NEARING THE END of the NBA offseason this past September and over 5,000 miles from his adopted home of Denver, Nikola Jokic was playing alongside his Serbian national teammates in the EuroBasket tournament when a familiar face took a seat in the O2 Arena in Prague. Jokic thought he was still weeks away from reuniting with his peers on the Nuggets, but one teammate wanted to get a head start on rekindling his connection with the two-time reigning MVP.
Forward Aaron Gordon took time during his European vacation to surprise Jokic, and he brought his mom along to boot.
"I just wanted to let him know that he got a brother, no matter where he is in the world," Gordon told ESPN. "After he's done playing basketball and disappears, I'll still be able to pull up on him."
"Yeah, I don't know about that," Jokic told ESPN, a boyish grin spread across his face.
Jokic prides himself in his ability to disappear off the grid. But, then again, he hasn't had a teammate try and find him across the globe before.
The two quickly bonded in Gordon's two-plus seasons in Denver. Jokic admits Gordon isn't the personality he thought he was when they first met in 2021. Jokic described Gordon "as a guy who is kind of quiet." Jokic is too, so at first, there wasn't much to talk about.
But, sitting just two lockers away from each other, they built a friendship.
"I just really love to talk with him," Jokic said. "He's a really interesting guy."
Their conversations largely have nothing to do with basketball. But, as much as their friendship off the court has blossomed, their connection on the court has skyrocketed.
When the Nuggets traded for Gordon, they were acquiring a player they thought would develop an elite two-man game with Jokic. But not even the Nuggets thought the pairing would become what it is this season: statistically one of the most dominant duos in the league.
"I think we've learned just by playing," Jokic said. "He is accepting a role to be less of a ball handler. His way of changing his game has helped us a lot."
FORMER NUGGETS VICE president of analytics Tommy Balcetis had pages of analytical data on Gordon heading into the 2021 trade deadline. For the current Denver assistant general manager, digging into numbers was -- and still is -- his bread and butter, and the numbers suggested Gordon would be the ideal player who could help the Nuggets take the next step forward.
"We were looking for someone who can guard the LeBrons [James] of the world, the Lukas [Doncic] of the worlds," Balcetis said. "And some of our internal metrics ended up flagging [Gordon] as the best defender for those guys. Aaron is always among the best defenders for those kinds of guys."
Gordon is one of 64 players to defend 2022-23 All-Stars for at least 400 matchups in the half court, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Among that group, Gordon ranks fourth in player points allowed per 100 matchups behind just Golden State's Draymond Green, Chicago's Ayo Dosunmu and Philadelphia's Tobias Harris.
In terms of what Gordon could bring to the Nuggets' offense, no advanced metrics were needed. He had passed the eye test.
"We needed a body like Aaron's," Balcetis said. "We needed someone with such athletic ability [that] we've never really had an athlete like that on our team. Having a 25, 26-year-old, whatever he was at the time, who looks like that, who jumps like that, we knew that if we paired someone like that with Nikola, good things were going to happen."
Trading for Gordon meant sending guard Gary Harris to the Orlando Magic. The chemistry Jokic shared with Harris was special. Nuggets forward Vlatko Cancar says it was some of the best on-court chemistry he's ever seen.
Jokic recorded 290 assists to Harris from 2016 to 2019, the most assists by a center to a specific player during that span.
"Gary Harris was the first guy to figure out, hey, if I run the floor and move without the ball alongside Nikola, I am going to get a lot of easy baskets," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told ESPN.
But the chemistry Jokic has with Gordon is different. Gordon gave Jokic something he never had in any of the other tandems he was a part of: A big target who thrives in the dunker spot.
"The load that he can carry ... he is a really strong guy," Jokic told ESPN. "He's making sure he's taking that advantage really seriously. It's always an option for us ... I know where to find him, how to throw him the ball. And he knows how to box his guys out to give me the space to throw him the ball."
Jokic has assisted Gordon 114 times this season, good for fourth-most among passer-scorer combos. Sixty-seven of these 114 assists have been dunks, the most by any passer-scorer combo in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information.Jokic hits Gordon with incredible no-look pass for 2
Aaron Gordon gets the basket to fall through traffic
Jokic's passing overall has been at another level this season. The Nuggets have a 66% effective field goal percentage directly off his passes, the highest percentage in a season in Jokic's career and the second-best rate in 2022-23 among 50 players with 400-plus assist opportunities, trailing only Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden.
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Gordon has an expected effective field goal percentage of 69% when shooting directly off a pass from Jokic, according to Second Spectrum. That is the fourth-highest shot quality for any passer-scorer combo in the NBA for someone who has taken at least 75 field goal attempts.
"It's Joker. That's why we've got a good offense," Gordon said. "He's really consistent, reliable, disciplined. He's always working to be stable. When you do something consistently, you get better. I don't care how good you are, you'll keep getting better."
And not surprisingly, Gordon is averaging his best shot quality and lowest average shot distance in a season in his nine-year NBA career, per Second Spectrum.
"When you're thinking about making a read, [Jokic] already made that read for you. He's just waiting for you to see it," Gordon said. "The more reads you can make throughout the game, the more cuts, run-outs, the more slips or rolls that you can mix into the game, he's going to see you almost every time and make the right play."
WITH THE NUGGETS up 12 points midway through the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 20, Jokic cut toward the basket.
