Aaron Gordon can blame Orlando Magic for playoff struggles

Aaron Gordon struggled in his second round series with the Denver Nuggets as his failures with the Orlando Magic peaked again. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Gordon struggled in his second round series with the Denver Nuggets as his failures with the Orlando Magic peaked again. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Orlando Magic fans experienced some schadenfreude in the closing games of the Phoenix Suns’ stunning sweep of the Denver Nuggets.

Aaron Gordon, trying to make good with his new team and the new opportunity in front of him, claimed how much easier things were for him in his new home. He said the talent with the Nuggets would allow him to focus on his role and get the easiest shots in his career.

Magic fans took this as a bit of a slight. Some going so far as to say Gordon admitted he was not trying as hard in Orlando without the carrot of a title so close. With how Gordon and the Nuggets played in the early moments after the trade, it felt like Gordon was playing more inspired basketball.

It irked Magic fans further when national media said Gordon was finally playing the way everyone always imagined he could as a role player within the ecosystem of other stronger offensive players — as if Magic fans did not already realize this with his inability to take over as the star the Magic needed.

The last two games and his series against the Suns put a bigger spotlight on Gordon. There were a lot of reasons the Nuggets lost in a sweep in the second round this year. But Gordon was among the biggest reasons.

At the end of the season, the same weaknesses that kept Gordon from breaking out with the Magic were apparent with the Nuggets.

The same weaknesses that held Aaron Gordon back in Orlando were present in the Denver Nuggets’ loss. Gordon still exemplifies the Orlando Magic’s rebuilding failure.

Gordon went out with a whimper, scoring only eight points on 3-for-8 shooting. Even with Nikola Jokic’s ejection in the third quarter, Aaron Gordon could not give the Nuggets what they needed offensively.

For the series, Gordon averaged an icy 9.0 points per game on 41.0-percent shooting. He missed all eight of his 3-pointers. He scored in double digits just once — 18 points in Game 1. So that means he had averages of 6.0 points per game and shot 32.0-percent in the final three games.

A small sample for sure, but significant for the moment Gordon seemed to shrivel from.

This was Gordon’s first time in the second round of the playoffs. And there is certainly an increase in intensity and pressure the deeper into the playoffs you go. Aaron Gordon deserves credit for his defensive work on Damian Lillard in the playoffs.

Even that fell off in the second-round series. Where Aaron Gordon at least somewhat slowed Damian Lillard — he scored 26 points and shot 9 for 22 in roughly 12 minutes with Gordon defending him, only Monte Morris allowed a lower field goal percentage (in far fewer minutes) among rotation players — the Suns faced no such resistance.

Devin Booker scored 25 points on 10-for-22 shooting in 21 minutes matched up, effectively losing Aaron Gordon on screens that he has always struggled to navigate. That was Gordon’s primary cover through the course of the series. Gordon was only moderately effective.

That cuts into the narrative Gordon himself created that playing in that winning environment would free him to focus on what he is best at and flourish as a player. Magic fans would have loved to put Gordon into these roles, but in the end, he just did not respond.

Gordon showed all the inconsistency that frustrated the Magic during his tenure in Orlando instead.

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Denver Nuggets forward claps back at Noah Lyles after Finals comments
Denver Nuggets forward claps back at Noah Lyles after Finals comments /

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  • Gordon started his time in Denver with 11.5 points per game and 57.3-percent shooting in his first 11 games with the team. But in his final 14 games, he dropped to 9.1 points per game and shot 44.4-percent from beyond the arc. In both cases, he was a sub-30-percent 3-point shooter.

    Following Jamal Murray’s injury, Aaron Gordon averaged 9.5 points per game on 46.3-percent shooting. It was all a mixed bag. But the one thing Gordon never did was step up his offensive production with the opportunity to do so.

    The Nuggets kept winning despite all this with Nikola Jokic as a clear superstar as the anchor of their offense. And they had other capable scorers, especially Michael Porter Jr., who would keep Aaron Gordon in a secondary scoring role.

    Still, the Nuggets were probably hoping for Gordon to take the kind of leap the Magic believed he might make following his 2019 playoff series.

    It is still somewhat comforting to think about the promise Aaron Gordon showed when he went toe to toe with Kawhi Leonard for a few brief moments. He averaged a team-high 15.2 points per game and shot a 53.2-percent effective field goal percentage (including 40.0-percent from beyond the arc!).

    This was even with the primary defensive responsibility on Leonard. Leonard still scored 54 points on 19-for-31 shooting, the second-most points of any of Leonard’s primary matchups that postseason. But watching that series, Gordon made him work for many of them.

    The 2019 playoffs seemed to be a clarifying moment for Gordon that would crystallize his development. That was going to be what could have pushed the Magic beyond the first round as a young team.

    But instead, he stagnated. His shot did not really improve. And while an injury and a too-quick return from that injury slowed his progress throughout the 2020 season (followed by a freak injury in the bubble that knocked him out of the playoffs), Gordon never took the next step.

    Denver will now be trying to think and figure out how to get Gordon to become the player they need him to be. They will need him to do less of the isolation ball and pull-up shooting and more of the work off the ball, slashing to the rim and running in transition. They will need him to develop a far more consistent 3-point shot.

    All the same things the Magic asked of him for much of the past seven years.

    It is hard to say where Gordon’s ultimate development went wrong.

    Some has to fall on the Magic.

    They cycled through coaches in each of his first two years — Scott Skiles, James Borrego and Frank Vogel all coached him in his first two years. Each of those coaches had different places of focus for this unmolded forward. Vogel wanted to turn him into a Paul George-type small forward when that did not quite fit his skill set.

    Denver Nuggets
    Denver Nuggets /

    Denver Nuggets

    Within two years, Steve Clifford took over and tried to fit this square peg into another round hole. He at least jammed that peg further in than anyone else before him with a more balanced scoring approach and a focus on his defensive acumen.

    Some of that should fall on Gordon.

    He suffered a bad-luck injury early in his rookie year, losing that critical development time on a team that had playoff ambitions. He then had a major setback with an injury in his first offseason — one that was seemingly completely his fault when he was horsing around with his brother in a Vegas hotel during Summer League.

    Gordon’s development inched forward from there. He never took the leap beyond his dunk contest fame. And everyone is still seemingly waiting and hoping.

    That has to fall a bit on the focus he put in each offseason and the skills he tried to emphasize. But a lot of that probably came within the context of the team and his yearning to become a star too.

    As the Magic take on a new development path, they have to learn some lessons from Gordon’s failures with them. They need to make sure they properly slot players into proper roles quickly so they gain the skills they need to succeed in them.

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    That gets back to the most important thing: Find a central star for the team to orbit around. That has been the biggest factor that has failed everyone who has come to Orlando in the last eight seasons.