How the deep bond between Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon has shaped the Nuggets

One day, after Denver climbed the NBA’s rocky mountaintop to claim the 2022-23 NBA title, Nuggets coaches and players walked into their Pepsi Center locker room, where an enormous leather saddle waited on the chair that belongs to Nikola Jokić. The 7-foot, 280-pound center does have four framed pictures of his prize-winning horses hanging on the glass doors of his locker stall. Yet each beast has a wheeled harness fixed to it. None is mounted by a feather of a rider, let alone by one of the largest basketball players on the planet.

“I just can’t imagine Nikola on a horse,” Nuggets assistant coach David Adelman said. “But this saddle made me think if there’s a horse big enough for it, that would be the horse.”

It was stitched, custom, with the red, blue and white Serbian flag, plus the three-time MVP’s surname, as if anyone needed help knowing Aaron Gordon’s gift now belonged to the giant genius of the game. Jokić’s smile flashed wide, his fist flailing childlike, realizing live on TV he could persuade Denver owner Josh Kroenke to fly him private back to his hometown of Sombor, returning to his stable and neighborhood track in time for a horse race three days after the team’s championship parade.

And so Gordon, the bouncy Nuggets forward, the 28-year-old who dominated Game 1 of their NBA Finals victory and who’s finished so many of Jokić’s passes over four seasons together, simply wanted to show his appreciation for a man who’s quickly become one of his closest confidants. “It transcends basketball,” Gordon told Yahoo Sports. “Even if I never play another game again, I’d hang out with that guy. I’d run through a wall for him.” Gordon, to be sure, assists Jokić with his own fancy finds. But he’s looked for further avenues, further tokens, to show his appreciation. Gordon hopes the saddle becomes a Jokić family heirloom. When Gordon was out old-school car shopping, he gifted Jokić a manual transmission white Ford Bronco.

“I wasn’t gonna get him a horse, so I got him horsepower,” Gordon told Yahoo Sports. “I was thinking about, like, quarterbacks getting their lineman cars. So this is basically the other way around.”

(Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports illustration)

When asked if Jokić had taken the wheels for a spin, he laughed as if the answer was obvious, like the matrix of complicated passing lanes he somehow gleans. “I cannot drive it. It’s too small for me,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports. “It’s in my house.”

Through gifts and European trips, through screens and assists, Denver’s two frontcourt starters have melded together like the pair of pickaxes on Denver’s logo. “You couldn’t find a better fit for Nikola,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. Their synergy serves as a bedrock of the Nuggets’ core, and they will need Jokić’s and Gordon’s connective playmaking more than ever to overcome a 2-0 series deficit against Minnesota in the second round of the playoffs if Denver hopes to hang a consecutive banner. Star guard Jamal Murray has struggled through the first two contests against the Timberwolves, and he’s just as critical of a cog within Denver’s two- and three-man actions the Nuggets typically program around Jokić, Murray and Gordon.

One of which often results in the patented play of Denver’s cohesive offense. You know it, that one-two-three punch where Jokić receives a pocket pass from Murray, like a stone skipping across water, before Jokić, without even looking and the ball having barely grazed his fingertips, flips a perfect toss to Gordon flying along the baseline. Ask any member of the Nuggets’ traveling party, and they can name a different sequence from a different game. The Lakers one, the Celtics one, the Warriors one.

“It’s like a twin telepathy,” Nuggets guard Collin Gillespie said.

“No-look lobs against a rotating defense is absolutely crazy,” Adelman said.

Sometimes matches are made in the half-court, where players connect on backdoor cuts from their very first pickup run. But Jokić’s and Gordon’s wavelength is something beyond, something honed, something refined and sharpened season after season. Gordon has played in 241 of 274 games since arriving in Denver. He can mask any hole in any lineup at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. “When Jamal’s been out, when Mike’s been out, AG has always kinda been there, been that consistent guy that Jok can kinda count on,” Gillespie said. “He’s always in a spot where he can find him.”