As Jokic tried to push his way by Steven Adams and get to the rim, he turned and stopped. With a second defender closing in, he flung the ball over his left shoulder -- and right by Adams. Jokic wasn't looking at where the ball was going, but he didn't need to.
Gordon beelined through the paint for the basket, arriving just in time to catch Jokic's no-look pass and finished with a lay-in.Nikola Jokic feeds Aaron Gordon with flashy assist
Nikola Jokic feeds Aaron Gordon with flashy assist
"The players that come to Denver are adapting to our style of play," Jokic said.
Gordon is living in the paint this season. And because of his closeness to the basket, combined with Jokic's passing, he already has 136 dunks this season -- sixth most in the NBA and a career best with 22 regular-season games left.
Even when the passes aren't finished with a dunk -- just nine have been alley-oops -- Jokic and Gordon's connection lives in the paint. According to Second Spectrum, 86 of the assists from Jokic to Gordon occurred with Gordon in the paint -- second most by any combination this season.
Jokic has assisted Gordon 41 times when both players are in the paint at the time of the pass, the most by any combination.
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"For me, I love the dunker," Gordon said. "I haven't been able to play dunker like that in my career. So to be able to play this position, it's really great."
Gordon's role hasn't always revolved around the dunker spot. Last season he was asked to spread the floor a bit more with Jamal Murray sidelined all season following a torn ACL and Michael Porter Jr. missing 73 games because of back surgery.
Gordon is a decent 3-point shooter at 33% for his career. Asking him to spread the floor while guarding the opponents' best player overextended Gordon, especially in the Nuggets' first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors last season.
"I was guarding guards, chasing them around all night," Gordon said. "It was really difficult to chase Steph [Curry] and Jordan Poole and then also translate that to the offensive side, still give energy on that side after giving so much energy on the other side."
Gordon shot 7-for-21 off the dribble in the series and went 9-for-19 off passes from Jokic. He struggled outside of the paint, going 4-of-21 on those field goal attempts. Even on open looks from 3, Gordon shot just 1-for-9, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"Playing the Warriors really makes you take a step back," Gordon said. "Not only did they outplay me, but they also outthought me. ... I felt bad that I let my team down. I will never blame someone else. I will always take it. I feel like that lies where you can get better."
Gordon spent the summer working on his understanding of the game. He watched tons of film and spoke with retired and active players. He dug into his stats on Synergy.
He wanted to know the areas he had to improve on. But, he knew with Murray and Porter returning, he needed to figure out how to adapt to his new role.
Gordon has picked his shooting spots better this season from beyond the arc. He is shooting a career-best 39% on 3-pointers while taking only 2.6 attempts per game, his fewest in a season since 2015-16.
"I give Aaron credit for being mature and understanding," Malone said. "OK, this is not last year. Jamal is back, he's a max player. Michael Porter is coming back, he is a max player. So those guys are really good offensive players. Let me do the dirty work -- let me run the floor, let me rebound, let me post up, let me move when Nikola is double-teamed. Let me play behind the defense and let the game be easier for everyone else."
Accepting that "dirty work" role has led to the emergence of Gordon and Jokic's elite tandem.
WITH JUST UNDER two hours before playing the Warriors, the Denver Nuggets' attention was focused elsewhere. The team stood around a mounted TV on the back wall of their Ball Arena locker room with the volume turned up ahead of the NBA's announcement of the All-Star reserves.
Malone was in his office with the coaching staff down the hall, arms crossed. He was supposed to be conducting his pregame news conference, but he wasn't budging just yet. Jokic has been an All-Star every season since 2019, but he has never had a teammate join him. The Nuggets were hoping the drought would end with Gordon.
With each Western Conference reserve that was announced, it became clear the Nuggets weren't going to hear the one name they were waiting on.
"We have the best record in the West. Second best in the NBA. ... Aaron Gordon deserves to be an All-Star," Malone said after the selection announcement. "To me, it's a travesty the coaches didn't vote him in."
Gordon spent the break journaling to organize his thoughts. He leaned on meditation to quiet his mind, as well as speaking to sports psychologists to unpack his disappointment.
"It hurt me not being in the All-Star Game this year," Gordon told reporters following the All-Star break, his voice quivering as he spoke. "If I wasn't focused on the mental aspect of it and understanding that it's going to get greater later and there's a bigger picture, it would have pulled me into a negative thought process and a negative mentality. But it actually has made me that much more hungry to get wins and help my team win."
Gordon's career has been revitalized since arriving in Denver, and in turn, it's given the Nuggets a level of title aspiration they haven't had before. Because of his connection with Jokic, Gordon is averaging career-highs in field goal percentage and 2-point field goal percentage while scoring 17.3 PPG, the second-highest in his career.
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The Nuggets (42-18) have been the best team in the Western Conference all season, creating separation from an otherwise congested race in the standings. Yes, the landscape of the West altered drastically at the trade deadline, causing some to argue the Nuggets are no longer the favorites to win the conference. But they have a six-game lead on the second-place Grizzlies, and Jokic is emerging as a favorite to win his third consecutive MVP award.
They're awaiting Gordon to return from a rib injury that has held him out of the Nuggets' past four games, but when he does, Denver feels their proven chemistry will catapult them even further.
And it begins with the tandem between Jokic and Gordon.
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