Skip to main content

Why the Denver Nuggets view Aaron Gordon as crucial piece to an NBA title

As he tried to exit the arena, Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon kept experiencing delays.

First, a few Nuggets assistant coaches stopped Gordon to praise him for his effort in Denver’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Then, some of Gordon’s teammates dapped him while complimenting his block on LeBron James that secured the close-out win. Moments later, Gordon shook hands with Lakers center Anthony Davis before the two shared respect for each other’s games.

Related: NBA Finals schedule

Those moments captured a sentiment the Nuggets have felt about Gordon since acquiring him leading into the trade deadline during the 2020-21 NBA season. Denver has appreciated how a former NBA Dunk finalist has embraced making hustle plays. After serving as the Orlando Magic’s primary option on mostly rebuilding teams, Gordon has pleased the Nuggets for how well he has blended in on a playoff-caliber team that has featured a two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic), a dynamic point guard (Jamal Murray) and lots of depth.

“The game Gods reward playing the right way,” Gordon told Sportsnaut. “Keeping the energy and the ball, cutting hard so your teammate can get an open shot and making the extra pass — it’s all a part of playing good basketball. You get rewarded for that.”

Gordon might receive another reward soon.

Related: NBA trade rumors

After experiencing five missed playoff appearances and two first-round exits in Orlando (2014-2021), Gordon has a chance to win his first NBA championship with Denver in his 10th season overall. The Nuggets host either the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics beginning with Game 1 on Thursday.

Gordon has averaged 13 points on 49% shooting along with 5.5 rebounds during the playoffs, numbers that might pale to Jokic’s eight post-season triple doubles or Murray’s seven 30-point plus games. As Nuggets coach Michael Malone contended, though, “we would not be in this position if it wasn’t for Aaron Gordon’s play, his attitude and just how unselfish he is.”

That partly explains why the Nuggets acquired Gordon from Orlando in exchange for a dependable two-way player (Gary Harris), an intriguing rookie (R.J. Hampton) and a first-round pick (2025). After overcoming 3-1 series deficits both to the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers, the Nuggets advanced to the 2020 Western Conference Finals. After losing in five games to the Lakers, however, Denver believed it needed another dependable frontcourt player.

It did not take long for Denver to feel validated with acquiring Gordon the following season. In only his third game with the Nuggets, Gordon helped them to a win over a fully healthy Clippers team with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. That game only secured Denver’s third consecutive victory since the trade. But as Malone argued, “that’s when we felt we had a real chance to win a championship.”

The Nuggets’ vision became cloudy, however, once Murray tore the ACL in his left knee in the last month of the regular season. Denver then experienced a second-round sweep to the Phoenix Suns, which later lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the NBA Finals. With Murray and Michael Porter Jr (back) then sidelined in the 2022 NBA playoffs, Denver lost in five games in the first round to the future NBA champions (Golden State Warriors).

The Nuggets did not just attribute those early playoff exits to injuries. They believed they needed more depth to relieve pressure off of Jokic and to account for any additional setbacks Murray or Porter might face. That prompted the Nuggets to sign a backup center (Deandre Jordan) and two proven two-way perimeter players (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown) last offseason.

Meanwhile, Gordon took responsibility for his own shortcomings. In the Nuggets’ second-round loss to Phoenix (2021), Gordon averaged nine points on only 41% shooting while averaging nearly as many rebounds (3.8) as fouls (2.5) and turnovers (2.3). Gordon posted better numbers again Golden State the following year with 13.8 points on a 42.6% clip and 7.2 rebounds. Gordon believed he could have done more, though, to relieve pressure off of Jokic, who averaged 31 points on 57.5% shooting, 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists in the first round.

“It was a lot of diligence, and my approach to working during the summertime and up until this point, understanding the game and what I could have done better to help my team in that Warriors series last year,” Gordon said. “But that was something that we needed to go through, not
having Jamal, not having Mike, not having KCP and Bruce. That was something that we needed to go through to expose some of the weaknesses, so I could strengthen them and come back and have a chance at redemption and help my team win this year.”

Related: Denver Nuggets GM weighs in on Nikola Jokic’s season, impact

Following offseason workouts that involved one to four training sessions a day, Gordon has since become a changed man.

After working on his range, Gordon has listened to the Nuggets’ encouragement him to shoot more. After going a combined 0-for-6 from 3-point range in Denver’s first three games against the Lakers, Gordon shot 3-for-5 from deep in Game 4. In one third-quarter sequence, Jokic grabbed an offensive rebound and set up Porter for an open 3 before blocking a shot on the next play. And on the Lakers’ final play, Gordon swatted James’ attempt close to the basket. 

Overall, James (12-for-20) and Davis (6-for-9 scored efficiently with Gordon as the primary defender. But Gordon limited Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (10-for-27) and Phoenix’s Kevin Durant (26-for-68) to low shooting numbers when he defended them during the Nuggets’ post-season run.

“The little things he does for us are big things. Aaron is a guy that is always flying under the radar,” Malone said. “If you want to talk about one guy that really embodies a huge part of our culture about being selfless, Aaron Gordon is a tremendous poster child for that. He has checked his ego at the door.”

Nothing captures that more than with how Gordon viewed missing out on becoming an NBA All-Star reserve.

“People are starting to show me a little bit more love. I do it from within,” Gordon said. “I validate myself. It comes inward. I let the outside be what it is.”

At that point, Gordon had walked around the arena concourse receiving positive feedback about his value from coaches, teammates and opponents alike.  Soon, Gordon hopes to elicit a similar reaction on a bigger stage.

Follow NBA insider Mark Medina on Twitter and on Instagram.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: