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Magic’s weirdness is hurting Aaron Gordon and themselves

AP Photo/John Raoux
AP Photo/John Raoux

Aaron Gordon, the man who can throw down dunks while sitting almost eight feet in the air and still lose the 2016 NBA Dunk Contest, was set for the best year of his career this season.

He’s one of the most explosive athletes in the league and has such potential as a hyper-athletic, defensive power forward. As he continues to develop his ball handling, ability as a playmaker and jump shot, he could become a real nightmare to handle as he causes constant mismatches. He’s too big and strong for wing players to handle inside or on the boards, and he’s too fast and bouncy for slower fours to keep up with.

All the tools are there, and entering the season with another summer of offseason work under his belt; you’d think he’d take off, both literally and technically.

That’s almost what we saw early on this season as Gordon shifted to his unnatural position of small forward for the first time, thanks to the Orlando Magic’s puzzling, silly offseason idea to trade for Serge Ibaka and sign Bismack Biyombo as a $70 million backup center for the next four years.

Their summer led to Gordon being yanked around to start the new season. He was shifted to small forward and started the first eight games there, and to remind Magic fans of another stupid signing, Jeff Green ($15 million for one year) replaced Gordon in the starting lineup for the following eight games. After Green missed the Magic’s last game against the Milwaukee Bucks with a lower back injury, Gordon re-entered the starting lineup out of position.

He just hasn’t been used to his strengths whatsoever this year. The Magic’s defense has started shaping up towards what we knew it could be when using the athletic, switching, rim-protecting combo of Ibaka and Biyombo, accompanied by even more size in the 6’9″ Gordon at small forward. With those three, they can anchor a defense that could trouble almost anyone–at least in theory–giving the Magic some kind of identity when you look past the glut of bigs.

But even with that defensive edge, which has allowed the Magic to hold each of their last six opponents to no more than 94 points, Gordon hasn’t found his place.

After a solid start in which we saw Gordon average 11 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game in his time as a starter, including some aggressiveness from three (one make a night at a 30.8 percent rate), he’s fallen off. Of course, we have a small sample size to be aware of at this stage of the season, but obviously, his minutes have notably decreased since moving to the bench, and he’s simply looked uncomfortable on offense a lot of the time.

While everything is going to look worse when you’re not making shots, Gordon seeming uncomfortable and awkward on offense is likely something that won’t just be a product of coming off the bench.

In the Magic’s offense, one that seriously struggles to score (30th in efficiency) and succeed from three (26th in makes at 7.9 per game), Gordon being on a roster that needs him to provide more of both isn’t exactly the best idea when they’re his weaknesses.

He’s better when exploiting slower power forwards with his quickness to cut, fly to the rim, attack closeouts, and hit the odd jumper when space is there. He can’t do that to nearly the best of his ability when faster small forwards are guarding him, and the Vucevic-Biyombo pairing is clogging the lane that he would otherwise attack.

Right now, the Magic’s adjustments have encouraged Gordon to attempt 30.9 percent of his field goal attempts from beyond the arc, which just isn’t what you want for someone of his skill set with a 27.5 percent three-point shot.

Gordon has had some difficulties of his own lately, whether he’s simply struggled to find his shot, finish strong at the basket or generally find his role in the offense. He went 0-of-12 from the floor and had zero points in the Magic’s last game, a 104-96 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, and has averaged just 5.6 points on 25.6 percent shooting over the last five contests. A lot of it has to do with how the Magic are using him, though, and you don’t have to watch long to see how out of place he looks at times.

No, Gordon obviously doesn’t need to be heavily involved in every possession, and he isn’t going to run the offense. But relegating him to waiting in the corner, apparently observing as a “spot-up option”, does nothing. As someone who doesn’t present a major catch-and-shoot threat, he’s essentially useless to the offense on such possessions. If he can’t cut (he makes a hopeful move inside when Biyombo is struggling with the ball under the basket and quickly backs out again), he can’t do anything here.

 

There were many instances in this game (and there will continue to be more with Gordon at the three) when he’s left waiting around the perimeter.

And then there’s the glaring issue of the Magic’s spacing, the most troublesome factor in this Gordon situation. As you can see above, the Bucks had an easy time crowding the paint in this possession to smother Biyombo inside and let C.J. Watson drive into a crowd and hoist up a high floater.

In Elfrid Payton at the point and small forward Gordon, Orlando has two players who are pretty much nonfactors from three, accompanied by two complete nonfactors in Biyombo and Vucevic in the frontcourt. Such a mix of limited shooters is just begging for trouble in today’s NBA.

In this game against the Bucks, Gordon played just 30 seconds at his natural position of power forward. Meanwhile, Biyombo and Vucevic played together for 15 whole minutes. Gordon’s usual mismatch-creating, interior self won’t be effective if quicker small forwards are guarding him instead of bigs.

Frank Vogel was never going to have an easy time managing his glut of big men and finding minutes for everyone, but placing Gordon at small forward for 95 percent of his minutes this season and overusing combos such as Biyombo and Vucevic is by no means the best approach to have.

In 86 minutes together for the season, the Biz-Vuc frontcourt has record a -4.9 net rating. That may not sound so bad in comparison to the lacking success of most frontcourt combos the Magic have used; it isn’t hard to watch the two together and see the issues.

Two quick points are the obvious lack of Gordon at power forward and the fact that Biz-Vuc lineups average 8.7 fewer three-point attempts per 100 possessions than their opponents. It’s by far the largest negative disparity of any Magic lineup featuring Biyombo and emphasizes a lack of spacing and too much size that doesn’t bode well whatsoever in today’s NBA.

Unfortunately for the Magic and all the NBA fans in general (which should be all of them) who want to see Gordon thrive and be entertained by everything he could have to offer if given a chance to grow, they won’t see it happen in Orlando. At least, that’s what it looks like for now while expensive big men drain the Magic’s bank account, fit, playing style, and the overall development of their youth.

If he could play his favored position of power forward, there’s more to see from Gordon. We just can’t see it when he’s stuck out of place like a corner piece jammed in the middle of the Magic’s weird puzzle.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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