Inside Nuggets’ blockbuster trade with Magic: “This was a necessary move”

ORLANDO – On the way to the airport late last March, both Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton could sense something was in the works.

The Nuggets had been blasted by the Raptors, playing in Tampa Bay, on Wednesday night, the day before the trade deadline. The team had stayed the night and had Thursday — deadline day — to get to New Orleans, its next destination. The team bus rolled toward the airport and then stopped.

“We were on the bus, and the bus was like stopped for like 30, 45 minutes in front of the plane,” Hampton, now a Magic guard, told The Denver Post this past week. “We all knew it was trade deadline. We knew someone was getting traded. Me, Will (Barton), Monte (Morris), Gary, we were all yelling up to the front of the bus, like, ‘Yo, Tim, who’s getting traded? Tell us!’”

Harris knew, too.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, but (me and R.J.) kind of looked at each other, like, ‘I think some (stuff) is going down,’” Harris told The Post.

After the prolonged wait, news began trickling out. The Nuggets were trading Harris, Hampton and a future first-round pick for Aaron Gordon and Gary Clark. Hampton got a call from his agent asking if he wanted to go to Orlando.

“I was like, ‘Do I have a choice?’” he joked.

Before long, Nuggets president Tim Connelly walked to the back of the bus to tell Harris, one of the cornerstones of the locker room, and Hampton, another draft-day find and prospect team management hated to give up.

When Harris got off the bus, there were emotional goodbyes from Denver’s entire traveling party. Hugs and tears flowed, from coaches to teammates.

“In a weird way, I’m glad it happened that way,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “… It was tough to say goodbye to a guy that’d been here for as long as he had been.”

“It was emotional, for sure,” Harris said. “It was definitely an emotional time, saying goodbye to the guys. Last time we were all on the same team together, last time we rode the bus together. It was definitely a lot of emotions. You look back on it, man, you can’t do nothing but smile.”

The day was a whirlwind for Harris, who spent six-and-a-half seasons in Denver, helping to establish a standard of winning that still persists. And even though injuries mounted, undermining his once-steely confidence, Harris relishes what was built.

“It’s nothing but great memories,” Harris said. “I have nothing but good things to say about Denver. My time there, the team that drafted me, the team I came to at 19 years old until I was 26 years old. … It wasn’t easy leaving, but I’m happy where I’m at right now.”

Connelly stayed back that day. He hung out with Harris, and the two watched college basketball together, no doubt reminiscing all they’d shared.

“It was almost like the last supper or whatever,” Harris joked prior to Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets in Orlando. As Harris stood there, he scanned the court looking at his former teammates and staffers who’d groomed him to become an NBA veteran. And then he spotted Connelly.

“I gotta go mess with him,” he said.

Hampton said he still talks daily to former Nuggets teammates, including Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Markus Howard. Only a few weeks ago, Hampton got a text from Connelly, encouraging him and telling him to keep working.

The irony, with all of Denver’s backcourt injuries, is that Hampton would’ve been a staple of the rotation this season had the trade not happened. But he holds no grudges.

“It definitely was a blessing in disguise,” Hampton said. “I feel like my talent and my work ethic, God blessed me with an opportunity to come to this situation in Orlando and play right away. I’m grateful for that. At the same time, I’m grateful for Denver. They took a chance on me.”

The other end of the trade, the Gordon aspect, has been a win as well. The Nuggets sorely needed a stout perimeter defender and felt he could benefit from a change in scenery. When they made the deal, the hope was that they’d be able to harbor the best version of Gordon.

Gordon, like Harris, was part of the 2014 draft class. All he’d known was Orlando.

“When I was there, it was something new every year,” Gordon said. “New coaching staff, new GM, new players. It was just so much fluctuation all the time. We didn’t know whether we wanted to tank or whether we were trying to win. It was like having your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time. Burnout.”

Despite the sour ending stemming from Gordon’s trade request, he maintains he did what he could to elevate the Magic.

“I gave my heart to this city,” he said. “I gave my soul. Blood, sweat, tears every day.”

Malone was bullish about the Gordon addition. He said he took part in lengthy discussions with Connelly about the fit, and ultimately they decided to pull the trigger.

“I love Gary Harris, I love R.J. Hampton, but this was a necessary move,” Malone said. “What Aaron Gordon brings to the table – again, we were 19-6 with AG after the trade deadline.

“… This has to be the best basketball he’s ever played,” Malone added.

After it became official, Malone reached out to long-time friend and former Magic coach Steve Clifford.

“I gave him some thoughts on Gary and R.J. because I wanted to see those guys do well,” Malone said. “And he did the same in kind about Aaron. And he spoke very, very high of Aaron and who he was, as a person, as a player.”

When Gordon talks about the trade now, there’s an air of joy that trickles into his answers.

During the shootaround last Wednesday, Jeff Green walked by Gordon singing Mase’s iconic anthem “Welcome back.” Gordon smiled at his new surroundings.

“I love this organization,” Gordon said. “I’m happy as hell I’m here.”

WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By :