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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Denver Nuggets Trade For Aaron Gordon And JaVale McGee Bolsters Roster With Athleticism, Size And Defense

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Nearly four years ago, Gary Harris emerged as part of a major three-way trade which would have sent Kevin Love to the Denver Nuggets from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Paul George to Cleveland from the Indiana Pacers, and Harris along with forward Trey Lyles and a first-round draft pick to Indiana.

The deal had been on the table, “resuscitated” from earlier talks according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe at the time, but it never crossed the finish line, and Harris remained in Denver.

It was just once in a seemingly endless parade of near-miss deals which would have sent Harris out, more recently last offseason as part of the package the Nuggets offered to the New Orleans Pelicans, but were ultimately outbid on by the Milwaukee Bucks, in their pursuit of two-way guard Jrue Holiday.

In the waning hours prior to the expiration of Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, after years of Denver including Harris as a key component of nearly every major trade they pursued, the Nuggets finally dealt their longest-tenured player in what should ultimately be seen as the biggest, most impactful deadline move thus far in the tenure of president of basketball operations Tim Connelly.

Denver acquired athletic combo forward Aaron Gordon, along with defensive wing Gary Clark, from the Orlando Magic in the trade, sending Harris, promising young rookie guard R.J. Hampton and a lightly-protected 2025 first-round draft pick in the day’s biggest move. They also hours earlier acquired veteran center and former Nugget JaVale McGee from Cleveland for Isaiah Hartenstein and two future second round picks.

The Gordon trade represents the long-awaited resolution to a tension which had been mounting for years. The first prong of this tension was the simple fact that, by all accounts, Harris was (and is) universally loved and respected by everyone in Denver. His professionalism, hard work, positive attitude and team-oriented mindset had for years been integral to the cultivation of the strong franchise culture which Connelly, head coach Michael Malone, and their respective staffs have made central to their roster-building approach. The Nuggets view loyalty and dedication as two-way streets, and no player was more deserving than Harris of being given his due.

Additionally, the “We don’t skip steps” mantra of patience, and its beneficial impact on roster continuity and player development, has been perhaps the most essential principle guiding Connelly’s team-building process. This philosophy, combined with both a sense of loyalty to players to do right by them and a desire to give enough breathing room in the player development process to fully optimize the cultivation of their growth, has led Denver to be reticent to make the kind of high-stakes, blockbuster deals that send out core players in attempts to land bigger stars.

The second prong of the tension around Harris, along with Will Barton III who has been seen as the Nuggets other main “moveable” player in potential trades, was the longstanding traffic jam of undersized guards in the Nuggets backcourt.

The Nuggets starting the six-foot-three Jamal Murray, six-foot-four Gary Harris and six-foot-six Will Barton meant they would be giving up size, especially at small forward but also at times at shooting guard, to many opposing teams, and this situation only got compounded when rotating in the bench backups of six-foot-two Monte Morris and five-foot-eleven Facundo Campazzo.

In short (pun intended), Denver had for years been attempting to cover a lack of both depth and size at small forward by sliding over guards (more often than not Barton) to play out of position there. In today’s NBA, where smaller lineups are trending driven by the push towards more three-point shooting and floor-spacing, the Nuggets could get away with this to some extent, especially in the regular season.

But the hit Denver’s defense took with the loss of Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig last offseason became quickly apparent, and the need to replace especially the size, defense and athleticism Grant had brought to the table had become clear and pressing to the point where Connelly finally pulled the trigger on trading Harris.

As I wrote last year, as well as prior to Thursday’s trade deadline and elsewhere, it was high time for Denver to move beyond the “don’t skip steps” phase and take bigger, more impactful swings, as the team has approached a higher competitive level approaching title contention, where making improvements on already-great teams becomes more difficult – and, usually, costly.

Parting ways with Gary Harris was a tough, painful decision for the Nuggets, but the right one at the right time.

The addition of Gordon in particular, a big, hyper-athletic six-foot-eight forward with a seven-foot wingspan who can defend and shoot the three, fits the precise mold to fill the voids the Nuggets needed to fill on the wing, especially where it comes to guarding the West’s more formidable threats like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. That boost in size and strength defending big wings will be critically important in postseason basketball if the Nuggets have any hopes of making a deep playoff run.

Bringing Gordon on board also lets Michael Porter Jr. essentially remain at power forward, where he had thrived during the injury absences of Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green. Both Gordon and Porter are effectively both threes and fours and there will be a high degree of switchability there, but Gordon’s elite athleticism and better mobility set him apart from Millsap and Green, and as Lowe pointed out in his piece on the trade, he is “skilled enough on offense for Denver to mimic the effects of the Porter-at-power-forward construction,” allowing the Nuggets the best of both worlds.

While Gordon’s three-point shot may or may not still be a work in progress – his 37.5% three-point percentage this season is way up from his 32.5% career mark, so some regression could be coming – he will also provide the kind of vertical spacing alongside Nikola Jokic which former Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried very effectively did before.

When I asked Aaron Gordon is his introductory media availability for the Nuggets yesterday if he’d talked with Malone and the coaching staff about what his role would be, he explained that they “all kind of have a mutual understanding” about what he’s expected to deliver:

“Just to be an athletic slasher, runner, cutter, facilitator, spot-up shooter, and tenacious defender.”

Or in other words, to check off many if not most of the boxes which describe the best attributes for players who take the court alongside Nikola Jokic to have in their arsenal.

McGee also represents a significant upgrade over Hartenstein, whose performance with the Nuggets had been up and down, but even when playing well had such a high foul rate (6.8%, or bottom third percent of the league) that he often could not stay on the court.

Although many Nuggets and NBA fans may be most familiar with McGee’s antics and mishaps both on and off the court, most prominently displayed in his regular appearances on TNT’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool” (and many of which happened during his first stint with Denver), he is, in fact, a three-time NBA champion with two different teams, and he has grown into a more serious competitor, and less mistake-prone player. His baseline of veteran experience alone makes him a more reliable replacement.

Moreover, as with Gordon, McGee adds size and athleticism to the position he steps into, bolstering the Nuggets’ overall roster composition with a more play-ff-ready profile. McGee also brings a skill which has been critically lacking for years on Denver roster, rim protection, where his 4.0% block rate places him in the 93rd percentile in the NBA, even at age 33, as he averages 1.2 swats in just 15.2 minutes per game.

Peruse the NBA trade deadline review grades, and you’ll see a lot of A’s and B-pluses for Denver, who along with Chicago and Miami was roundly hailed as on of the day’s big winners.

Rightly so. On paper, these moves immediately make the Nuggets better, and could very realistically bump them up a tier from “near-contender” to flat-out “contender.”

They also give a boost to Denver just at the time Nikola Jokic is emerging as the sole front-runner in the NBA’s MVP race. The Nuggets are currently fifth in the standings and rising, and Joker’s chances of actually winning the most Valuable Player award (which without comparable hype machines to his competitors he is already at a disadvantage of doing) will meaningfully improve if Denver works their way into a top-four seed by season’s end.

More important to the players, however, is the title pursuit.

“that’s the goal,” McGee said in his introductory Nuggets presser yesterday.

“If that’s not the goal, you’re playing the wrong sport.”

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