Nuggets’ Aaron Gordon is building his All-Star case: ‘He never shies away from a challenge’

Nikola Jokić was the Denver Nuggets’ hero Sunday in a 119-116 win over the Orlando Magic after a game-winning stepback 3-pointer and yet another triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists). The Nuggets are 30-13 and leading the Western Conference, and the two-time reigning MVP is a virtual lock to start next month’s All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, Utah.

But Jokić’s teammate Aaron Gordon has been making an impact that could have him joining Jokić in Utah as Denver’s second All-Star.

Gordon, who started his career with the Magic after being drafted fourth overall in 2014 out of Arizona, had a game-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting against his old team. He was the recipient of four of Jokić’s assists, including Jokić’s 14th and last assist for a dunk with 56.8 seconds left that cut the Magic’s lead to one.

On a night when Gordon struggled to shoot free throws, he made his last two with 16.8 seconds left to erase the Magic’s final lead of the game. It was Gordon’s first game of at least 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists with the Nuggets.

Gordon’s offensive numbers aren’t quite as flashy as the dunks he is capable of (see: Landry Shamet on Christmas). Gordon’s 16.7 points per game is not a career high — he averaged 17.6 points per game with the Magic in 2017-18, which is also the last season Gordon averaged fewer assists than he does this season (2.4). Gordon is taking the fewest 3s per game (2.5) since his second season in 2015-16. And his shaky free-throw shooting is at a career-low 63.2 percent.

But on the flip side, Gordon is shooting 59.3 percent from the field on 10.7 attempts per game. Of the 126 players averaging at least 10.0 field goal attempts per game, only Jokić, Domantas Sabonis, Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis shoot a higher percentage. None of those other four players are making 1.0 3s per game like Gordon is, who is shooting a career-best 38.5 percent from 3 this season. And while Gordon’s free-throw percentage is bad, he’s getting to the line a career-high 4.8 times per game. Gordon also chips in with a career-best 2.4 offensive rebounds per game.

“In Orlando, he was a big part of their team, and he’s a huge part for us,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said of Gordon on Friday. “But what I’ve loved about watching Aaron is he hasn’t fought the fact that he’s playing next to Nikola Jokić. There hasn’t been dueling egos, ‘I’m great, too, I got to show you what I can do.’”

While Gordon has been an ideal partner in the frontcourt with Jokić since arriving from Orlando in a 2021 midseason trade that cost the Nuggets Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a 2025 first-round pick, it was perhaps in the previous game that Jokić missed on the road against the LA Clippers where Gordon affirmed his value. With Jokić resting a sore wrist, it was Gordon who led the Nuggets with five assists while finding 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting and helping lead a defensive effort that held the Clippers to only 69 points after the first quarter.

“We just stuck with it,” Gordon said of Friday night’s Nuggets defense. “We’ve just been consistent. I think we wore them down.”

Gordon is Denver’s choice to guard opponents’ top players. That was on display against the Clippers in a matchup with Kawhi Leonard. Leonard got 24 points, but it took him 20 shots to get there.

“He’s tough, man, he’s one of the greats,” Gordon said of Leonard. “So fundamental, so strong. He can do pretty much everything out there: left hand, right hand. I think he’s still trying to get back into a little bit of a rhythm. But he’s a problem out there.”

Gordon finished the win over the Clippers without Jokić with a plus-16, tying Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the game’s best. It reflects the impact Gordon has had overall on the floor with the Nuggets since Dec. 7, as his average plus-minus of 10.1 per game ranks third in the NBA in that span, just ahead of Jokić (9.9) and behind only teammate Caldwell -Pope (10.7) and Kevin Durant (10.8).

“With the return of Michael Porter Jr., who missed 73 games last year, the return of Jamal Murray, who missed all of last year, Aaron hasn’t fought that,” Malone said. “He’s embraced those guys back and understands that his role changed when those guys did come back. And that’s a rarity in today’s NBA, a guy who has had the career that Aaron has had.

