Gordon and Isaac Both Deserve to be in DPOY Conversation

by Josh Cohen

TORONTO - Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Indiana’s Myles Turner, in no particular order, are expected to be the leading candidates for this season’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. They all deserve to be on the list, no question about it.

But there are two others who perhaps should be added to the conversation. They are Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac of the Magic.

Especially after Jan. 30 when Orlando won 22 of 31 to close out the season, Orlando’s starting forwards were absolutely sensational on the defensive end of the floor.

During this stretch, several of the league’s most prolific scorers struggled when Gordon, a 6-foot-9, 220-pounder, was the closest defender to their shot attempts.

Kawhi Leonard, when the Magic visited Toronto on April 1, shot 25 percent on eight attempts with Gordon contesting, per Second Spectrum tracking data. Fellow 2014 draft selection Julius Randle shot 33 percent on nine attempts, Kevin Love 11 percent also on nine tries and Anthony Davis made just one of his eight attempts when Orlando smoked New Orleans in early February.

It’s not a surprise that Gordon has transformed into one of the league’s top defenders considering his upside on that end of the court was one of the main reasons Orlando chose him fourth overall in the draft five years ago.

The Magic had a similar long-term outlook on Isaac when they took him two years ago in the draft with the No. 6 pick.

After Jan. 30, which was also when Isaac began to blossom offensively, several of the league’s premier scoring forwards were stifled with Isaac guarding them. Arguably the league’s most impressive defensive sequence came in February when the Magic were in Atlanta and Isaac blocked John Collins three times on the same possession.

Even though Leonard and Pascal Siakam, the two players Gordon and Isaac were matchup up against for most of Game 1, had solid performances, scoring 25 and 24 respectively, a closer look shows that the Magic’s tag team did an excellent job making things tough for both of them.

Leonard’s 3-point try in the closing seconds was well contested by Gordon, who also was disciplined enough to avoid committing fouls when the perennial All-Star and former Finals MVP dribbled around looking for his sweet spots. Leonard attempted only three free throws, four fewer than his per game season average.

Isaac, meanwhile, who had held Siakam to 2-of-11 shooting when he was his closest defender in the regular season, had one of Game 1’s best defensive plays. Early in the first quarter, Siakam tried eluding Isaac off the dribble, which for a brief moment it looked like he did before the Magic’s 21-year-old swarmed him on the drive and blocked his shot.

Teammates of Gordon and Isaac marvel at their versatility and defensive instincts, which helps both of them guard multiple positions and rack up deflections, a category head coach Steve Clifford values greatly.

“A.G., I don’t know what’s gotten into him but he’s just become a great defender this year,” guard D.J. Augustin said. “He’s always had the ability to do it and I just think that coach Cliff is just motivating him to just be a great defender and he’s done it all year for us.”

“And J.I., he has all the abilities to be a great (defender), kind of like a K.G. (Kevin Garnett) type defender in this league and he’s only 21,” he added. “He has a long road of getting better and the sky is the limit for the both of those guys.”

Of course, it takes more than two great defenders to form a great defensive team, which the Magic were over their last 31 games posting the league’s best defensive rating during that time. The Magic are loaded with excellent defenders, some very underrated like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Augustin, and others, including Wes Iwundu, Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch, who are always committed to playing hard-nosed, resolute defense.

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