The Orlando Magic have struggled to find consistency this year. None more than Aaron Gordon. It is vital they use their defense to right the ship.
After reports surfaced that Aaron Gordon was re-entering the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest for the third time, trying to get redemption for his historic runner-up finish in 2016, the whole fan base and NBA world instantly got excited.
If there is one thing sure to draw eyeballs to the Magic and give the team, sitting in seventh in the Eastern Conference mind you, some attention it is Gordon flying through the air.
The report was out in the world. Gordon was not interested in hearing it.
He played coy about his participation.
“They reported that? I didn’t know they reported it,” Gordon said after practice Friday. “I’m not on social media. I’m not sure. It would be cool to do it again. We’ll see what the NBA says.
“Right now, I’m focused on the Miami Heat tomorrow and getting a win tomorrow.”
There will be time to set up the dunk contest it seems. With Shams Charania of The Athletic reporting Gordon will be in the Dunk Contest, it gives it everything but the official seal of approval from the league itself.
The league will make the official announcement Tuesday.
Everyone will just have to do that dance for a few more days before then. For many, all eyes will turn to the All-Star Break to see what Gordon has in store.
But the Magic know they have to fight that urge themselves. They know the next two weeks could be a season-defining turn for them — helping turn a playoff lead into something they can comfortably manage or something they have to fight for down the stretch.
And while all eyes will hope to see Gordon in the dunk contest. Eyes are squarely on Gordon now. Not just ahead of next week’s trade deadline, where he remains an attractive trade piece the Magic could employ, but also as a player who could help the Magic turn things around and realize at least some of their remaining potential.
The Magic are in a bad spot right now, having lost four straight games coming off a brutal January schedule. And the practice time they spent the last two days and four days of rest they got were vital to the team getting back to the way they know they need to play.
“We needed rest,” coach Steve Clifford said after the team’s practice Friday. “I think we’ll be fresher. I think we had played three, maybe even four, really tired games. There may be some rust, but for sure this break came at a good time for us.”
How refreshed the team will be and how focused they come out playing will be vital for the team. The team has consistently shown flashes of defensive brilliance that suggests the team is not only capable of making a run similar to last year but competing for something a bit more.
Statistically, to this point in the season, the Magic are eighth in the league in defensive rating at 106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is the same spot in the league the team finished at last year.
Even through Orlando’s struggles and inconsistency this year, the team has been able to rely on its defense.
That was not the case for the last week. In Orlando’s last seven games, where the team has gone 1-6, the team has a 114.3 defensive rating. That ranks in the bottom third of the league for that time period.
With the Magic’s poor offense and offensive limitations, this is essentially a death sentence. Clifford said if the Magic do not defend at a high level, they will really struggle. It will almost be impossible to win.
This week was about re-establishing some defensive reps and getting the team back on the right foot to make a push to the All-Star Break and the end of the season.
And no player needs that more than Gordon.
“I think we’re there,” Gordon said after practice Friday. “We definitely let it slip a little bit. We have the talent, we have the personnel, we have the staff. We have everything that we need to be successful in this league. Everyone has to buy in and go from there.”
Gordon said the team has shown flashes of how good they can be. But things have not clicked really all year.
Injuries have played a big part of that from Nikola Vucevic’s 11-game absence in November and December to Aaron Gordon’s nagging injuries to Michael Carter-Williams being in and out of the lineup and Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu‘s major injuries to D.J. Augustin‘s prolonged absence now too.
The team has struggled to keep together a healthy lineup for any prolonged time. It is a testament to the team that it has been able to hold together as it has and put itself in playoff position.
Time to put things together
It is time to put things together now too. Especially for Gordon.
Gordon is averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting 41.8 percent from the floor. His 3-point field goal percentage has dipped below 30 percent for the year.
In January, when playing without Jonathan Isaac was supposed to free him up some, Aaron Gordon has continued to struggle. He is averaging 13.4 points per game and shooting 45.1 percent from the floor. At least his field goal percentage has popped up, but his usage rate is still a below-average 20 percent.
Orlando will absolutely need him to be a better shot maker and scorer to succeed.
A lot of his offensive success is certainly tied to the team’s defense. He is still at his best in transition and cutting to the basket where he can use his athleticism in space. And that is where the Magic have struggled to free him up.
Gordon scores 1.15 points per possession in transition according to Synergy data, a number that ranks him in the 61st percentile in the league. Where Gordon really can make hay is off cuts where he scores 1.56 points per possession, ranking him in the 92nd percentile. But the team only uses him on seven percent of possession in that way.
As the screener in pick and rolls, he scores 1.33 points per possession, good for the 86th percentile of the league. But the Magic only use him in 2.9 percent of their possessions as a screener. This is a big point Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer makes about how to “rescue” Gordon.
Certainly playing him alongside another big in Khem Birch and without shooters around him has hurt. The Magic’s biggest long-term issue is their lack of shooting. It has made offense harder for everyone on the team. And Gordon’s development as a shooter has been a part of those struggles.
Getting Gordon in motion is certainly a way to get him going. With some trade sharks circling for Gordon, the Magic still have the chance and the ability to get more from him this year with their roster’s current makeup.
Everyone in their role
Nagging injuries have been as much a part of the story for Gordon as his struggles to fit into the role the team has mapped out for him and the struggle overall for the team to get him and the team moving.
For the Magic as a team, it is not just about one player.
Every player has some aspect that has not lived up to expectations in some way. For this Magic team, however players are used, everyone has to play together. There is no one player for the Magic who can take over.
“For our team, everybody just has to make the right play,” Clifford said after practice Friday. “We don’t have a guy where we have to have this guy create shots. Our team is going to play best when everybody has the mentality to move the ball.”
The team knows that when it is right, it can be dangerous. Gordon still commands a fair amount of respect as a cutter and especially in transition. Defenses do their best to force him into those stand-still possessions.
The rest that came from this mini-break and the refocus they hope they have found to get their defense right will help everyone reach their full potential and make this important push to the postseason.
The dunk contest might be a sign Gordon is healthy — if he is competing that is. But the next few weeks will be a time for Gordon to get himself right on the court.