That may be one more argument in favor of continuity, when it comes to the NBA’s heavily contested pursuit of roster building. Plus there’s an adjacent commonality threading among the teams still alive in this postseason. Like the gigantic Timberwolves, who have thus far outclassed the Nuggets through two games; like the Pacers zipping around Tyrese Haliburton; like the Knicks hustling behind Jalen Brunson; like the roaring dogs in Oklahoma City, and so on; chemistry and identity are trumping general ability. “It’s not just putting together talent. The pieces have to fit and they have to complement one another,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “And I think Aaron and Nikola are a terrific complement to one another.”

It was Jokić who came to Gordon after the latter’s trade to Denver in March 2022 and espoused his wisdom about the dunker spot. Gordon had pounded the ball in Orlando, where the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft always toggled through perimeter positions under different coaches. Gordon has showcased a knack for creating since he was ripping rebounds in high school and barreling into the open floor. Jokić helped convince him of an even craftier impact that was waiting to be mastered at the baseline. And that setup introduced an equal creator for Denver, along a different dimension of the defense. Not to mention Gordon can chew the glass into putback posters, “Which is f***ing awesome,” Gordon said while grinning.

“He’s a great finisher. He has a great, big body. He knows how to use his body and good hands. He’s doing an amazing job for us,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports. “I think the teams, when they see him in the dunker, somebody needs to cover him, and that’s a lot more space for everybody else.”

“If you don’t crack back on him, Aaron is a basket creator, man,” Adelman said.

Jokić taught him where and when to dig out position in the post and the optimal timing on screens — not to always hold the pick, when to just touch and go. “He’s a savant when it comes to basketball,” Gordon said of Jokić. By Denver’s third game with Gordon in the lineup, a seven-point road win against a healthy Clippers squad, Nuggets coaches felt they’d discovered an alchemy capable of ringing diamonds around their fingers. “We knew with a guy like Aaron,” Malone said, “who can guard 1-5, he makes everyone else’s lives that much easier, both offensive and defensively.”

Many around the league viewed Denver’s acquisition of Gordon as a direct means to replace Jerami Grant. The talented forward had fled the Nuggets for the Pistons in 2021 free agency, even though he’d been offered the same years and same salary to stay with Denver. It marked one of several, mounting blows to Denver’s trademark continuity. To land Gordon, the Nuggets had to relinquish a cultural standard bearer in Gary Harris to the Magic as well. Grant, though, was more of an isolation scorer, dangerous enough to uplift a second unit when Jokić was on the bench. Before Grant, Denver had found something special with veteran Paul Millsap filling the Nuggets’ gaps with his active hands and own fantastic vision. With Gordon, “It’s almost like we got a hybrid,” Adelman said, “and a little bit of both.”

Adelman overlapped with Gordon for one year in Orlando, where he watched the dunk contest champion work relentlessly on improving his dribble attacks on the basket and how to leverage all his power without overdoing things. In Denver, Gordon stays studying right alongside Jokić. The rapid rate at which he’s grown to process the game through a symmetrical lens as the all-world center has stunned Nuggets staffers. Gordon is a problem in transition, willing and able to fire cross-court hit-aheads to racing shooters. In the half court, he can show and catch and create on his own — or work off Jokić like it’s second nature.

They stand next to each other during national anthems. Whenever the Nuggets hold morning walkthroughs, they’ll often share the same insight, like they’ve found an answer hidden inside a textbook the whole class needs to hear, one step short of finishing each other’s sentences. When they walk back to the halftime locker room, they’re often in deep discussion, sometimes with an arm wrapped around a shoulder, contemplating the pieces on the chess board they’re leaving behind. Gordon’s locker, where Nike snow goggles still hang from last summer’s Champagne celebration, is only separated from Jokić’s dressing area by the locker of two-way center Jay Huff. “I think I’m inhibiting their friendship,” he said.

They share so much in common, despite hailing from worlds apart and opposite ends of the 2014 NBA Draft. They both began playing with the ball in their hands and functioning as floor generals before their bodies bloomed and their respective paths grew clouded by proverbial positions. They relish thinking the game two and three steps in advance, perhaps a shared relic from their divergent pasts. Jokić and Gordon are each the youngest of three siblings — “We’re both baby boys,” Gordon smiled — and able to evaluate the world through the footsteps that came before them, which to follow and which to avoid to leave new imprints in the sand. “I think just having brothers, you share things,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports. “It helps you grow up and it helps you become a good man.”

