Gordon Was More Efficient All-Around Player in 2018-19

Clifford confident Gordon will improve even more next season and beyond because of how hard he works
by John Denton

ORLANDO – While the stellar contributions of Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin were undeniable this past season for the Orlando Magic, a case could be made that Aaron Gordon played one of the biggest roles in helping the team win more than it had in seven years.

In this instance, Gordon accomplished more by doing less.

After several talks last spring and summer with new head coach Steve Clifford, Gordon dialed back his offensive game a bit this season in an effort to become a more efficient and effective all-around player. Gordon’s willingness to sacrifice – he took 1.5 fewer shots a game and averaged 1.6 less points a game – was one of the reasons that the Magic had strong chemistry, won 42 games and reached the playoffs for the first time in his five years as a pro in Orlando.

Everything Gordon did during the 2018-19 season, he stressed, was in the name of winning. In the process, both he and the neophyte Magic learned some valuable lessons.

``I feel like we learned how to win, and that was one of the things that had been lacking here – a culture, a know-how and a standard,’’ Gordon said, pointing to the Magic getting better as the season progressed and finishing the regular season with a 22-9 closing kick. ``Coach (Clifford) did a great job of bringing that back and instilling it in us and teaching us what it means to win. And our guys did a great job of responding and coming out with tremendous fight.’’

Tremendous fight would be a good way of describing the work that Gordon did this season on the defensive end of the floor. At various times during the season, he guarded the likes of superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Blake Griffin, and he more than held his own. His defensive importance to the Magic was seen in a December game that ultimately proved to be one of the Magic’s most painful losses of the season. With him on the floor, Orlando built a 76-58 third-quarter lead on the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Nov. 26 and it mostly kept Durant in check. However, when Gordon had to leave because of a lower back injury, the Warriors rallied behind Durant – who scored 23 points in the game’s final 15 minutes – for a 116-110 victory over Orlando.

Clifford, the architect of an Orlando team that made a 17-win improvement and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, was complimentary all season on Gordon’s all-around game and his commitment to winning. He feels this was just the start of a stellar stretch of basketball for the 23-year-old Gordon for years to come.

``He had, to me – I don’t want to say a breakout season – because the way he works, the way he studies the game and he’s such a committed player, but I think he’ll take another big step this summer for next year,’’ Clifford said. ``Certainly, he showed a lot of aspects of what he can do and what he can become. And I still don’t think he gets enough credit for the defense that he played all year.’’

Gordon raised his game in the first playoff series of his career, averaging an efficient 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range. Orlando won Game 1 in clutch fashion, but it proceeded to drop the next four against the veteran-laden Toronto Raptors. Gordon’s ability to defend superstar forward Kawhi Leonard was limited by a right shoulder injury – one that bothered him so badly in Game 5 that he was nearly unable to play. However, in typical Gordon fashion, he pushed through the pain and suited up while trying to help the Magic extend the series.

``I couldn’t raise my shooting arm above my head without severe pain,’’ Gordon recalled. ``It was tough not being able to control the ball on some of my shots. I took a little bit of medicine and by the time the game came around I had a little bit of adrenaline in me and we were fighting to bring the series back home, so it meant a lot. It was hard to get out there. (Clifford) asked me how my shoulder was doing, and I said, `Well, I’ve got one good shoulder and two good legs, so I’m ready to go.’’

Gordon was ready to do whatever Clifford asked of him after the two had several skull sessions after the veteran head coach was hired by Orlando last May. Clifford asked that Gordon become a player who made others around him better by passing the ball more and forcing contested shots less often.

As a result, Gordon’s scoring in 2018-19 (16 points per game) was down a bit from 2017-18 (17.6 points per game). Also, he took 1.5 fewer shots a game and attempted 1.5 3-pointers fewer this past season. However, he did average a career-best 3.7 assists – a number he feels will continue to climb as he continues to mature as a player.

``That’s what it’s all about – everybody helping one another out to make the game easier for each other,’’ said Gordon, who shot 44.9 percent overall and 34.9 percent from 3-point range over 78 regular-season games. ``I fully expect to see my assists to go up.

``I thought I played the game better, overall, understanding what we needed, what was important in order to win,’’ he added. ``I feel like I learned how to win in the NBA – and that’s the biggest part (to come out of this season). More than improving any one skill, I thought I improved my overall game skill.’’

Clifford is the fifth coach that Gordon has played for in five NBA seasons, but the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is thrilled to know that this time around, his head coach is here to stay likely for years to come. The same goes for President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond – the front-office team that believed enough in Gordon to reward him with a long-term contract last summer. He hopes the same is the case this summer with Vucevic and Ross, the team’s top two unrestricted free agents.

``I believe this will be the most efficient and focused summer that I’ve had to date in the NBA,’’ Gordon predicted. ``Not having to worry about who’s coming in with the coaching staff or who’s going to be our next General Manager or what offense we’re going to be running. Knowing where I’m going to be, what city I’m going to be in will be there for the most part and my focus level will be there and I’m sure it will pay off for me.’’

Gordon said now that the Magic know better how to win, the commitment level it takes to get there and the sacrifices that must be made, the Magic should have expectations of doing some serious damage in the Eastern Conference next season. Next season, Gordon said, the Magic need to play with the same laser-sharp focus that they had down the stretch and set a goal of nabbing a top-four seed so that they can have homecourt advantage in the playoffs. Winning the franchise’s first playoff series since 2010 must be at the top of the priority list, Gordon stressed.

``I think we exceeded expectations (this past season), and that’s good, but it’s all about winning playoff series,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s not the end – we’ll take a month off and then it’s right back to work.

``It’s about raising the expectations,’’ Gordon said later. ``This (playoff run) was just one step and we still have a ways to go. But things in this league can change quickly and can change for the better. Orlando is a great place to play, especially when we’re winning. There’s an expectation now that we’re expected to be there (in the playoffs) again next season.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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