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DENVER, CO - APRIL 26: Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies during the third quarter at Ball Arena on April 26, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)
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Aaron Gordon’s new deal proves ownership’s commitment to winning

(Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Denver Nuggets made a resounding statement regarding their desire to capitalize on their talented roster and open a potential championship window a little longer by inking forward Aaron Gordon to a four-year, $92 million contract extension. It was a commitment that will almost certainly land the Nuggets in luxury-tax status if and when Michael Porter Jr. inks what is expected to be a maximum or near-max contract prior to Denver’s season opener next month.

Starting in the 2022-23 season, the Nuggets could have three players making more than $30 million per season — Nikola Jokic ($33.6 million), Jamal Murray ($31.7 million) and Porter Jr. (who could average as much as $34.6 million) — while Gordon will barely stay under $20 million for only that season ($19.7 million), and that’s without factoring in Jokic’s potential new “supermax” extension that he qualified for as the league’s MVP. Jokic’s deal could could average a whopping $42.8 million over five seasons in one of the next two summers.

The team’s journey from curiosity to powerhouse coalesced over the last two seasons. In March, Denver appeared to harbor legitimate title hopes for one of the very few times in their 53 professional NBA and ABA seasons.

The team was getting an otherworldly, season-long performance out of do-it-all center Jokic, a basketball unicorn who played so uniquely that many basketball lifers couldn’t figure out what they were seeing, but dominated the NBA so thoroughly that his MVP case would eventually prove undeniable. Jokic was flanked by Jamal Murray, a firebrand combo guard that exploded onto the scene and into full-blown stardom in the prior season’s COVID-mandated playoff bubble that saw the Nuggets fall to the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. In this season, however, wunderkind Porter Jr. began to blossom; finally healthy after battling back problems for two years, the lanky 22-year-old was earning more minutes and putting together one of the most efficient offensive campaigns in recent league history.

It was clear, however, that the Nuggets still needed… more. More defense, something that had seemingly been robbed from Gary Harris after too many injury-plagued seasons. More athleticism, something that 35-year-old Paul Millsap could no longer provide. More energy, something that youngsters R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji couldn’t bring to the court without making too many rookie mistakes.

So president of basketball operations Tim Connelly finally struck a deal that had eluded the Nuggets for years; consolidating their player assets to obtain 25-year-old forward Aaron Gordon, already a seven-year veteran after being selected fourth overall in 2014. Harris, Hampton and a future first-round pick went to the Orlando Magic in the deal, one quickly consummated by Connelly once it became known that Gordon had requested a trade.

“There’s been times where I just expressed my frustration to management,” Gordon told local reporters only two days prior to the deal that sent him to Denver. “Frustration with the losses, the injuries, the way we’ve been playing and how many losses have accumulated over the years. So it’s just my frustration kind of boiling over, I would say… I think a lot of people share that sentiment with me, of frustration.”

Upon joining the Nuggets, however, Gordon seemed immediately renewed, morphing from a mismatched, ball-dominant underachiever into a whirling dervish of aggressive defending and a high-flying freight train directed by Jokic’s maestro-like command of Denver’s offense. In the mere nine games that the Nuggets got with their fearsome foursome before Murray’s devastating ACL injury halted the Nuggets’ aspirations in their tracks, Gordon was almost comically efficient, shooting better than 70 percent from inside the arc, and the starting five (including Will Barton, signed to a surprisingly expensive, two-year, $30 million deal in the offseason) was, by far, the most effective in the league by almost any metric.

As the Nuggets finally faded away while being swept by Phoenix in the conference semifinals, Gordon became a non-factor, averaging only nine points and under four rebounds per game. He’ll have to be much better than that until Murray returns at some point around the All-Star break. But Connelly and the Nuggets didn’t sign Gordon for four months; they signed him for four years, and when Murray returns, the Nuggets, if healthy, will have an opportunity to do something they’ve never done: get to the NBA Finals.

For a team that has proven that it’s willing to spend with the league’s best, it’s exactly the return they’ll expect on this investment.

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Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.

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