Denver Nuggets Film Friday: The awakening of Aaron Gordon

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

Since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Aaron Gordon has shown occasional flashes of greatness, but he was never able to sustain it. This is largely what got him shipped out by the Orlando Magic last season, as they felt like he wasn’t a piece they wanted to build around. After joining the Nuggets, Gordon looked like the final piece to the puzzle that Tim Connelly had been building. He gave them a wing with size to defend bigger forwards along with enough athleticism to switch onto guards while being a willing cutter on the offensive end.

After joining Denver, their preferred starting five of Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray was taking the Western Conference by storm, and they were only getting better with more minutes on the floor together. Then, it all fell apart with injuries to basically everyone on the roster, and we won’t see that group together again until next season with MPJ out for the remainder of the year.

However, over the last several weeks, the play of Gordon has quietly been some of the best in his career, and he culminated this strong stretch with a game-winning corner triple against the LA Clippers in overtime to cap off the team’s 130-128 win in overtime. With struggles coming from other guys on the roster, Gordon has stepped up in a huge way, and he’s going to be a key piece for their hopes moving forward.

Playing with Jokic

If you’re going to successfully play alongside Jokic on the offensive end, you have to be a minimum of one of two things. You have to be a strong outside shooter or a willing cutter to get to the rim. Gordon has never been a great outside shooter, but he is definitely a willing cutter and a good one at that. Big-Big pick-and-rolls are a rare ask because not every team has a center that can handle and pass the way that Jokic does, but this play shows how much of an advantage it can be. With Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka both going to Jokic, it leaves no rim protection for Gordon which gives him the easy dunk. Even if Zubac had switched onto him, he wouldn’t have the lateral mobility to stick with Gordon.

This play shows off the advantage that Gordon’s size and strength brings him. He makes a great read by catching the defense off guard and cutting to the rim. However, once he gets there, he has Jusuf Nurkic coming over to contest the shot, but, because of his strength, he’s able to power through to finish the play off. Reading the defense the same way that Jokic is will go a long way towards finding easy buckets because Jokic will find you if you’re open.

Push the Pace

Gordon moving at a high rate of speed in transition often forces defenders to make what we call a “Business Decision.” With Jokic in the starting lineup, the Nuggets have long been one of the slowest teams in the NBA. That doesn’t necessarily fit well with how Gordon likes to play as he has always excelled in transition. With Barton in and out of the lineup, the team needed another occasional ball-handler on the wing, and Gordon has shown the ability to give them that. Looking at the play above, Gordon snags the rebound and immediately starts moving down the floor. The Cleveland Cavaliers are confused on defense with multiple defenders unsure of who’s supposed to be picking up Gordon. Ultimately, no one does which forces Jarrett Allen to attempt to stop the shot. Gordon powers through him for the make and a trip to the charity stripe.

This isn’t a play where Gordon is the rebounder or the ball-handler on the play, but they are pushing the pace following the missed shot on the other end. Jokic gets the rebound, and, outside of Facundo Campazzo, who’s two feet inside the 3-point line, Gordon is the only Nugget inside the arc. He establishes great position on a smaller defender, and all Jokic has to do is lob the ball into him before he can go up for the layup. This all stems from Gordon hustling down the floor to get into position.

Inefficient Shots are Falling

Prior to this season, Gordon’s best shooting mark from 16-feet out to the 3-point line was 35.8 percent. Currently, he’s shooting 47.4 percent on those looks. That has to be taken with a grain of salt as he’s only attempted 19 shots from that area, but Gordon is also showing development there. Rather than chucking up a ton of these inefficient shots, he largely reserves them for wide-open looks from that area. If he’s mildly contested, he usually passes up the opportunity. On the play above, Bojan Bogdanovic eventually gets around the screen to try and contest the shot, but he isn’t that close. Gordon uses the screen from Jokic to generate separation, and he knows Rudy Gobert isn’t switching on the play when he sees him back up towards the rim. This give Gordon plenty of room to rise up for the easy mid-range jumper.

Let’s end with a play that combines everything that we’ve talked about today. In this sequence, Gordon plays off of Jokic, while getting the ball early in the shot clock, and he takes an open mid-range jumpshot. Gordon has a speed advantage against his defender in Jaren Jackson Jr., so it’s easy for him to naturally create separation. Throw in the great screen set by Jokic, and the handoff between the two has Gordon with just he and Adams between the rim. Similar to Gobert in the previous play, Adams doesn’t want to give up a layup, so he’s dropping back. This gives Gordon all the room he needs. Gordon is attempting these long mid-range shots less frequently than he has in previous years, but, when he does attempt them, he’s making sure they’re good shots to put up.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.

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