Nuggets journal: Why Aaron Gordon makes Denver’s defense so “nice”
In a vacuum, Aaron Gordon looked like the steal of the trade deadline.
An undervalued, underappreciated wing whose time in Orlando had clearly run its course, the Gordon trade offered an immediate infusion to the Nuggets’ starting five. By himself, he was a consequential addition to a team with designs on running it back deep into the playoffs.
But within the context of the Nuggets’ roster, Gordon’s arrival has already crystallized the team as a whole. Because of Gordon’s defensive abilities — and willingness to guard opponents’ toughest matchup — there’s been a cascading effect on Denver’s ability to neutralize opponents.
How many players in the NBA can credibly guard Trae Young, John Collins, Ben Simmons and Kawhi Leonard in the same week? Probably less than 10.
Instead of conceding size to opposing small forwards, Will Barton gets to guard opposing shooting guards. Instead of settling for uncomfortable mismatches, Michael Porter Jr. gets to choose the easier of the forwards to handle. And instead of exposing limited versatility, Paul Millsap heads to the bench where he’ll ultimately face less dangerous forwards.
“(Gordon) put everybody back in their place where now I can guard my natural position at the two, instead of going into a lot of games undersized at the three,” Barton said. “He takes a lot of pressure off us guarding the bigger threes, and now we can switch seamlessly.”
After Denver’s convincing win over the Clippers on Thursday night, Gordon put it succinctly.
“Defensively, we’re nice,” he said. “… (We’ve) got guys that can switch, guys that can guard 1-4, 1-5.”
Since Gordon’s arrival, the Nuggets are 3-0 with a top-10 rated defense.
The Hawks were 9-2 in the 11 games before taking on the Nuggets last week, averaging over 111 points per game. The Nuggets held them to just 102. The 76ers were 10-2 before arriving in Denver this past Tuesday, posting more than 117 points per game. The Nuggets gave up only 95. When Denver visited Los Angeles on Thursday, the Clippers had won 8 of their last 11 games on more than 115 points per game. The Nuggets stymied them for 94, which tied for their third-lowest output of the season.
Denver’s defense might be better than nice.
Jamal Murray has made a dedicated effort to improve defensively, first on the perimeter and then inside on mismatches. After getting torched by bigger players in the postseason against the Trail Blazers, Murray was tired of being a liability. Against the Clippers, he welcomed the challenge when Leonard got him in the post.
“I’ll stand up a four man,” he said proudly. “I’ll stand up a five man for a good three seconds.”
Porter, whose defensive shortcomings were well documented throughout the first two months of this season, has become more sound defensively as the schedule has progressed. Not only has his help-side defense made marked strides — a huge asset given his length — but he’s even shown the ability to stay in front of quicker, stronger wings. Almost nothing has made his coach prouder.
“Aaron Gordon being on the floor helps our collective unit because he’s that good of a defender, but I have to give Michael a ton of credit,” Malone said. “Even before Aaron Gordon got here, Michael has shown tremendous growth on that end of the floor.”
With individual improvements, there’s an aggregate component to Denver’s defensive versatility.
“That’s part of the defensive scheme, is being able to switch,” Gordon said. “It makes the (opposing) offense stagnant.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Denver’s offense is simultaneously devastating, meaning opponents better get used to facing a set defense. It’s only three games, but the early returns on the Nuggets’ deadline transactions are tantalizing.
“We have the most complete starting five in the league now,” Barton said.
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