Nuggets swing for present value and upside with Aaron Gordon

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Whether the Nuggets can win a title remains to be seen, but with Denver’s core ready to win, cashing for Aaron Gordon should be worth the value he brings.

In the seven years since they drafted Nikola Jokić 41st overall, the Nuggets have proven one of the NBA’s best franchises at identifying and developing under-the-radar talent, and after years of stockpiling young prospects, Denver finally consolidated some of its homegrown assets in order to acquire a more established piece.

The Nuggets sent Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, and a protected 2025 first-round pick to Orlando Thursday afternoon in exchange for Aaron Gordon and Gary Clark — a potentially pivotal move for a team on the fringes of the championship picture. Gordon likely doesn’t vault Denver into the upper tier of title contenders, but he fills an important hole on each end of the floor, offers a skill set that should pair well with MVP candidate Nikola Jokić, and, at age 25, can be another piece of the team’s long-term core.

The bulk of Gordon’s appeal comes on defense, where he has the size, strength, and agility to defend the players who pose the greatest threat to Denver’s championship viability. When Jerami Grant became a Piston over the offseason, the Nuggets had no one to match up against the West’s elite wings (and, should they see Milwaukee or Brooklyn in the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo). While no single player can truly contain LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or Luka Dončić, the difference between making superstars work for their shots and getting steamrolled by them can swing playoff series.

Gordon comes as close to a stopper as Denver could have hoped to find on the trade market. He won’t be overpowered by Leonard’s bruising post-ups or LeBron’s driving shoulder blasts, nor is he as easily beaten off the dribble as the likes of Paul Millsap and Michael Porter Jr. At 6-foot-10, he has the size to close space and challenge step-back triples or post fadeaways.

That kind of upgrade at the point of attack should make life easier on Denver’s centers — namely Jokić — who aren’t particularly imposing presences at the rim. Stemming the flow of opponent drives reduces the overall strain on the rest of the defense, which is perennially among Denver’s greatest postseason concerns. Allowing easy paint access to a superstar scorer is bad news for any team, but it’s particularly problematic when the last line of defense is a ground-bound center with little ability to protect the rim. Given the way both players have shot the ball this season, the pairing of Gordon and Paul Millsap alongside Jokić should be viable, and thus allow the Nuggets to partially mask Jokić’s deficiencies as a rim protector.

While Gordon isn’t a preternatural paint defender, he should be a serviceable frontcourt partner with Jokić when Millsap isn’t on the floor. Opponents have shot just 55 percent against Gordon within six feet of the rim this season — the best mark on the now-disassembled Magic — and he’s currently posting the second-best block rate of his career. He’s the kind of twitchy vertical athlete that can erase mistakes and cover for a plodding frontcourt partner (he has experience playing with a slow Balkan center named Nikola), even if his help instincts aren’t nearly as finely tuned as Millsap’s. Still, shoring up this defense is contingent upon Gordon improving, at least a little bit, as a rim protector. Losing Harris also leaves the Nuggets thin on guard-sized on-ball defenders should they run into Utah, Phoenix, or Portland, but the L.A. teams pose a greater collective threat and their stars a more urgent need for specific defensive personnel.

Aaron Gordon will give the Nuggets value at both ends of the floor

Offensively, a new environment should suit Gordon well. The versatile forward seemed to crave a larger on-ball responsibility in Orlando, but with Jokić and Jamal Murray cemented as the Nuggets’ primary and secondary creators, respectively, he’ll play a more limited but more appropriate role. Ideally, he’ll give Denver another effective screener who can also make plays as a roll man and space the floor in pick-and-pop actions.

One of the league’s better passing forwards, Gordon’s playmaking should sing in a pass-heavy motion offense, only now he’ll have the luxury of exploiting advantages rather than creating them. Attacking closeouts, giving Jokić a release valve against double-teams, and finding shooters out of the short roll should all come easily for Gordon and unlock what little offensive upside the Nuggets haven’t reached. He gives Jokić another athletic target on cuts and, if current trends hold, a reliable spot-up shooter. He and Jokić can operate on either end of a pick-and-roll together, and while Gordon’s addition creates a potential logjam at forward with Gordon, Millsap, and Porter Jr. still on the roster, he and Porter are versatile enough for the trio to play together in supersized lineups.

Whether the Nuggets can seriously contend with the likes of the Lakers, Clippers, and Jazz remains to be seen, but with Jokić near the front of the MVP race and the team around him ready to win, cashing in two assets and a negative-value contract should be well worth the upside and present value Gordon brings.

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