Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon will need a different response to Dunk Contest defeat

Aaron Gordon responded to a Dunk Contest in loss in 2016 with his best player of his career. But 2020 will be different for him and the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Lampson Yip - Clicks Images/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon responded to a Dunk Contest in loss in 2016 with his best player of his career. But 2020 will be different for him and the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Lampson Yip - Clicks Images/Getty Images) /

Aaron Gordon responded to his 2016 Dunk Contest loss with a hopeful post-Break run. The Orlando Magic will need a different answer this time.

The way Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest ended was oddly familiar for Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon.

He clearly had the crowd’s vote for the Dunk Contest crown. His dunks were the ones the entire world would replay and show again and again year after year. Aaron Gordon was the guy who put on the greatest show.

And Gordon was the guy who many felt got robbed.

Like 2016, it felt like Derrick Jones Jr. did variations of the same dunk to defeat Aaron Gordon, while Gordon did some truly innovative things to leave a clear mark on the Dunk Contest and its history.

Like 2016, the Magic hope that Gordon will go on a tear in the wake of that Dunk Contest defeat. He came back from the break playing some inspired basketball.

The going narrative is that Gordon will come back fired up from losing the Dunk Contest and go on a similar run this time around. And Gordon, of course, is a much better and more skilled player than he was four years ago.

That may not be the case, but the Magic should still expect a better Gordon as he continues a strong run of play heading into the break.

Back in 2016, Gordon and the Magic were very different. They had already fallen out of the playoff race and Gordon was a young player trying to make his mark in the league. The Dunk Contest then was as much Gordon’s introduction to the larger NBA world than a display of his athleticism.

He was still figuring out his place in the league, let alone on his own team.

The momentum from that Dunk Contest appearance was undeniable. Whether it was the loss that fueled him or just being in that setting with a sense of belonging giving him confidence.

In 2016, Gordon averaged 9.2 points per game on a 50.9-percent effective field goal percentage. That season, the Magic had raced out to a 19-13 start which left the developing Gordon scrapping for minutes off the bench. His lack of offensive development prevented him from doing a ton.

After the All-Star Break, Gordon seemed to find a lot of his footing. He averaged 12.0 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and 2.0 assists per game after the break that year. His minutes jumped from 21.8 minutes per game to 27.8 minutes per game.

Of course, the reason for all of this increase in production was undoubtedly the Magic’s trade of Tobias Harris at the trade deadline and the complete collapse of the team overall. Orlando fell out of the Playoff race with a 2-12 January, allowing the team to focus more on development. Without Harris on the roster, Gordon was installed into the starting lineup.

A player’s production should increase with more minutes. And Gordon’s certainly did.

Gordon got an opportunity because the roster changed in front of him and the team had less reason to favor a veteran over developing a young player and allowing him to make mistakes. Gordon still was not a great shooter, after all. He was just a bundle of energy. And with Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo running the point more often, the Magic got Gordon on the run a lot more.

Another factor in that recovery was Gordon’s health. After missing most of his offseason with jaw surgery, Gordon was still undoubtedly catching up early in the season. He finally gained some rhythm — although his scoring was still inconsistent and very raw — as the season went on.

Gordon is a much different player now than he was back then.

The Dunk Contest for him was more about pride and trying to right that wrong from 2016 rather than making a name for himself in NBA circles. Gordon undoubtedly left Chicago as one of the best dunk contest dunkers in NBA history — trophy or not.

Gordon already has a defined set of skills. Unlike in 2016, Gordon is one of the key players on a team that has playoff aspirations and expectations. The last half of the season for Gordon will not be his first crack at real minutes in fairly irrelevant games. These are meaningful games where the Magic are relying on Gordon to produce a lot.

But the expectation for Gordon still remains the same. Everyone expects Gordon to use the Dunk Contest as fuel to right the ship from a disappointing first half of the season.

This year has been disappointing, to say the least, so far.

Gordon is averaging 14.2 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game. He is shooting a career-worst 42.4 percent from the floor. For the first time in his career, his 3-point shooting has decreased from previous seasons. It only recently climbed to better than 30 percent.

It has been a weird up-and-down season for Gordon. He has remained a solid defensive presence and ball container. He remains a vital part of the Magic’s seventh-ranked defense.

But offensively, Gordon has been unable to break free.

Some of it has been the incredibly slow pace the Magic have played — both in terms of possessions and within the half-court offense. Gordon has had little room to cut and move, let alone fly through the air in transition.

Some of it has also been Gordon. His spot-up shooting has decreased dramatically this year, taking away scoring opportunities for him. He has also given in to some of his worst instincts, holding the ball too long and dribbling to create isolation opportunities all the while settling for off-balance mid-range jumpers.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Recently, Gordon seems to have re-focused himself on attacking the offensive glass and keeping the ball moving. These were things Gordon did throughout last season’s playoff run that made him one of the most trusted players on the roster.

Gordon is averaging 19.6 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 4.7 assists per game in his last seven games. All the while, he was shooting 45.4 percent overall and 41.4 percent form three.

The offense has started to come alive in recent games. Gordon’s revival has been a big part of that.

It is all a positive sign that Gordon is starting to round into form. The All-Star Break and whatever inspiration might come from his controversial Dunk Contest defeat is only adding to that.

For his career, Gordon has had relatively similar averages before and after the All-Star Game — 12.6 points per game before the break and 12.9 points per game after. The event itself does not seem to reset or boost him.

The 2016 season saw Gordon get the first real minutes of his career with a trade clearing the path in front of him. It became a perfect incubator environment for him as a young player. The conditions all seemed to come together to give him a boost for the rest of the season.

That will not be the case this time around. This time around, Gordon’s role is already established. And this season has been about trying to re-establish Gordon’s best way to play to get the most of him for a playoff push.

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This year will require an entirely different response from the young forward to that Dunk Contest defeat.