When the Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon from the Magic in March 2021, coach Michael Malone didn’t have a special role in mind for Gordon, the No. 4 pick from the ’14 draft. Gordon was n’t asked to become the team’s second-leading scorer or told to focus on only his perimeter defense. Instead, the message was simple.
“They just told me to be me,” Gordon says.
Now, nearly two years since the trade, with a roster that’s finally fully intact, Denver is thriving. The Nuggets are first in the West, having gone 18–3 since Dec. 8. After a win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday, the Nuggets have won eight in a row. And Gordon has been integral to their success, averaging 16.5 points and 6.8 rebounds a night while shooting a stellar 58.8% from the floor.
“This is definitely one of the best seasons I’ve seen from AG by far,” sparkplug guard Bones Hyland said recently. “He does the junkyard work for us, and I feel like he doesn’t get a lot of praise. So definitely AG an All-Star for sure.”
Gordon has built an All-Star case this season, as he’s been a two-way demon for a red-hot Denver team. He’s third on the team in scoring despite taking the fifth-most shots. And he’s their most rugged perimeter defender, taking on the opponent’s best scorer on a near-nightly basis.
Offensively, Gordon’s chemistry with Nikola Jokić allows him to find easy bucket after easy bucket. If Jokić has the ball on the elbow and help defenders start creeping toward him, Gordon will dash along the baseline and cut to the hoop for an easy two before the help realizes they’ve lost him. He’s also become a deadly screener, especially when he sets picks for Jokić. Gordon is adept at taking advantage of the bigger bodies that guard Jokić and aren’t as used to navigating screens as guards. He often finds quick twos slipping screens against centers that start to look panicky when he approaches. And good luck putting a smaller body on Gordon, as he’ll immediately bully them into the paint and get in position for an entry pass.
On the other end of the floor, Gordon is typically tasked with slowing down high-powered wings, whether it be Kawhi Leonard one night or LeBron James on another. Not exactly called upon as a perimeter stopper during his Magic days, it’s a role Gordon has embraced with the Nuggets, describing himself as a “piece of the puzzle” to the team’s success. And it’s that willingness to do whatever the team needs, from cutting to setting screens to hounding scorers, that has put Gordon in the All-Star conversation.
“They know I’m a Swiss Army knife; I could do a lot of different things on the court,” Gordon says of his role. “They needed somebody that could be the glue. I can play one through five, and if you need that that night, I could do it.”
The Magic were never quite able to harness Gordon’s talent the way the Nuggets have. Gordon admits his experience of him in Orlando was frustrating, where the team was in constant upheaval both on and off the court. The Magic never found the right mix of players around Gordon to help him play his best basketball. (They curiously added a lot of forwards to the roster despite having Gordon already on the team.) This year for the Nuggets, Gordon is averaging the second-most points per game of his career despite not being the first, second or maybe even third option on offense.
“There is a culture here,” Gordon says. “In Orlando we were searching for a culture, searching for an identity, and it was tough. We had five different coaches in five years. Two different sets of GMs. Coming into the league, it was hard to figure that out.
“When we was here, we knew what was up. It’s a winning organization. You got an MVP and multiple All-Star–caliber players. Coming here, it was easy to be myself, and go out there and get in where I fit in.”
“What I’m probably most proud of him for is he hasn’t fought it,” Malone said about Gordon in December. “Last season we didn’t have Michael [Porter Jr.] and Jamal [Murray], and we have some talented offensive players back, and Aaron hasn’t fought the touches, the play calls. If I’m not calling his number he’s not pouting; he’s not moaning, ‘I’m not getting enough play calls.’ He’s finding ways to impact the game, rebounding, running, getting big at the rim, posting up; that’s why all those numbers are so high.”
Gordon relishes playing for a team like the Nuggets. He emphasizes that everyone plays the right way, making the right pass for the next guy and feeding off Jokić’s unselfishness. (Gordon says his own motivation of him is to win a championship for Jokić. “He deserves it.”)
And as far as his individual improvement, Gordon says his game is much more lean than it was in Orlando. He’s better now about picking his spots and knowing when to go to certain moves.
“I still kind of have the same moves,” he says. “I had a lot in my bag but didn’t know when to use it.”
Gordon’s individual success is now also impacting winning like never before. During Denver’s 18–3 stretch, the team has had by far the best offense in the NBA and, perhaps more important, the eighth-best defense, better than the likes of Cleveland, Milwaukee and Golden State since Dec. 8. And while he repeatedly brings up the goal of winning a championship, when pressed directly on the topic, Gordon admits it would mean a lot to him to make the All-Star team after the adjustments he’s made in his career.
He would even be willing to do the one thing people keep bothering him about if it would secure his place.
“If I’m in the All-Star Game, I’ll do the dunk contest,” says Gordon, who competed in the 2016 and ’20 competitions but controversially lost both.
Gordon’s All-Star case shouldn’t have to come down to that, though. If he keeps playing the way he’s been all season—if Gordon keeps being himself—then keeping him out of the All-Star Game will be a harder sell than putting him in.