Two months ago, Aaron Gordon provided the cleverest, and most telling, turn of phrase in his brief NBA career.
It came during an interview with John Denton, in response to a question about the latest run of dismal basketball from the Orlando Magic. The Magic have finished last in the Southeast Division in each of Gordon’s first three seasons and are comfortably on pace to do so once again in his fourth. Surely, that sort of failure must be grating.
“’Win,’ to me, stands for What’s Important Now,” Gordon demurred, before going on to clarify that, for the time being, it was important to focus on developing his own game both for his and the organization’s sake.
This perspective is all well and good, and made even better by the fact that Gordon is currently succeeding, at least on an individual level. Forever ballyhooed for his athletic ability, he is rounding into a pillar Orlando can construct an offense upon, with a career-best scoring average and a newly unearthed 3-point shot.
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The looming question is whether they do. Gordon will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and there’s chum in the water that Phoenix, Dallas and Indiana are among those eager to sign him to an offer sheet. Orlando might already be weighing whether or not to match after rumors percolated that they were quietly shopping Gordon around the trade deadline. This, before the prospect of offer sheets stuffed with cap-wrecking arcana or whether Gordon himself would push for an exit, his inner compass finally pointing him to win immediately instead of regard it as a distant dot on the horizon.
There is far less ambiguity in the ramifications of letting him walk than keeping him. As Orlando braces itself to pick inside the top 10 for the sixth time in seven years, losing Gordon would be a damning referendum on the organization’s capacity to develop and retain homegrown talent.
It’s worth noting, here, just how far Gordon has progressed on its watch. Coming out of Arizona, his game was a hologram – projectable in almost any light but nothing solid behind it. Pre-draft assessments traded in language like “bouncy” and explosive,” terms described how he moved but never what, exactly, he actually could do.
For the first three years, the answer was seemingly anything on defense, but alarmingly little on offense. Virtuoso dunking became his calling card, as a marketing tool but also a survival mechanism: Living at the rim was the one way he could dependably score. Heading into his fourth NBA season, then, the idea of a balanced repertoire remained less of an expectation than a hopeful possibility.
Aside from a career 37.6 career shooting percentage in the right corner (on a meager 69-shot sample), there was no foretelling that Gordon would nearly double his 3-point attempts (5.9 per game in 2017-18, up from 3.3 in 2016-17) and raise his percentage almost six points along the way, to a respectable 34.5 percent. It’s worth noting that early in the season he was well above 40 percent, as his shooting regressed somewhat so to did the Magic’s win percentage. His scoring has surged to 18 points per game, almost doubling the 9.7 average from his first three seasons. After never eclipsing 33 points in an NBA game, he’s ripped off two 40-point efforts and a 39-pointer this season.
It’s not an improvement so much as a renovation, one that offers more hope than ever that Gordon, still only 22, can kiss his prodigious ceiling. It’s everything Orlando could have hoped for up to this point. Realistically, it’s everything they could have done.
It’s significant that it happened here, of all places. Orlando is hardly devoid of young assets, yet no team throughout the league has been less proficient this decade at cultivating them. Failure is endemic in the draft game, of course. Every team has their own Daniel Orton (pick No. 29 in 2010), a scratch-off ticket that doesn’t even yield a free slurpee. Plenty find an Andrew Nicholson (No. 19 in 2012), a multi-year college star whose supposed polish chips and fades under the NBA’s heat lamp.
But it is damn difficult to have nothing to show for five top-10 draft picks, as the Magic risk doing if Gordon bolts. They turned Victor Oladipo (No. 2 in 2013) and Domantas Sabonis (No. 11 in 2016) into Serge Ibaka, only to flip Ibaka eight months later for a future first-rounder and Terrence Ross (No. 8 in 2012), who is currently shooting his worst percentage and scoring his fewest points since his rookie season. Mario Hezonja (No. 5 in 2015) and his supposedly pyrotechnic offensive game have spent the better part of three years moored on the bench. He’s blossomed but only after the Magic declined to tender him a qualifying offer, forgoing any leverage they might have had over him in restricted free agency They have been patient with19-year-old Jonathan Isaac (No. 6 in 2017), who is crudo bar-level raw. They were patient with Elfrid Payton (no. 10 in 2014) until they weren’t, gritting their teeth through his growing pains only to abruptly banish him to Phoenix for a second-rounder despite him averaging career-best shooting marks this season.
Meanwhile, the two players who best approximate Gordon’s supporting cast, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, were pried off other teams’ rosters. Each has matured in a way that Orlando’s own picks have not, with Fournier annually layering on another coat of varnish atop his smooth perimeter offense and Vucevic stretching an old school clang-and-bang game to its stylistic limits. There’s a wider evaluation question that can be asked – is Orlando’s pro scouting noticeably better than its collegiate group? – but even these other successes pale in comparison to what Gordon represents. Fourier and Vucevic went upward, not outward; they improved by leveling up existing skills, not acquiring new ones.
This, of course, is precisely why organizations dream on players like Gordon, no matter how fraught with risk they are. But it’s also worth pondering how much of the credit for Gordon’s rise should be attributed to Orlando versus the player himself. The answer might come in Isaac, whose frame is equally kinetic and whose range of outcomes is comparably broad. Has Orlando gleaned any lessons in working with Gordon that can be passed down the line?
Just like Gordon, we may be years away from learning the answer. Yet if Gordon leaves, there will be precious little else to focus on aside from that and whoever else the Magic pluck from the lottery this year and, presumably, beyond. Things would be, in other words, exactly as they have been for six years and counting.
The only way for Orlando to genuinely progress is to sustain what little its built, and retain Gordon. Which takes us back to that little acronym. The Magic have four months to gauge what their young star finds important and deliver it to the letter. Anything less, and it’s time to wonder if Orlando is aware of what’s important at all.