Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon’s friendship is paying off for Denver Nuggets

NEARING THE END During the NBA off-season this September and more than 5,000 miles from his new home in Denver, Nikola Jokic was playing alongside his Serbia teammates in the EuroBasket tournament when a familiar face took his place at the O2 Arena in Prague. Jokic thought he was weeks away from reuniting with his fellow Nuggets, but one of his teammates wanted an edge in rekindling his connection with the two-time reigning MVP.

Striker Aaron Gordon took the time during his European holiday to surprise Jokic, and he brought his mom with him to boot.

“I just wanted him to know he has a brother wherever he is,” Gordon told Sportzshala. “After he finishes playing basketball and disappears, I can still stop him.”

“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” Jokic told Sportzshala with a boyish smile on his face.

Jokic prides himself on his ability to disappear from view. But then again, he hasn’t yet had a teammate trying to find him all over the world.

The two bonded quickly during Gordon’s two-plus seasons in Denver. Jokic admits that Gordon is not the person he thought he was when they first met in 2021. Jokic described Gordon as a “quiet guy”. Jokic too, so at first there was nothing to talk about.

But, sitting just two lockers apart, they became friends.

“I just really enjoy talking to him,” Jokic said. “He’s a really interesting guy.”

Their conversations have a lot to do with basketball. But as their off-court friendship blossomed, their on-court bond skyrocketed.

When the Nuggets traded for Gordon, they acquired a player they thought would develop an elite game alongside Jokic. But even the Nuggets didn’t think this pairing would become what it is this season: statistically, one of the most dominant duos in the league.

“I think we learned just by playing,” Jokic said. “He accepts the role to play less with the ball. His way of changing his game helped us a lot.”

FORMER VIS NUGGETTS Analyst President Tommy Balsetis had pages of analysis data on Gordon approaching the 2021 trading deadline. For the current assistant general manager of Denver, digging into the numbers was—and still is—his bread and butter, and the numbers suggested that Gordon would be the perfect player to help the Nuggets take the next step forward.

“We were looking for someone who could protect the LeBrons. [James] peace, Lucas [Doncic] peace,” said Balchetis. — And some of our internal indicators turned out to be [Gordon] as the best defender for those guys. Aaron has always been one of the best defenders for these guys.”

According to Second Spectrum tracking, Gordon is one of 64 players who have defended the 2022-23 All-Stars in at least 400 half-court games. Among this group, Gordon ranks fourth in points per 100 games, behind only Golden State’s Draymond Green, Chicago’s Ayo Dosunma and Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris.

In terms of what Gordon could bring to the Nuggets’ offense, no additional metrics were needed. He passed an eye test.

“We needed a body like Aaron,” Balcetis said. “We needed someone with that athletic ability [that] we have never had such an athlete in our team. Having a 25-26-year-old guy, whoever he was at the time, who looks like that, jumps like that, we knew that if we paired such a person with Nikola, then everything would be fine.

The trade for Gordon meant sending bodyguard Gary Harris to the Orlando Magic. The chemistry between Jokic and Harris was special. Nuggets forward Vlatko Cancar says it was one of the best fights he’s ever seen on the court.

Jokic recorded 290 passes to Harris from 2016 to 2019, the most passes from a center to a specific player in that period.

“Gary Harris was the first guy to realize, hey, if I run around the court and move without the ball with Nicola, I’m going to get a lot of easy shots,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told Sportzshala.

But Jokic’s chemistry with Gordon is different. Gordon gave Jokic something he never had in any of the other tandems he was part of: a big target that thrives in the dunker spot.

“The load he can carry… he’s a really strong guy,” Jokic told Sportzshala. “He makes sure to take that advantage seriously. It’s always an option for us… I know where to find him, how to pass the ball to him. him the ball.”

Jokic has assisted Gordon 114 times this season, which is fourth most in passer-bomber combinations. According to Sportzshala Stats & Information, 67 of those 114 passes were dunks, the most of any passer-scorer combination in the league.

Jokic’s overall passing this season has been on a different level. The Nuggets have an effective field goal percentage of 66% driven directly by his assists, the highest percentage in a season of Jokic’s career and the second-best in 2022-2023 among 50 players with over 400 assists, behind only Philadelphia 76ers star James . harden.

