Orlando Magic know they cannot lose Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon is still playing on a minute's restriction as the Orlando Magic try to keep him and the power forward position going. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Gordon is still playing on a minute's restriction as the Orlando Magic try to keep him and the power forward position going. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s power forward depth has taken a hit with several injuries. The team is still managing Aaron Gordon’s injury and cannot lose him.

The Orlando Magic were rallying from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over the Washington Wizards when Gary Clark checked in for the first time.

It was an odd time for the journeyman power forward to make his season debut.

The Magic were at a critical juncture in the game and they were turning to their starters. Aaron Gordon was still on the bench, totaling just 19:48 in the game and scoring four points. It never looked like Aaron Gordon was slowed by an injury, although there have been a few instances this year where he has favored his hamstring coming off the floor.

Coach Steve Clifford said Aaron Gordon told the training staff the hamstring was bothering him in Sunday’s game so he sat out the remainder of the game.

Gordon again sat out the end of Tuesday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Gordon played 22:10, scoring 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting with five rebounds. Again, he looked no worse for the wear. But the team opted for a smaller lineup with Michael Carter-Williams helping boost the team’s defense.

The one thing that is clear, and Clifford confirmed, Gordon is not all the way past the hamstring injury that knocked him out in the bubble and out of the playoffs. And with the Magic’s lack of depth at power forward, they are being careful with him at this early stage of the season.

"“He is still not 100-percent with his hamstring. We’re trying to be as careful as we can,” coach Steve Clifford said before Tuesday’s game. “He is going to stay on the minute restriction that he is on and we’re going to be careful. We can’t lose him for an extended period of time. It’s difficult for him because he wants to play. But the one thing that this did is he has a better understanding now that if we don’t go at the right pace — and Lindsay [Winninger] is totally on top of it — we could get into a spot where we could lose him for an extended period of time.”"

Gordon is averaging 24.5 minutes per game, the lowest of his career since his second season. This came after Gordon led the team in minutes per game the past two seasons. His versatility has made him extremely valuable to the team and Clifford treasures his defense.

Clifford said the team was especially cautious Sunday because the team was on a back to back. He said Gordon was the one that informed the team he was feeling a bit off and they decided to shut him down for the evening. He felt better after treatment and played in Tuesday’s game.

The Magic’s power forward depth is forcing them to manage his play rather than sit him out to get healthy. The team just has no depth behind him.

The team is running rookie Chuma Okeke in the backup power forward minutes at the moment. But he is also on a minutes restriction as the team watches him as he recovers from the torn ACL that kept him out for the entire 2020 season.

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  • Okeke has played well as he regains his footing on a basketball court. But he is averaging only 18.5 minutes per game.

    Clark would likely be the starter if Gordon had to miss time. He filled in for nine minutes in Sunday’s win over the Wizards. He provided some good defensive minutes, but understandably his shooting rhythm was a bit off.

    The team could experiment with playing Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic again. James Ennis might end up playing some minutes at the 4 with super small lineups.

    But with both Jonathan Isaac (torn ACL) and Al-Farouq Aminu (recovery from a torn meniscus) unavailable, the Magic do not have traditional and reliable power forwards to play behind him. The Magic’s depth is again getting tested at the position just as it was last year.

    So Gordon is still playing, but seemingly in small doses. The team is trying to get a lot out of him without expending him too much, keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

    Gordon has had to learn some things too to prepare himself for the season and manage this lingering injury.

    Last year, Gordon sprained his ankle in mid-November but returned after three games. Gordon seemed off as he played through the injury for much of the next month. He would admit in late December that he was still feeling some issues with his ankle after an especially difficult game for him.

    It was not until just before the All-Star Break that Gordon started to pick up his play and look like the player the Magic were accustomed to.

    "“For a lot of these guys, he came into the NBA after his freshman year and he has been playing big minutes for a few years,” Clifford said before Tuesday’s game. “There are other aspects of development that come into play as they get older. One of them is just treatment and what you do in the gym and the weight room. It all works together.”"

    Gordon is still producing even in his limited minutes.

    He is averaging 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting a 56.8-percent effective field goal percentage. That would be a career-best effective field goal percentage (and he is still shooting only 20.0-percent from beyond the arc). His assists are also down so far this year.

    But per-36 minutes, Gordon is averaging 18.7 points per 36 minutes (the second-best of his career) and a career-best 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. When they ramp up Gordon’s minutes, it certainly suggests he will be able to work on the offensive end.

    Defensively, he has done well too. According to NBA.com’s statistics database, opponents are shooting 46.7-percent against Gordon this year. This comes a year after opponents shot 44.2-percent against him. As imperfect as these stats are, that shows Gordon has been good but still has room to improve.

    Orlando will certainly need Gordon at full health to get through this season. And the Magic still need Gordon in any capacity in the present.

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    So Orlando continues to manage him and hopes the team can get him to last for the long term. Because right now the team needs him and cannot afford to lose him.