heavily in the frontcourt by trading guard Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka and then signing center Bismack Biyombo to a four-year, $72 million contract. Vogel, in an offseason interview with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, said he envisioned the sizable club pummeling opponents, much like his Indiana teams did.

But the big-men acquisitions have created a rotational logjam and a logjam in the paint. Opposing defenses have anchored themselves in the paint and built a wall, daring the poor-jump-shooting Magic to spot up from outside. Orlando takes 16 unguarded jumpers from 10 or more feet per night — the sixth-highest number in the league — yet has the fourth-worst effective field-goal rate in those situations.

And even though Ibaka and Vucevic are solid shooters for their respective positions, the little spacing they provide is nullified by the rest of the team’s failure from distance. The Magic’s 33 percent mark from 3-point range is third-worst in the association. (Gordon also contributes to this; he is one of five Orlando rotation players shooting worse than 30 percent from the arc.)

The poor outside shooting, and the wall it allows unfazed defenses to construct in the paint, appears to be a major part of why Gordon hasn’t been able to take flight.

There are other things contributing to Gordon’s dunk decline. The move to small forward has him out on the perimeter considerably more often, meaning that not only is he taking more triples, but he’s also being tasked with getting back on defense, as opposed to hunting the offensive glass for putbacks. And since the preseason, he’s battled a couple of ankle injuries, a tricky ailment for someone who relies so much on his athleticism.

Still, Gordon’s numbers with certain lineups suggest that spacing is his biggest problem. His dunk numbers, while still lower, are a bit more in line with his career percentages when he plays alongside fellow starters Ibaka and Vucevic. He slams home 14 percent of his 2-point attempts when teamed with that duo, according to NBA Wowy, which tracks advanced player and team metrics when certain lineups share the court.

BIG-MAN PAIRING MP WITH GORDON GORDON DUNK RATE
Ibaka, Vucevic 604 14%
Ibaka, Biyombo 389 10
Vucevic, Biyombo 75 7
Aaron Gordon’s dunk rate this season, by big-man pairing

Rate is calculated by taking the number of dunk tries and dividing it by a player’s number of 2-point shots.

Source: NBA Wowy

But his rate falls off considerably when flanked by an extra big who doesn’t shoot as well. When he’s on the floor with Biyombo (as much a non-shooter as they come) and Ibaka, for instance, he dunks just 10 percent of the time. The number falls even further, to 7 percent, when sharing the court with Vucevic and Biyombo.

Here’s to hoping that the Magic can find a way to open the lane just a bit so we can finally see Gordon start throwing down some highlight-reel dunks after all-star weekend, too.

Kyrie’s Houdini-like ball-handling reaches new heights

Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving has always possessed the kind of handles that would qualify him for an And One mixtape. But although he’s long been slick with the basketball, he’s never been as efficient with one particular type of play as he has been this season.

Taking a page from the book of ex-Cavs star Mark Price, Irving has been more devastating than usual when splitting pick-and-roll defenders. Of the 17 times he’s pulled the move out of his bag, the 24-year-old has scored 14 times, for an NBA-best 82 percent success rate, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

The play usually entails a defender being shedded by Irving after he gets a high screen from Tristan Thompson and then quickly crossing the ball into the paint before the second defender can step up to slow his progress.

Despite using the move on more than 5 percent of his pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy, Irving hasn’t committed a turnover while splitting a pick-and-roll since the 2013-14 season.

Maybe Uncle Drew’s success with the split will finally teach the youngbloods not to reach once and for all.

Why Toronto never travels

The Raptors have played poorly as of late and despite their strong start are now at risk of losing what for a long time looked like a sure-fire bid for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (They entered Wednesday night in third place, 1.5 games ahead of the fifth-place Atlanta Hawks. The top four seeds earn home-court advantage in the opening round of the postseason.) But even if Toronto is forced to play on the road, the club is unlikely to end up traveling.

By that, I mean the kind of traveling that involves taking too many steps. Relative to the rest of the NBA, the Raptors are almost never called for the violation. They’ve been whistled for traveling just 23 times, tied with the Clippers for the least in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s play-by-play event tracker.

It helps that the Raptors are good at not moving faster than they can dribble, but there are other reasons they travel so much less than the rest of the league. For starters, Toronto’s players — guards Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan in particular — limit the possibility of travel calls by frequently dribbling the air out of the ball. The Raptors pound the rock a whole 6 percent more per touch than Miami, the next closest team, according to SportVU.

And because the Raptors pass the ball less than any other club outside of Oklahoma City and don’t take many spot-up jumpers, they have fewer plays and pump-fakes that could draw whistles as a result of a player leaving too early off the catch.

The Brothers Grant

An interesting statistic emerged last season: The two players who finished with the NBA’s worst 3-point percentage (among those with 100 attempts) were brothers. Jerian and Jerami Grant shot 22 percent and 24 percent for the Knicks and Sixers, respectively.

But was that merely coincidence, or was there something to it? Jerian, a 6-foot-4 point guard with the Chicago Bulls, suggested in an interview that the skill set of his father — former pro Harvey Grant, a low-post big man who wasn’t known as a shooter — may have played a role in his own perimeter shooting woes. Jerian said he and his brother were tutored in basketball by the elder Grant, a 6-foot-9 power forward who stood much taller and played a far different position than the one Jerian does.

“I think the main thing you take from being the son of a player is the basketball IQ,” said Jerian, 24. “But the league is a lot different now than it was then.” Jerian said he and Jerami, a Thunder forward, worked a ton on their ballhandling and interior games with their father when they were younger. And that made sense, given his skill in the post. But they both found that they’d need to invest more time into jump shooting as pros — perhaps because their games were different from those of their father and their uncle, Horace, best known for his goggles and for winning three championships as a starter with the Jordan-era Bulls.

While that may explain the new Grant generation’s struggles, it doesn’t hold true in all cases where a son plays a different position than his father did. One clear example: Golden State’s Klay Thompson, a 6-foot-7 guard, is one of today’s great shooters even though his father, 6-foot-10 Mychal Thompson, is an ex-center.

Whatever the reason for the Grants’ struggles last season, both have bounced back nicely. Jerian is up more than 12 percentage points from three, while Jerami has improved 14 points and surpassed the league-average mark in the process. Dad must be proud.

CORRECTION (Feb. 8, 1:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this story misstated the number of unguarded jumpers that the Orlando Magic take per game from 10 or more feet, as well as where that number ranks among all NBA teams. As of Tuesday, the Magic take 16 of those shots per game, not almost 17, and are ranked sixth in the league, not tied for sixth.

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Footnotes

  1. All stats in this article are current as of Tuesday, unless otherwise noted.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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