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Aaron Gordon, Nuggets believe they can be an upgrade for each other

Denver's big trade deadline pickup could fill a gaping hole the Nuggets have struggled with all season.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Aaron Gordon finished with 13 points in his debut with the Nuggets.

He wasn’t the most accomplished player traded at the deadline last week, only the most important — given the stakes, given where he landed, given what’s projected for him and his new team.

That said, the perception created from this particular trade can also be tricky and misleading, which leads to this interesting question:

Does adding Aaron Gordon mean the Denver Nuggets are bringing a postseason difference-maker … or are they simply back to what they were last season?

Gordon is athletic, can play either forward position, runs the floor easily, brings length and size as defensive weapons and doesn’t need to dominate the ball to make an impact. He looks to be a solid fit with Nikola Jokic (which isn’t hard to do) and Jamal Murray. That’s plenty.

That also describes Jerami Grant, who bailed on the Nuggets in free agency last fall and took the money and a bigger role in Detroit, where he’s a candidate for Kia Most Improved Player even though his impressive stats (22.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.8 apg) are with a losing team.

After losing their best wing defender and a reliable shooter, the Nuggets struggled somewhat this season. At one point they were 12-11 and collecting votes as the most disappointing team in the league. They reached the Western Conference finals last season with Grant, and the simple math says they need to play for an NBA title this season for Gordon to qualify as an upgrade, correct?

In a conference laced with the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers — not to mention the rising Phoenix Suns — a case can be made the Nuggets might need more than Gordon to make it through the playoff minefield. Yes, it’s true that matchups are crucial, and with 1 1/2 months of the regular season remaining, injuries can shake up the scenario. The old rule of thumb doesn’t change: Anything’s possible for anyone. Still, that’s what lies ahead for Denver.

For now, the anticipation for the Gordon-fortified Nuggets is almost as steep as the jagged cliffs surrounding Denver. The team received a midseason confidence boost with this trade. He is everything they lacked this season, everything they missed about Grant. And the reviews after one game with Gordon in uniform were universally glowing. His coach and teammates are raving about the obvious physical skills, but also the mindset and adaptability of Gordon, which isn’t uncommon for players who leave a hopeless situation — in his case, the Orlando Magic — and become recharged by a better one.

“He knows why he came here,” Jokic said. “He knows what he can do.”

It’s possible Jokic will throw enough lobs and backdoor passes to Gordon to average a triple-double this season. Right now, Jokic is averaging 8.5 apg, though this could increase because Gordon is that good of a finisher. As a dunk contest bridesmaid — curiously, Gordon chose to wear No. 50 in Denver to mock his perfect scores in those contests — Gordon will be fun to watch in a system triggered by the one-armed passes and supreme court vision of Jokic. Gordon never saw anyone like this in his entire time in Orlando.

When a finisher knows his hard work will be paid off by a pass, that player gets greedy and works even harder to spring free of defenders. Gordon is already bitten by that bug, thanks to Jokic.

“It just makes the game so easy,” he said. “A ton of fun. Style of play is amazing.”

Aaron Gordon joins his new team, the Denver Nuggets, and finishes with 13 points and two rebounds.

Gordon is a career 32.3% 3-point shooter, an area Grant was better at (34.7% career). But with Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. around, there’s no pressure to force those shots. Plus, Gordon can feast on breakaway dunks because of his speed and Jokic’s full-court outlet passes. With Jokic often playing the high post, Gordon can attack the rim for layups with the lanes cleared, or settle for mid-range jumpers.

Another effect of adding Gordon is defensively, who, at 6-foot-8, is flexible enough to guard either forward spot. This will be crucial should the Nuggets meet LeBron James and Anthony Davis, both of whom ripped through the Nuggets in the West finals last summer. That’s not to suggest Gordon, who never made an All-Defensive team, will be a Lakers stopper. But another layer of protection will be helpful.

Any overall improvement for the Nuggets either in the standings or the all-important postseason journey depends on improvement by Gordon. His six-plus years in Orlando were recognized largely by cosmetics. He had plenty of highlight plays … yet never became an All-Star, averaged more than 16 ppg in a season only once (17.6 ppg in 2017-18) and is a career 69.5% free throw shooter (which is troubling for a player who has the size to draw contact). He scored 20 or more points just four times in 25 games this season with the Magic despite being a primary option. Essentially, in Orlando, Gordon constantly teased folks with his potential, but never really cashed in big.

Yet a refreshing change in scenery could trigger the talent within. That’s what the Nuggets are hoping for, and what Gordon himself believes will happen, now that he’s with a legit contender and surrounded by better teammates. He has a sense of purpose and a renewed spirit. An argument can be made that he should’ve kept that approach in Orlando even during tough times. But, understandably sensing a dead end with a Magic team that’s next to last in the East, he asked for a trade, and here’s where he is.

“I see no limits for this team. We have all the pieces we need. As long as we’re all working together, there’s no stopping us,” Gordon said.

Those words rarely, if ever, were spoken during his time with the Magic, who reached the playoffs only twice and never went beyond the first round with Gordon.

A sudden shift in team fortune can flick a switch with players, particularly those who believe they’re a significant step closer to a championship. Just observe the change in personality with James Harden with the Brooklyn Nets, and Blake Griffin as well. Rajon Rondo will feel this with the Clippers after leaving the Atlanta Hawks. The drive to practice seems quicker, the locker room jokes are funnier, the instructions from the coaches sound wiser, the postgame spread tastes better. Again, it’s all about perception. In this case with Gordon and the Nuggets, it serves to help the new player and the new team.

Best of all for the Nuggets is the trade didn’t cost much. They didn’t part with any crucial rotation players as Gary Harris was in decline, RJ Hampton was too young to contribute and the first-round pick Denver surrendered will likely fall in the mid-or late-20s. Meanwhile, Gordon is just 25 and signed through next season. The Nuggets should have enough to extend both him and Porter Jr. in the 2021-22 offseason.

Denver had to make a move at the trade deadline if only to keep its place in line in the stacked West. With Jokic having a Kia MVP-quality season and Murray lately showing some of the performances that made him a breakout star in the bubble, the Nuggets craved another piece.

Aaron Gordon is that piece. Soon, we’ll know if he’s another Grant … or something better.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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