Aaron Gordon found a home in Denver the Orlando Magic couldn’t give him

May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrate winning against the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrate winning against the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

There he was, exactly how the Orlando Magic imagined him.

The game was on the line with the Denver Nuggets holding a two-point lead and time expiring. LeBron James was on the other side. They knew who they would call to stop him.

The only question was whether Gordon would step up and get the stop and whether it would matter against one of the all-time greats.

Oh, and a spot in the NBA Finals was on the line. No pressure.

So as James came around a screen with Gordon right on his hip, this is what everyone always saw in Gordon. The defensive stopper whose athleticism, size and strength could stonewall the best attackers. But perhaps this was not the moment he did not always see or accept in himself.

He fought hard to catch up and stay in front of James, guiding him as far from the basket as he could as he drove to the hoop.

Guide him straight to the help. Jamal Murray dug in as LeBron James tried to rear up for a big finish. Murray got a hand on the ball. But Gordon still stayed in front of James and impeded that path to the basket. The ball flipped out of his hands.

He did not even get a shot off. Gordon had his stop. The Nuggets are headed to the NBA Finals.

Aaron Gordon has found the perfect role and the perfect spot for his success with the Denver Nuggets as he prepares now for the NBA Finals. It was a situation the Orlando Magic simply could not give him.

Gordon is undoubtedly one of the key pieces for Denver in this run to the title — and this extended run at the top of the Western Conference. Whereas for the Magic, Gordon faced the expectations and burdens of a player expected to become a young star.

For the Nuggets, Gordon is a piece of the machine. More than that, he is in a position that plays to his strengths.

Plain and simple, the Nuggets got the version of Gordon the Magic hoped for when they drafted him with the fourth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. They built a team that played to his strengths and never asked him to do more than he needed.

After taking his starring talents as far as he could in Orlando he — and, perhaps a bit late, the team — recognized he was never going to be all he could be with the Magic. And so he arrived with the Nuggets in a different situation. One that made a home for him.

At his peak with the Magic, Gordon averaged 17.6 points per game during the 2018 season. That season seemed to hint at Gordon’s star potential. He had his share of 40-point outbursts. But the consistency was never always present.

Gordon was a great and growing defender. But his focus always seemed to be on his offensive expansion.

That is partly the expectation that comes with being the fourth overall pick.

Orlando essentially tanked two seasons at the start of the Rob Hennigan rebuild hoping to get in on the 2014 Draft that featured Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. Landing fourth outside of those three (seemingly) runaway targets hurt the team.

They went with the uber athlete they felt they could mold into a usable player. They always knew the Dunk Contest-level athleticism was there and could be deployed in transition or on defense. But the skill set never came.

Some of that perhaps falls on Gordon for not improving his skills gradually — a broken foot in his rookie year and then a broken jaw in the summer before his second slowed him down considerably.

But a lot of that falls on the Magic never giving him direction.

They switched coaches and switched their idea of what Gordon could be. Scott Skiles wanted Gordon to be in the dunker spot and run in transition. Frank Vogel saw him as a Paul George type working the perimeter. The teams they built never had the shooting to give Gordon the room to explore and grow.

It never gave him the structure he needed to succeed. It is no wonder that his best overall seasons came with Steve Clifford and the more rigorous play he had for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

How many times did the Magic start a game with a high-low set where Nikola Vucevic would dump a pass down to Aaron Gordon in the post? That was the kind of structure and consistency Gordon needed.

It was still clear even through those limited successes that Gordon wanted to be more. The Magic drafted him to be their star and Gordon still had those aspirations.

The Magic needed Gordon to be more if they were going to expand. And that play just was not there with this group.

As Orlando struggled through the 2021 season as injuries, it was clear to see the end was near for that group. They had gone as far as they could go. And Gordon needed a fresh atmosphere to unlock the talent that was already there and that the Magic could not fully deploy.

The Magic’s transformative day of trades in March 2021 was necessary to reset a franchise that had reached its end. Where the Nikola Vucevic trade indeed set up the Magic’s rebuild by trading Vucevic early, it was clear the Magic traded Aaron Gordon (and Evan Fournier) too late.

The Nuggets clearly won the trade — the team that acquires the best player in any deal typically does — as the Magic’s gamble on R.J. Hampton’s talent did not pan out even though Gary Harris is a more than serviceable player.

The trade accomplished something for both teams.

For Gordon though, it reset his expectations and his role in a way that was not likely ever going to happen in Orlando. Certainly not with the ups and downs he had.

Almost immediately, Gordon fit in perfectly next to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as a rim-running versatile big. He filled what Denver lost in Jerami Grant from their 2020 Western Conference Finals push as a wing defender.

Gordon thrived more without the ball and with Jokic setting him up. The Nuggets became title favorites almost immediately in 2021 because of Gordon’s presence until Murray’s unfortunate ACL tear.

This season has seen Gordon find the role that always suited him best. He averaged 16.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 56.4 percent from the floor overall. In the playoffs, he is averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Those numbers are clearly down, but his impact certainly is not.

Yes, he still has his dalliances with overdribbling and settling for iso jump shots, but those are fewer. He knows Jokic runs the team and that puts him in the ideal role.

Winning has a way of focusing that buy-in a whole lot more. And Gordon has bought in.

He just needed an environment and a place that could show him this is how he could flourish. A perpetually rebuilding and unstable organization was never going to give that to such a raw player. That was always a recipe for Gordon to focus on how he individually could expand rather than how he could help the team expand (not that his Magic teams were constructed for winning).

The Magic saw hints of this Gordon. But they needed more.

The Nuggets did not. They needed the Gordon who defends, runs and slashes to the rim with the occasional 3-pointer to keep defenses honest.

What Denver is seeing in these playoffs and throughout this season is the version of Gordon everyone envisioned for him. This was always who Gordon was.

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He has found his home and a perfect fit. And it shows how critical that is to a player’s ultimate success.