Aaron Gordon always seem to be a step away from unlocking his full potential with the Orlando Magic, but is it time to admit that this may never happen?
There is no good time to talk about trading one of a team’s supposed cornerstones. The players who are supposed to usher in a new, and hopefully more successful, era than what has come before. But perhaps the most suitable time to bring up such a discussion is when an organization isn’t doing too badly. The Orlando Magic are certainly no different.
It clouds the judgment less than when they are under-performing and fans are eager to point the finger at anybody to simplify why this is. Which is why we’re talking about forward Aaron Gordon right now. The team itself, after a worrying start, has steadied the ship and are now 11-12.
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A pretty poor, but in the end spirited, performance, against the Milwaukee Bucks dropping them back below .500 again for the time being.
They are hovering in and around the playoff picture, with the hope being they will push on in 2020 to solidly their position in the postseason and not leave it as long as they did last season.
With everything looking more positive than earlier in the season and inching towards the feel-good factor the Magic exhibited for the last 30 or so game last season, there is no need to look at dramatic trades to reboot what they’re doing.
Only we’ve kind of seen this movie before, one in which Gordon looks great for a stretch of games, before fading again for a while.
With this somehow being his sixth season and with his potential as a two-way player looking close to being complete (he has not yet entered his prime, however, which makes this conversation even more difficult), is the right thing to do at this point to flip Gordon while his stock is at its highest, to see what they could get in return?
To start, we should look at reasons why the Magic might consider doing something so drastic. Defensively they have a system in place because of head coach Steve Clifford that has them competitive on that end on most nights. Although just inside the top 10 in this category right now (10th, 104.5), by the time the regular season ends they will be closer to top spot in this area.
Gordon is a big reason for this, he typically matches up with opponent’s best scorers on any given night. But the emergence of Jonathan Isaac, and all he can do and will be able to do defensively, has the potential to be special. Enough for him to take over key defensive assignments from Gordon.
We saw this in the team’s most recent loss to the Bucks. Isaac got in foul trouble early, and it took him out of the rhythm of the game. But both he and Gordon split the task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo, and both had moments of success. Isaac will do more of this as time goes by.
Even Nikola Vucevic is an average defender these days, while Khem Birch is a reliable rock on that end too. We don’t know yet what Mo Bamba will ultimately be, but if he sticks in the league long-term it is likely to be because of his defensive abilities as well.
Even Al-Farouq Aminu, Michael Carter-Williams and Markelle Fultz have reputations to varying degrees on that end. All of which is to say, swapping Gordon for a proven scorer would bring more balance to the rotation. He has turned into a decent scorer himself, but is only averaging 13.8 points so far this season.
That may be higher than his career average of 12.5, but it is down notably from the 16.0 he posted per game last season. This is, in a microcosm, the issue with Gordon. He looks like he has turned the corner and last season was definitely his most accomplished as a professional.
Then, just when it seems like everything is set up for him to again kick on and become the Magic’s best player, he stalls.
This is also true of his 3-point shot, which at 32.4 percent this season, is right in line with his career average of 32.1 percent. Last year Gordon shot a shade under 35 percent and again looked like he had figured out the most effective way to get shots up from deep comfortably. This season marks a regression (so far) in that area too, another concern.
Gordon is about bringing balance on both sides of the court however, not out and out scoring. To that end he succeeds, and is still capable of taking over offensively for small stretches of games. Therein lies the problem again though, as these runs never last particularly long, and don’t always come when you need them to.
Somebody like CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers was long rumored to be an ideal swap, assuming the salaries matched, and that deal did make sense for both parties. With the Trail Blazers ravaged by injuries however, not to mention the comeback story of the early season, this deal seems even less likely than it did in the past.
There’s no doubt though that this is the kind of move that will continue to creep up around the league as the season winds on. Perhaps Bradley Beal suddenly really wants out of Washington and the Wizards fancy Gordon’s skill set as the best fit beside their young guys. After all, they’ve been offensively potent this season whether Beal has been on the court or not.
So why the Magic’s front office wouldn’t do something so drastic? Splashy moves like this do not appear to be in their book on how to run a franchise. So far they have built quietly and smartly, drafting well with Isaac (the jury is still out on Bamba) and only putting a foot wrong possibly once.
They won’t just give up on Gordon for the sake of it. On the other hand, they didn’t draft him and have gone on to take players in Isaac and Bamba since taking over, players that take minutes from Gordon. Id in Isaac’s case, he will continue to do so. Isaac’s emergence really could be the deciding factor here.
Very few players in the league are untouchable and while free agents do not go to Orlando unless they are building a genuine contender, it can be a scary proposition to cut ties with a younger player who is yet to realize their full potential (see Oladipo, Victor). But Isaac has shown real and sustained improvement so far in his third season, in ways that Gordon never has.
Building around the two of them, and Fultz, would work only if one of the three turned into an elite scorer. Right now Fultz looks the best bet, but the Magic know better than to put that kind of pressure on a 21-year-old who is only going through his first full season without injury right now. Which creates the situation where a change may be needed to find the perfect roster balance.
Which leads us back to Aaron Gordon. A player who, with fantastic athleticism and a great defensive presence, may end up being the odd man out here. The Orlando Magic need sustained scoring for their future (sorry Evan Fournier) and he is the individual that right now makes the most sense to move. Would you do it? Should the front office even consider it?