According to Second Spectrum, Gordon has an expected field goal percentage of 69% when shooting immediately after a pass from Jokic. This is the fourth-most passer-scorer combination in the NBA for those with at least 75 field goals.

“This is the Joker. That’s why we have a good attack,” Gordon said. “He is very consistent, reliable, disciplined. It always works to be stable. When you do something consistently, you get better. I don’t care how good you are, you’ll get better.”

And it’s no surprise that Gordon is averaging his best shooting quality and lowest average shooting distance per season in his nine-year NBA career, according to Second Spectrum.

“When you think about reading, [Jokic] already made this reading for you. He’s just waiting for you to see it,” Gordon said. – The more readings you can do throughout the game, the more cuts, runs, the more misses or throws you can mix in the game, he will see you. almost every time and play it right.”

WITH NUGGET After scoring 12 points midway through the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 20, Jokic moved to the basket.

When Jokic tried to break past Stephen Adams and get to the ring, he turned and stopped. As the second defender approached, he threw the ball over his left shoulder straight at Adams. Jokic didn’t look where the ball was going, but there was no need to.

Gordon raced through the paint to the basket, arriving just in time to catch Jokic’s pass unprotected, and finished with a layup.

“Players who come to Denver adapt to our style of play,” Jokic said.

Gordon lives in colors this season. And because of his closeness to the basket, combined with Jokic’s passing, he already has 136 dunks this season – sixth in the NBA and a career best with 22 games in the regular season.

Even when passes don’t end with a dunk (only nine were unsuccessful), the Jokic-Gordon bond lives on in the paint. According to Second Spectrum, 86 assists from Jokic to Gordon were made while Gordon was in the paint, the second most of all combinations this season.

Jokic assisted Gordon 41 times when both players were in the paint on a pass, the most by any combination.

“As for me, I love the dunker,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t play dunker like this in my career. So to be able to play in that position is really great.”

Gordon’s role didn’t always revolve around the dunker. Last season, he was asked to widen the pitch a little, with Jamal Murray out for the entire season with an ACL tear and Michael Porter Jr. missing 73 games with back surgery.

Gordon is a decent 3 point shooter with 33% in his career. Asking him to spread the floor to protect the opposition’s best player was too stressful for Gordon, especially in the Nuggets’ first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors last season.

“I guarded the guards, chasing them all night,” Gordon said. “It was really hard to follow Steph. [Curry] and Jordan Poole, and then also transfer it to the attacking side, still give energy to that side after giving so much energy to the other side.”

Gordon converted 7 of 21 from dribbling in the series and 9 of 19 without Jokic. He struggled outside the paint, hitting 4 of 21 on those field goal attempts. According to Sportzshala Stats & Information, even with open looks, out of 3, Gordon threw only 1 out of 9.

“Playing for the Warriors really makes you take a step back,” Gordon said. “They not only outplayed me, they outsmarted me… I felt bad that I let my team down. I will never blame anyone else. I will always accept it. .”

Gordon spent the summer working on his understanding of the game. He watched tons of movies and talked to former and active players. He was digging through his Synergy statistics.

He wanted to know the areas in which he needed to improve. But he knew that with the return of Murray and Porter, he needed to figure out how to adjust to his new role.

This season, Gordon is better at choosing places for shots from behind the arc. He’s hitting a career-best 39% from threes while shooting just 2.6 attempts per game, his fewest this season since 2015/16.

“I give credit to Aaron for his maturity and understanding,” Malone said. “Okay, it’s not last year. Jamal is back, he’s a top level player. Michael Porter is back, he’s a top level player. So these guys are really good hitters. on the floor, let me bounce, let me get up, let me move when Nicola is in two teams. Let me play defense and make the game easier for everyone else.”

The acceptance of this “dirty job” role led to the creation of an elite tandem between Gordon and Jokic.

DIRECTLY UNDER Two hours before the game against the Warriors, the Denver Nuggets’ attention was on something else. The team stood around the TV set on the back wall of their Ball Arena…


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