“It’s never about him. He just wants to win. That’s the one thing that I can’t say I’m totally surprised about, but I’ve just kind of marveled at this season, is how effective he’s been, how selfless he’s been.”

The Nuggets last lost consecutive games in December when a 116-115 home loss against the Dallas Mavericks was their third straight defeat and dropped Denver’s record to 14-10. Before Dec. 7, the Nuggets had the NBA’s fifth-best offense (115.8 points per 100 possessions) but the fifth-worst defense (114.5 points per 100 possessions allowed).

“Early in the season, eight new players coming in, the defense wasn’t where it needed to be,” Malone said. “Not totally surprising when you account for all of the new faces. But slowly but surely, our guys understood that that was going to be the key.”

Since Dec. 7, the Nuggets have won a league-best 16 of 19 games and there are many reasons why:

Denver’s offense is the best in the NBA during that span (119.7 points per 100 possessions).

• The defense is improving, allowing only 111.9 points per 100 possessions, which is the seventh-best mark in the NBA.

• The Nuggets are allowing 46.8 percent from the field, ranking 10th in the NBA. They are one of the best 3-point defenses in the league, allowing only 11.3 makes, which ranks sixth during this time.

• Opposing offenses are struggling to hit jumpers against Denver’s defense, making only 37.4 percent of midrange shots (fifth lowest in NBA) and 30.3 percent of above-the-break 3s (lowest in NBA).

• Of the 170 players who have played in multiple games and have defended at least 10.0 field goals per game, only five players have forced a lower differential than Gordon’s minus-7.5.

“Since our win in Portland on December 8, I believe we’re maybe 14-3, we’re the No. 7 defense since that point in time,” Malone said before the wins against the Clippers and Magic. “Aaron obviously has been a big part of that. As has Jamal Murray, as has Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nikola — everybody that goes out there.”

Gordon credits the defensive improvement to his team getting more familiar with each other, a point that Malone made when referencing the roster turnover and return to health compared to the end of last season.

“We just started communicating with each other,” Gordon said. “I think that’s what it came down to. When you talk, it alleviates a lot of the confusion on the defensive end.”

This is tied for the fastest the Nuggets have ever gotten to 30 wins. In 1976-77, the first year after the NBA-ABA merger, the Nuggets were 30-13 en route to a 50-32 finish. But following a first-round bye, the Nuggets lost in the 1977 Western Conference semifinals to the eventual champion Portland Trail Blazers.

In 2019-20, the season before Gordon’s arrival the Nuggets also were 30-13. That season resulted in comebacks from 3-1 deficits in the quarterfinals against the Utah Jazz and in the semifinals against the Clippers. But a short-handed Nuggets team lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Since then, the Nuggets have acquired Gordon but played the last two postseasons without Murray while Porter missed the 2022 postseason.

Denver is trying to reach its first NBA Finals in franchise history. With Gordon on the floor with Jokić and a deep team, they are progressing defensively to reach the status of a legitimate contender.

“The offense has been great for us, it’s always been great,” Malone said. “I think right now, we’re tied for first in the NBA. But for us to be the team that wanted to win at a high level, we had to have a much greater buy-in and commitment. And Aaron definitely fits that bill. He guards the other team’s best player almost every night. And he never shies away from a challenge.”

Whether or not Gordon becomes a first-time All-Star and gives the Nuggets multiple players for the first time since Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups in 2010 remains to be seen. The West has a crowded list of contenders, and Gordon does n’t play for the Warriors, so his case won’t be elevated into a potential starter selection like that of Andrew Wiggins last season. But the Nuggets might be special, and they know that Gordon is a major reason why.

“We wouldn’t be where we’re at at the halfway point without Aaron Gordon’s play, his attitude, and his team-first mentality,” Malone said.

(Photo of Aaron Gordon: Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)

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