“They are very like-minded in a lot of different ways that work in harmony,” said Drew Gordon, Aaron’s older brother.

Drew even played the 2012-13 season for Partizan, the decorated Belgrade club Jokić grew up watching battle against rival Red Star, back when Denver’s leader was still a teenager and before he was a dot on the NBA’s scouting radar. Drew Gordon understood the greater magnitude of basketball warfare in Jokić’s native land. Drew would have to dodge Sprite bottles loaded with loogies, coins torched by lighters and even M-80 fireworks hurled like grenades onto the court during free throws. All that understanding helped Aaron follow Jokić’s lead in Denver. “I could empathize with him. I knew he was tough,” Aaron told Yahoo Sports. “If you go through that, you know, it’s in the blood. You’re cut from the cloth.”

Jokić remembered Drew, but held even sharper memories of Aaron from that same summer. His Serbian team fell short against Aaron’s Team USA, 82-68, in the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championships in Prague. “I’ve known him since that day,” Jokić said. “They won gold, and he was MVP of the tournament.” All Serbia’s bigs could do was bump Gordon off course as he soared through the lane, averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 rebounds en route to his honors.

“I got MVP of that tournament,” Aaron Gordon said, “but he turned around and got MVP of the NBA.”

Two summers ago, their first as teammates, Gordon completed their full circle around the basketball globe. He’s been described by many as an eager traveler, hungering to learn from foreign cultures, once casually texting Adelman a picture of Gordon and former Nuggets guard Will Barton riding camels outside the pyramids in Egypt. So while Gordon was jetting around, he learned Jokić was back with the Serbian national team in Prague, this time competing in the 2022 Eurobasket, and Gordon surprised his towering teammate by attending Jokić’s last game of the competition — in the very same O2 arena he once defeated him. “For no reason, he just showed up. It meant a lot,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports. “Our relationship is growing, it’s like normal friends, I think.”

After they defeated Miami for the title last June, a layover in London from Malaga, Spain, couldn’t prevent Gordon from making a long pit stop in Serbia before fulfilling sneaker tour obligations in China — Gordon helped recruit Jokić to sign with the same Chinese sportswear company, 361 Degrees. Gordon landed first in Belgrade, then met Jokić for a long evening replete with Rakija — Serbia’s national, strong beverage of choice — in Novi Sad, before following him back to Sombor. He watched Jokić ride a bike through the town, seeing his influence on the community as he passed through with each pedal. Jokić constructed an entire compound of homes for his family so they can all live together, something Gordon has always dreamed of building for his own tribe. “He saw my life and my friends,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports. “It was a cool thing to see, to have him there.”

They feasted on fish stew. Gordon devoured all kinds of lamb and beef mixed with cheese.

“I’m actually gonna ask him after this when can I get some Serbian food,” Gordon told Yahoo Sports in March. He joined Jokić’s family on the track after a racing win, lifting the golden trophy above their heads just like it was the Larry O’Brien, before most in attendance flocked to the infield and listened to music, guzzling beers like a block party.

Gordon now wants to purchase a horse and raise it within Jokić’s successful stable. “Almost like an investment,” Gordon said. “Kinda just go with him and see horse auctions and see what he has to say. You know, see his eyes, see his perspective on it.” Just as he’s done on the hardwood.

Jokić, however, protests he doesn’t have the same answers in that realm of sport. He’s merely along for the ride. “I’m just listening, you know? I think that’s a lottery,” Jokić told Yahoo Sports of horses. “People who say that they know something, they’re lying.”

They will need fortune and fitness and fortitude to overcome the current hurdle before them. Tim Connelly, the former Nuggets executive who drafted Jokić and traded for Gordon, has built a titanic Timberwolves contender, pairing Rudy Gobert with Karl-Anthony Towns to support the ascending Anthony Edwards, almost as if Minnesota’s been genetically engineered to thwart Denver’s own impressive frontline. Will the Nuggets regroup? Will their close-knit cohort be enough?

“That’s who I do it for,” Gordon said. “Every day when I feel like I’m tired, and I feel like I don’t want to work out and I don’t want to get that extra rep in, I just think of Nikola and I think of Jamal and I think of Michael and [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] and the guys in this locker room, and I make sure I do it for them. That gives me the energy I need to finish strong.”