Aaron Gordon has not had a consistent role in his first three years in the NBA. The Orlando Magic drafted Jonathan Isaac to reshape the forward position but what does that mean for Aaron Gordon? Can the two players coexist on the court?
Aaron Gordon and the word potential have been connected since his days as an Arizona Wildcat. His biggest selling point was his potential to dominate. Gordon was expected to be the freak athlete who would immediately impact the game with his energy and hustle plays. Gordon draws his closest comparison to Blake Griffin. Like Griffin, Aaron Gordon has the ability to create mismatches with his size and his incredible leaping ability. The two received a lot of national attention after stellar performances in the NBA Dunk Contest. And both continue to make highlight reel worthy dunks. But unlike Griffin, Gordon has yet to find his role for an NBA team.
Gordon’s path in the NBA
The Orlando Magic have a special player in Aaron Gordon. Back at power forward, he is a candidate to take a leap to the next level this year. At the end of Gordon’s sophomore season, the Magic traded starter Tobias Harris to the Detroit Pistons. And allowed Gordon to start at power forward. Once Gordon got the starting job it looked like he could indeed blossom into a star. His physicality placed close to the basket was what he needed to carve out a role on the team.
Gordon moved to small forward his third year as the team decided to acquire Serge Ibaka. Success was very minimum for Gordon offensively. Defensively, Gordon played quite well but the team needed more from him in order to win games. The Magic cut ties with power forward Serge Ibaka and Gordon moved back to the power forward position. Again, at end of the season, Gordon began to find his stride. And here we are — again. The Magic have drafted a power forward in Jonathan Isaac who they most likely will build the team around. This move could push Aaron Gordon to the bench or to another team if not handled properly.
Aaron Gordon’s situation with the Magic
Gordon is in the final year of his rookie contract this year. The Magic will have to make a decision on whether to tender a qualifying offer to him after the season or risk allowing him to leave via free-agency. This coming season will be huge for Gordon and the Magic either way.
This season will be the first time Aaron Gordon will play for the same coaching staff in consecutive seasons. If Gordon can progress in his development he can secure his role as the team power forward for the future. He will finally have a consistent game plan from the previous year and many experts expect his play to improve. Gordon has shown flashes of all-star capabilities, but has not strung together consistent performances that make him a team cornerstone.
Show time for Aaron Gordon
Gordon is at his best when he can be active around the rim. Last season, Gordon’s rebounding numbers dipped as he played more on the perimeter from 6.5 to 5.0 per game. His jumping ability, creates opportunities for easy rebounds and put backs. Something the team rarely saw last season with him outside the paint. He handled the ball more and attempted to create more offensively. That was not a strength of Aaron Gordon’s game. Gordon’s athleticism and explosiveness helps him get into position for rebounds and second chance opportunities. Last season, we saw him bully smaller players on post up plays for easy scoring. That is the type of play the Magic need to receive from him. In transition, his explosiveness makes him a great rim runner and a target for lobs usually from Payton. According to Josh Cohen of NBA.com, the duo led the NBA in effective field goal percentage last season. The Magic need to continue that trend into next season.
This doesn’t mean that Aaron Gordon can’t take a defender off the dribble or shoot from the outside, but that should’t be a focal point of his game. The team needs to exploit mismatches with Gordon and match him up accordingly. If Gordon gets matched up with a slower defender, he can take him off the dribble. If he is open for a corner three, he has to take the shot. However, Aaron Gordon needs to be closer to the paint to increase his effectiveness.
The vision for Aaron Gordon
Due to his versatility, the Magic attempted to place Gordon in certain situations hoping he would be effective. It’s understandable due to the league gradually transitioning towards power forwards playing on the perimeter. There use to be a favorable match up scenario for teams that had power forwards who could stretch the floor, like Lamar Odom, Rasheed Wallace, and Kevin Garnett. Opposing power forwards were not accustom to playing far away from the paint and as a result those players were able to take advantage. Moving Gordon to small forward negated Orlando’s advantage of having a power forward actually capable of playing the perimeter.
Frank Vogel has to figure it out
The task falls on Frank Vogel to figure out how to allow Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac to be on the court at the same time.
Last season Aaron Gordon was not as effective at small forward as the Magic hoped. The experiment to place Gordon at small forward was a forced move due to the team trading for Serge Ibaka. Vogel admitted early last season that if Ibaka was not on the roster, Gordon would be the Magic’s starting power forward. With Ibaka off the roster, Vogel should be able to use Gordon properly — or can he?
The potential logjam at the four
The Magic threw another obstacle in the development of Aaron Gordon by drafting Jonathan Isaac — a power forward. Isaac comes into the league at nearly 7 feet tall, but rail thin. Like Gordon, Isaac was used as a rebounder and defensive specialist in college. Unlike Gordon, Isaac seems to have a more well-rounded offensive game. Jonathan Isaac will most likely play behind Aaron Gordon at the beginning of the season. Depending on the speed of Isaac’s development, he should eventually push for a starting role and that’s where the issue could present itself.
Don’t expect Aaron Gordon to come off the bench in favor of Isaac unless Gordon takes a significant step back in his development. In that scenario, Jonathan Isaac would likely play small forward — another crowded position. The combination of Isaac and Gordon at the forward spot has great reward potential if used correctly, especially on the defensive side.
The rewards far outweighs the risks involved
Both Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon can guard positions one through four. That’s a win for any team when you have multiple players who can do that. In certain situations they could defend the center position similar to the Golden State Warriors “Death lineup” with Draymond Green at the center spot. The ability to switch any defensive rotation will change how offenses attack Orlando. A defensive rotation that causes a agile seven footer to switch onto a 6’6″ guard is not something opposing teams will likely want to attack. Isaac is athletic enough to stay in front of guards and with his long wing span, he can easily discourage and intercept passing lanes.
There are only a couple of comparable players in the league with Jonathan Isaac’s length that can give opposing guards trouble defensively. Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo come to mind first. Other players with Isaac’s size are not as nimble on their feet and are not experienced with defending on the perimeter.
As a team who has failed to live up to their talent levels, the coaching staff will have to figure out how to get Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon on the court together. It’s only a matter of time until they figure it out.
But we likely wont see it until Isaac is a bit more NBA ready.