When Aaron Gordon was still on the Orlando Magic, he wore 00 on his jersey. Now, for the Denver Nuggets, he sports 50. This is because he wants the world to remember that he twice performed some of the most bodacious artistry we’ve ever seen in the All-Star weekend Slam Dunk Contest, repeatedly garnering a perfect score of 50, but without winning either time. He even made a mini documentary about it, “Mr. 50,” which is honestly pretty embarrassing with its over-serious tone, black-and-white shots, mournful score, and sobering voice-overs.
We won’t dwell on that, though, because this Christmas, Gordon dunked himself into new reputational territory. In a thrilling 128-125 overtime victory for his Nuggets over the Phoenix Suns, Gordon scored 28 to go with 13 rebounds, and half of his points came from seven distinctly exciting dunks. Particularly memorable were the two reverse alley-oops, and the one-handed alley-oop, completed as a wowing compensation for a pass from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that was just a little too high.
And then there was the dunk. Gordon’s previous work in the contest was indelible in its ways, with his under-the-butt slam over the Magic mascot—an insanely silly looking green dragon with pink ears and star-antennas, who added levity to the moment—standing as especially bold, and as the defining image of his career to this point. But that is no longer the case. Because when Gordon picked up a head of steam, full-court, with less than 30 seconds left in overtime, and saw Landry Shamet planting himself to draw a potential offensive foul, but decided to lift off anyway? The result was Shawn-Kemp-pointing-at-Alton-Lister level stuff.
When Gordon did that one, a verb was born: going forward, no one will be unsure what it means to say someone “just got Landry Shamet’d on.” (It’s really too bad for Shamet, who made up for Devin Booker’s absence by playing the game of his life with 31 points). Gordon has been excellent all year, having clearly the best season of his career—despite Nikola Jokic contending for an MVP trophy for a third-straight season and Jamal Murray’s return to the lineup, Gordon’s usage is a tick higher than it’s ever been in Denver, and the first-place Nuggets are better off for it. And a dunk like this, on the biggest national television day for the league in the regular season, will surely lead to more people knowing what he’s up to, and garner momentum for Gordon toward his first appearance in a proper All-Star game.
His time with the Nuggets has been modest, thus far, generally ceding the spotlight to Jokic’s brilliance or to anxiety about Murray’s ACL injury, which stopped a title-contender dead in its tracks two seasons ago. Now he appears to be the obvious second man on one of the best teams in the sport, though, with his startling athleticism having found just the right seasoning; he has mastered playing with Jokic both in the pick-and-roll and as a cutter, but also improved vastly as a secondary playmaker himself, when needed. Occasionally he will still fancy himself a different player than he is, testing out some Kobeist mid-range fadeaways, but mostly he’s above such compunctions: he’s shooting 61 percent from the field, with an increased emphasis on his extraordinary abilities as a finisher at the rim.
Perhaps more than anything, it’s a testament to Gordon that he stood as much as he did when Jokic had his second 40-point triple-double in the past week, finishing with 41, 15 assists, and 15 rebounds. This Spring, the expected “voter fatigue” for media members who decide where the MVP trophy goes may prove weaker than the mesmerizing force of Jokic’s superb basketball skill—somehow, his feel for the game seems to have improved even further. And he has begun, again, to realize in his mildly begrudging way that he is not just a passing nexus point-center but also one of the best scorers alive, and that his team most thrives when he is spinning his hulking body with punishing grace toward the rim, while also breaking souls with his uncannily off-footed fade-aways.
And as new teammates Bruce Brown and Caldwell-Pope acclimate more to the Jokic realm, and old ones in Murray and Michael Porter Jr. fully re-establish their place in it, the Nuggets should look more and more like a top choice to come out of the Western Conference playoff bracket on top. There is still a ways to go, though—only Gordon, among this group, was here last year, so the calibration process is very much underway. And Murray’s ecstatic flamethrower mode has been seen just in flashes, with a bit more of boneheadedness to it than is optimal, for now—the Nuggets may have beat the Suns in regulation, on Christmas, had he been about 20 percent more judicious in crunch time. You don’t turn back into one of the game’s more romantically devastating closers overnight, though.
There may be a need for an extra piece off the bench for Denver, as well; Bones Hyland is one of the worst defenders in basketball, and hurts the team badly when he isn’t shooting hot, and DeAndre Jordan is simply not playable in high-leverage games at this point of his career. Brown and Jeff Green (out at least a month with a broken hand) can be trusted as reserves, but that only makes Denver reliably seven-deep. There’s room for addition on the trade market. But it’s plain that, after two years of Jokic carrying a largely sundry crew through the woods, the Nuggets have finally formed back into a true showcase squad, worthy of many more grand stages. They are a basketball team worth falling in love with.