The biggest problem with Aaron Gordon is that he seems to think he’s really good. Well, why would he think that? He was only one of the most competitively recruited high schoolers in the country, ranked fourth in his freshman class, a surefire one-and-done prospect who started every game for a 33-and-5 Arizona team and was selected in the early lottery by Orlando. Draftniks were comparing him to Blake Griffin. This was months after Blaken had finished third in the MVP voting. Gordon’s estimation of himself and the general public’s read on him did at one time align. It’s the intervening years that have changed our minds, which doesn’t make us wrong, but he’s a professional athlete, paid to be stubborn in certain respects. You don’t spend all those hours in the gym thinking it’s going to make you a solid role player. Not when you’ve been on the cusp of stardom since age 16.
Orlando hasn’t helped him understand what he is. Gordon has only known the talent vacuum in central Florida, tried his best to fill it with a frame that looks smaller than it is, given all the negative space. He took too many shots, drove the lane without a plan. What, he was going to defer to Mario Hezonja? There were times in Los Angeles when Chris Paul would tweak a hamstring and Blake would have to take over for a while, conducting the offense out of the high post, and it was mind-expanding, seeing what Blake could do as a playmaker when the Clippers didn’t have their all-world point guard on the floor. They were obviously better with Chris and Blake together, but these spells of Solo Blake gave us a fresh appreciation for the breadth of his game. He could run a playoff team by himself, if he needed to. Gordon has never had a Chris Paul alongside him, hasn’t even had a Malcolm Brogdon or a Spencer Dinwiddie, and has spent his career proving that he could desperately use one. He’s not an offensive fulcrum. Nor is he a premier bucket-getter, a lockdown defender, or a three-point marksman. Gordon is the definition of a nice player. He’s a good passer for his size, mobile, can create his own shot in a pinch. He guards multiple positions well. And when he’s asked to carry a team, he looks terrible.
For the first time, he’s stepping into a role he might be able to handle. The Nuggets, already firmly set at the five and the one, and with Michael Porter Jr. an emerging offensive star, needed a Jerami Grant replacement: an athletic forward who could play some defense and knock down a few open shots. So they reached for Gordon at the trade deadline.
It looks like a good deal on paper, and Gordon can do a lot of the same things Grant did, but there’s also a pat narrative in place that isn’t entirely true. It goes like this: Grant left Denver for Detroit this past offseason because he wanted to play somewhere that would offer him greater offensive responsibility. Now he’s putting up numbers on what might be the worst team in the league. Gordon asked to be traded out of Orlando because years of losing were wearing him down, which suggests that he’s willing to fit in rather than stand out, if that’s what it takes for him to finally play for a winner. Grant and Gordon are two roughly similar players with inverted desires. One wants what the other has already had, and gotten sick of. Grant’s the chipper naif and Gordon has been humbled.
Except nobody’s egoless, especially not a young millionaire who can throw it down over Tacko Fall. Upon being shipped to Denver, Gordon changed his jersey number to 50, because 50 is the highest score you can get in the Dunk Contest, which he feels like he should have won twice, his ire so enduring that he executive produced a 19-minute documentary—read: longform commercial—about how he got robbed in the 2020 exhibition. He’s wearing the number partially to promote the movie, and calling himself Mr. 50, in the way that one day you show up to high school and suggest that you have long been and will definitively from this point forward be going by Shark Attack.
This bit of whiny-cringey entrepreneurialism jibes with an Athletic report that came out after Gordon had requested a move but before it was clear he was headed to the Nuggets. Jared Weiss and Sam Amick wrote that “the 25-year-old wants to be in a winning situation that will help him fulfill his basketball potential and maximize his profile by being in a large market with plenty of branding opportunities.”
What does this presage for Gordon’s time in Denver? Maybe nothing. Lots of decidedly not-great NBA players have vain and likely ill-fated business ventures. Last week, I learned that Norm Powell has his own streetwear label. There’s probably money in telling someone like Aaron Gordon that he’s a compelling personality, that a nation is on the verge of falling in love with him, if only he played in more TNT games. That it’s moderately embarrassing to have had his career and leak stuff to the press about how you’re focused on maximizing your profile, to turn Being Upset About The Dunk Contest into a load-bearing personality trait—that sentiment doesn’t reach him, or if it does it’s easy to dismiss, because everybody around him is intensely supportive, almost as if it’s their job or something.
Aaron Gordon doesn’t have to self-actualize. He merely has to know enough not to go rogue in a Western Conference Finals tilt. He’s coming on as a featured player in Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray’s show, and he’ll do pretty well if he sees himself as a third or fourth option. If it eats at him that he’s not a bigger deal, his contract is up in 2022, and he can follow his aspirations wherever after that. But this stint with the Nuggets should be good for him. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to put himself to a task worth caring about. With any luck, he’ll soon forget about those All-Star Weekend slights, just like everybody else already has.