Ramona ShelburneESPN Senior WriterRead in 5 minutes
MIAMI — Calvin Booth The Denver Nuggets front office foresaw nights like Friday’s trade for Aaron Gordon in March 2021. They’ve gone through all the models, gone through hundreds of hours of tape of the mighty forward, and found something in him that hinted at what he’d become. He will be a perfect fit alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, as ever.
But let’s be honest, the Nuggets general manager says they were just looking to replace the production they lost when forward Jerami Grant left free agency in 2020.
“How talented he is,” Booth told ESPN after Gordon scored a game-high 27 points to lead the series to 3-1 in the Nuggets’ 108-95 victory over the Miami Heat in Friday night’s NBA Finals. I didn’t know there was,” he said. “We didn’t realize how perfect a teammate he was and how willing he was to make sacrifices.”
In his first six-plus seasons with the Orlando Magic, Gordon had a different reputation than he had built for himself as the Nuggets’ ultimate star player.
He was the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft, but was expected to have scoring and star power that Gordon never matched. He tried to answer them anyway.
“Now that I know AG, I can understand it. He knows what the fourth pick should do,” Booth said. “But there was also no clear hierarchy. So he’s looking around like, ‘Is this me? Should it be me?'” You will be criticized for your performance. “
Everything changed when Gordon came to Denver.
The Nuggets pecking order has been in place for years. The team was built around Jokic and Murray. The next scorer was Michael Porter Jr. What the team really needed was defensive toughness and what Gordon could provide offensively.
The Nuggets may not have fully understood that when they traded him after he asked the Magic to trade him. But this was exactly how Gordon always thought of himself.
“I felt like I was going to be a defender for this team, a defender for this team,” Gordon said. “We knew they could score. MPJ is one of the best shooters on the planet. He’s a two-time MVP for the Joker, and he can do anything offensively. Jamal Murray can score 50 all the time.” He’s a good player.” I knew I was there to defend and make their job easier.
“I like playing defense, that’s what I’m good at, so I came into the league with defense in mind.
“On the offensive side, you get in where you fit in, find the cut, find the opening, find the transition bucket, try something easy, and then get in where it really suits you. I just kept going.”
Gordon has been a cornerstone of the Nuggets’ defense throughout the playoffs, regularly defending his opponent’s best offensive player regardless of their size or position. A study by ESPN Stats & Information found that in his 19 playoff games, against Gordon as the main defender, he made just 39.8 percent of field goals and 27.1 percent of his 3-pointers.
In the first round, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns shot 36 percent from the field and 11 percent from 3-point range, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the second round against Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, he shot 43% and forward Kevin Durant 39%. He matched up with LeBron James against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Friday’s win put Denver one win away from winning their first NBA title, but Gordon held the Heat’s shooting percentage to just 30% and shot 70% against Gordon.
“I mean, that’s why we got him in. He’s a dog. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s tough,” Murray said. “He brings everyone together off the court and is a selfless player. He’s been solid throughout his time here during the playoffs, all season.”
The Nuggets have grown accustomed to seeing Gordon take on the toughest defensive challenges, but what they expected when they traded him and that he will play alongside Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr. It’s still a pleasant surprise, especially considering that he’s stuck with the offensive fit.
“You know, he’s playing a different role,” Jokic said. “He’s sacrificed himself, which is why he’s a great teammate.”
Gordon is hugely popular in the Nuggets’ locker room, both for his personality and his play.
He has been known to wear his teammates’ promotional T-shirts to training and events. Not just Jokic’s MVP shirt, but former Nuggets guard Bones Hyland’s shirt.
“He could really win Teammate of the Year,” Nuggets assistant Charles Krask told ESPN.
So when he played, like on Friday, everyone lined up to celebrate him.
“He won the game today,” Jokic said. “He was our best player on the floor, guarding our best player every night. He knows what he’s doing for us and we really appreciate it.” “