Orlando Magic need Aaron Gordon more than ever without Jonathan Isaac

Aaron Gordon has struggled offensively this year for the Orlando Magic. Without Jonathan Isaac, Gordon has to snap out of his funk. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon has struggled offensively this year for the Orlando Magic. Without Jonathan Isaac, Gordon has to snap out of his funk. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /
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The Orlando Magic are going to have to band together without Jonathan Isaac in the lineup. What they really need is Aaron Gordon to bounce back.

This was supposed to be Aaron Gordon‘s year to break out for the Orlando Magic.

All the preseason hype and writing from Magic writers and even national media pointed to the 24-year-old forward finally having his breakthrough. He put together a strong season last year where he limited his own scoring in the name of efficiency.

In a playoff series that saw the Magic struggle virtually everywhere, Aaron Gordon was the lone bright spot. He made Kawhi Leonard‘s life difficult (relatively, at least) and led the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game. During Game 4, his scoring binge had the entire league talking as the Magic tried desperately to stay in the series.

It all pointed to Gordon taking another step in his game. Adding more efficiency and continuing to improve his 3-point shooting would be the key to the Magic perhaps competing for home-court advantage.

None of that has happened this year. Gordon has struggled with lingering ankle issues and various other injuries that have slowed him down. Instead, Orlando has had a hard time relying on Gordon this year.

Now the Magic appear to be headed toward a crisis with Jonathan Isaac out for at least the next eight weeks. The team is down its best defensive player and one of its growing offensive weapons. Every player is going to have to fill in and play better to make up for this loss.

No one may have more eyes on him to fill in this gap than Gordon.

There are still some very big questions about whether Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac can play together — the Magic have a -3.3 net rating when the two share the floor. Eventually, the Magic have to answer these questions with a transaction to improve the roster.

But without Isaac, the Magic will need Gordon to pick up his play. They will need him to be more consistent as an offensive attacker and a more efficient shooter.

Gordon is averaging 13.2 points per game, a significant decrease from the 16.0 points per game he averaged last year. He is shooting a career-worst 40.4 percent from the floor and his 3-point percentage has dipped below 30 percent at 29.2 percent. Gordon’s assists dropped from 3.7 per game last year to 2.9 per game.

The loss of 3-point shooting is certainly a big part of his offensive struggles. Gordon’s best games come when he is able to hit from the outside — he hit all five of his 3-pointers in a 32-point effort against the Phoenix Suns in December.

Some of those struggles from beyond the arc and with his shooting almost certainly can get traced back to his lingering ankle issues. He sprained his ankle against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 20 and returned after a three-game absence. However, in a loss to the Denver Nuggets, Gordon hinted that he was still dealing with some injury issue after a 4-for-14 performance.

Gordon would not use that as an excuse. But it clearly hampered him further. In last Saturday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Gordon had to pull himself from the game as he complained of Achilles tightness. The Magic diagnosed the pain as lingering soreness from his ankle injury and have sat him ever since.

After that Bucks game, Gordon said he felt like he needed the time off the court to get himself right so he could contribute at the level he and the Magic expect of him. Gordon participated in the Magic’s light practice Tuesday before heading to Washington, D.C.

He is still listed as questionable for Friday’s game against the Miami Heat. But will be a game-time decision after going through the team’s shootaround in the morning.

Without Isaac, the Magic absolutely need Gordon. His versatility and length are a huge boost defensively as much as anywhere else. Gordon might be the Magic’s best individual defender.

Despite all his shooting struggles, Gordon still provides a ton of value as someone who can contain and corral the opposing team’s best players. It has not completely made up for his offensive struggles, but it still makes him a valuable player.

Gordon will still get the call on the best players in the league and have the individual responsibility to slow them down. The Magic will need Gordon’s length on occasion too.

Whenever a key player is absent though, it heightens everyone’s responsibilities. It is not one player that has to fill in, it is every player stepping in to make up for what they lost with Isaac.

The reality is that Gordon is a good defensive player, but nobody does what Isaac does defensively. And without that cushion, the Magic are going to have to be efficient and more focused offensively.

This is where Gordon’s focus has to be when he returns. Orlando needs Gordon to reach the potential everyone had for him in the preseason to help the Magic stem the tide without Isaac and make up for his defensive loss.

This is where Gordon has struggled most this year. Gordon has fallen back into the bad habit of being a one-on-one player.

While NBA.com’s stats database says the Magic are running fewer isolation sets for him (1.0 last year to 0.9 per game this year) and he is slightly more efficient with them (up to 0.84 points per possession from 0.79 last year), it feels like Gordon is not moving quickly into his shot and waiting longer to make his move.

NBA.com’s Second Spectrum tracking statistics, Gordon is averaging 2.9 seconds per touch and 2.05 dribbles per touch this year. That is up from 2.62 seconds per touch and 1.76 dribbles per touch.

Gordon is empirically holding onto the ball longer and dribbling a whole lot more while trying to make his attack. That has slowed himself down and the Magic’s offense. Gordon has to make quick decisions and quick moves to be effective.

But at the end of the day, like so many other players on the team, he has to make shots. And hopefully giving his ankle some time to rest and recover will give him the lift and timing to get out of this shooting funk.

That is absolutely necessary for the team. It is absolutely necessary to make up for Isaac’s loss and keep the team afloat and in the playoff race.

Gordon is the player who most has to recover now with the Magic’s margin for error thinning out without Isaac. That was more likely the case anyway. Orlando has missed a big weapon with Gordon’s offensive struggles.

Orlando Magic pass first test of their resolve. dark. Next

Now the attention heightens further. All eyes are on Gordon to take that necessary step.