LOS ANGELES — There are nights where Aaron Gordon looks like a future All-Star at the small forward spot. Against Memphis a week ago, he dropped 30 points on 15 shots against one of the best defenses in the NBA. A few nights later coach Frank Vogel assigned Gordon to slow James Harden, and he helped hold an MVP candidate to 14 points. All season, Gordon has been impressive on defense.
However, there are far more nights such as Sunday against the Lakers, when he had the kind of game Magic fans have become entirely too familiar with this season. Gordon spent much of the game as a weak side decoy hanging out in the corner (occasionally rotating up above the break), but as a 32.6 percent three-point shooter this season the Lakers didn’t respect him in that role. Gordon is improving from deep, but he’s not a guy you fear to leave at the arc, and the Lakers did a good job of keeping an eye on him when he cut or in transition. The result was a 0-of-5 shooting night where Gordon was a non-factor in the game.
“Some games you have the opportunity to shoot 30 times, some games you have the opportunity to shoot 10. It’s the way basketball works, it finds you when it’s supposed to find you,” Gordon said postgame. “I need to do a better job seeking it out, cutting off the ball. But like I said, credit the Lakers, they had their head on a swivel and didn’t get caught too many times. It’s when you look to be more aggressive at times.”
It’s the biggest debate in Orlando this season: Is Gordon a three or a four? He had much more success last season at the power forward slot, but when Frank Vogel came to town and saw the roster he was handed — which L.A.-based ESPN personality Andy Kamenetzky accurately described as “the island of misfit toys” — he decided to move Gordon to the three, allowing him to have Serge Ibaka at the four with Nikola Vucevic/Bismack Biyombo at the five.
Gordon’s efficiency has plummeted. His greatest asset was his superior athleticism at the four — his performance at the Dunk Contest in Toronto showed that off — but the move to the three neutralizes some of that. Last season he shot 47.3 percent overall with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.1, this season those numbers have fallen to 43.2 and 50.7 percent. His PER dropped from 17 last season to a below average 13.2. Gordon has the athleticism to play the three, but not the shot.
“He has the ability to impact the game in an opportunistic way — running the floor, getting cuts, crashing the glass,” Vogel said. “The knock on him has always been his perimeter shooting, and he’s grown more and more confident every game as the season goes along, he’s been a knock-down three-point shooter. (Note, Gordon shot 36.5 percent from three in December, but that’s down to 27.6 percent in his last five games.)
“He’s doing some good things off the bounce, that’s probably the last area he needs to develop, and we’re trying to pull him along at the right pace. So we’re asking him not try and do too much there. But he as the ability to be one of those guys who just hurts you a variety of different ways.”
Does he? Gordon is certainly putting in the work — nobody is or should question his effort. After a Laker game where he admitted he came out flat and was not impactful, he was asked how he gets past it.
“It’s a little bit easier at home, you just go to the gym and shoot. On the road, I’ve got to find a gym,” which he proceeded to do.
What Gordon has the ability to do is defend on the perimeter — he’s arguably Orlando’s best perimeter defender now. NBA’s Sports VU tracking cameras show opponents shooting just 40.7 against Gordon this season. Against the Lakers he started on Nick Young and held the streaky shooter in check. After D’Angelo Russell got the Lakers off to a good offensive start with six points and a couple assists, Vogel moved Gordon on to the point guard for a stretch. Vogel tried that a couple of times during the game, but Russell was a little too quick and made good decisions with the space he got from Gordon.
“That’s the value in moving him to small forward — he’s bigger, stronger, and longer than most of the guys he’s guarding,” Vogel said. “He’s got good size to him, where if he’s guarding power forwards and doing a good job maybe he’s undersized against most of those guys. There is value with what we’re doing with him playing small forward….
“He’s got all the athleticism in the world to do it, and it’s not been about blitzing pick-and-rolls and banging in the post, but about chasing guys off screens and guarding the ball.”
That defense is why Vogel and the Magic push back against the idea of Gordon at the four — they need him at the three. They need his defense. So Vogel is just trying to be a teacher.
“Every game is an opportunity to correct, and to positive reinforce what he’s doing well…” Vogel said. “I don’t pretend to come in and give him some mind games or anything like that, in terms of the mental approach, you just try to teach, and through the teaching there are small confidences they gain, and you try to build on that. And show them they have the ability to be great in that way.”
Can Gordon be great at the three spot? No doubt he will put in the work. Maybe Gordon can develop into a three, but he would need the right guy at the four next to him — and that is not Serge Ibaka.
In the best of all possible worlds, Gordon provides Vogel versatility — play him at the three or the four depending on the matchups. But the Magic are not in that ideal world, with too many bodies at the four and five right now, Vogel is getting his best athlete run where he can.
Meaning the Gordon at small forward experiment will remain with us for a while.