Aaron Gordon will take flight again in the Dunk Contest. But that final leap the Orlando Magic hoped for has not come to bear and his future is in the air.
In a situation that seems to have the most elements and most variables that can change everything, Aaron Gordon seems so in control. He can do anything he wants in the air.
A defender in his way? He can deftly move around them. Not feeling that? Gordon has grown the strength to go through guys (although still not his best way to the basket). Give him a runway? Well, something special is about to happen.
Gordon is seemingly best when he is in the air. Everything is just much simpler. Up and down with only gravity deciding between the two. There is nothing rawer than the force of a thunderous jam.
It is getting beyond that basic feat of athleticism that has proven to be the difficult part of Gordon’s career. The other parts of his game that never really came into place.
Gordon has wanted to separate himself from that one defining skill. But he never completely separated himself from it. The highlights were meant to be a part of his game, not the entire thing.
This was supposed to be the year Gordon completed that separation. This was the year he was supposed to be in the main event game Sunday. The one where all the pieces of that puzzle came together.
Gordon is back at All-Star Weekend this weekend. But not the way he imagined.
He will be the talk of the weekend if things go his way — the excitement for his participation in the Slam Dunk Contest is again palpable as everyone remembers the 2016 contest that he won the popular vote for. Gordon is looking to win the dunk contest this time and bring home the trophy to cement his place as one of the greatest dunkers in league history.
But Gordon said this is the last time he will be in the dunk contest — although there is surely an open invitation for him to join knowing the show he can put on. He wants to be in the Sunday game from here on out.
Failure to launch
Frustratingly, Gordon has not taken that leap despite his prodigious talent. He has not put all those pieces together.
While his defense has remained solid, it is not enough to make up for his offensive regression. If he wants to make good on all that talent and all that potential, it has to come with him putting all the pieces together offensively.
Gordon is averaging just 14.2 points per game while shooting a career-worst 47.3-percent. His 3-point shooting has just jumped to better than 30-percent.
Unlike last year when his scoring decreased, his efficiency has not followed. His other numbers — his rebounding and passing — have stayed fairly flat.
In many ways, the Magic’s offense goes as Gordon goes. And Gordon goes as the offense goes.
He is a player who fits in really well when the ball moves around. No one benefits from ball movement more than Gordon. This is where he finds the gaps in the defense and picks up his energy.
He is one of the best players in the league scoring off cuts — his 1.57 points per possession on those plays ranks him in the 95th percentile, according to Synergy data. The Magic have just struggled to get the ball and players moving in a way that could get him shots in that mode.
Orlando has played a deliberate pace but the team has also been slow in getting into its offense. This has hurt Gordon as much as anyone. Throw in the lack of spacing from the team’s poor shooting and there is less room for him to cut to the basket or create the energy plays where he scores off putbacks or in transition.
The Magic’s offense has started to show some signs of life and Gordon has been a big part of that. Gordon is averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting a 47.3-percent effective field goal percentage. Still not efficient, but at least the raw numbers are up.
But when the ball does not move, Gordon often gets the ball in tight corners. The Magic try to force him into post-ups where he is still inefficient — 0.89 points per possession on 2.1 possessions per game. Or worse, Gordon gives in to his worst demons and goes into dribble pull-ups and isolations.
The biggest change for Gordon from last year to this year is his efficiency behind the arc. He is not anywhere near the same spot-up shooter and that has decreased his production.
Gordon works best when he reacts quickly and makes quick decisions. The longer Gordon is on the ball, the worse the possession ends up.
The trade winds swirl
It still seems far too early to give up on a player who is just 24 years old. Gordon still has plenty of room to grow.
But this is clearly the first season he has taken a step back. And playing for a team with playoff aspirations, there is much less time to wait.
According to Sean Deveney of Heavy.com reported the Magic tried hard to trade Gordon at the trade deadline, engaging with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns to find a trade partner.
Most likely, the team asked for the moon (or close to it) and did not like the return. It was probably as much a survey of the market. The Magic, after all, are playing down a position with both Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu out with injury. Losing Gordon at this point would have greatly hurt the team this season.
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With Gordon’s front-loaded contract — he has $34.5 million over two years — he should remain a valuable asset considering his age and the relatively weak free-agent market coming up.
With the team seemingly fully invested in Jonathan Isaac and the future of pairing Aaron Gordon with him still very uncertain, exploring a Gordon trade is only natural. The experiment playing the two together has produced mixed results in two seasons.
The Magic were -3.4 points per 100 possessions with a 107.2 defensive rating in 482 minutes the two shared together this season. Unless they both develop their 3-point shooting, it is hard to see that duo as a long-term pairing.
The Magic were not in a position to give up completely on Gordon at this trade deadline. But they are clearly testing the waters some. And it is easy to see that process continuing into the summer especially with the team seemingly hitting its ceiling as a group.
At 24, Gordon is still young enough to make a significant improvement. The Magic probably are not looking to give the young player away. And then there are games where Gordon puts all the pieces together.
His 21-point, six-rebound performance against the Los Angeles Lakers was instrumental in that upset win. He had several highlight-reel dunks that helped turn the momentum of the game. And even recently he has flirted with a triple-double again, showing off his playmaking and smarts when he is on the attack.
Gordon has always given enough to make the Magic believe. They should be in no rush to move him unless a good offer comes along. But the future is still in sight.
Gordon’s struggles to reach that next level go hand in hand with the team’s struggles to reach its next level.
Still, at 24 years old, it is hard to give up on him completely. There are plenty of pundits around the league who simply want to see Gordon get a fresh start somewhere else. That honestly might be what is best for Gordon if he no longer fits the team’s long-term plans.
With Isaac likely out for the rest of the season and the Magic back in the playoff hunt, Gordon will get his chance to showcase himself or prove he should get another shot to prove he can work with Isaac again. Gordon is starting to round into form with some health and the Magic can be at least a bit optimistic he will be fine the rest of the season.
The inconsistency from him this season has been maddening. Patience only lasts so long. And if the Magic want to make a splashy move to improve the team, Gordon is the biggest trade piece they are likely willing to part with.
At some point, the roster has to fit together and make sense.
So like always, Gordon is seemingly up in the air. He does not want to be in the Dunk Contest. But being there is as much a reminder of the creativity and limitless potential and athleticism he possesses.
It is not where he nor the team wants to be. But it is where he is. And there is something to reclaim — both the hardware and something of himself.
All eyes will be back on him Saturday night. To make good on the 2016 contest he controversially lost. To remind everyone of the wonder of athleticism and human flight. And to remind everyone just what Gordon can do with the uncertainty of gravity pressing down on him.
His time in Orlando is facing those same pressures it seems. The focus is on this contest and returning to the playoffs. Everyone on this Magic team has to map that future out for themselves. Some will crash hard on the floor.
The one thing Gordon has always been able to do is defy gravity. It is when he is up in the air that he is the most aggressive and creative.
Saturday, Gordon will fly. The rest of this season will be his chance to soar again too.