Among league insiders, the Orlando Magic are drawing a lot of comparisons to the Utah Jazz. Both are unglamorous teams in the middle of multiyear rebuilds, centered around piles of draft picks and young players that haven’t yet yielded a foundational superstar.
The Jazz, however, got a head start by leveraging the desperation of the New York teams and snagging picks that became Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, both borderline All-Stars now. Then, in 2013, Utah nailed the draft by nabbing “the Stifle Tower,” Rudy Gobert, at no. 27.
Gobert’s massive Year 2 improvement has presented Utah with a new long-term challenge: squeezing enough offense out of lineups built around two big men, Favors and Gobert, who do their best work around the basket. And it seems fitting that the Magic are facing the funhouse-mirror image of that challenge: squeezing offense from lineups built around two guards with shaky or nonexistent perimeter shots, Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo.
In trading a first-round pick back to the Sixers for Payton, the Magic made a massive bet that in the NBA of 2015 — where spacing and shooting are more important than ever — a team built around two non-shooting guards can still win. “I really do think this can work,” says James Borrego, the team’s interim head coach. “With their combination of defense and penetration, there really is room to grow here.”
Orlando GM Rob Hennigan has tried to mold a culture of grit, hard work, and defense. It’s an old-school bet that a championship-level franchise can’t grow unless those things take root first; a bet that coaches can gradually turn bad shooters into decent ones, and that management will find the right supporting shooters on the open market — even if a lot of those shooters will have to be big men, since the guard positions are taken. Hennigan’s a smart dude, and it appears (via Josh Robbins at the Orlando Sentinel) that the Magic will extend Hennigan and give him the chance to see his vision through — always an exciting thing.
Payton and Victor Oladipo are dripping with talent. Payton is irresistible, a preternatural basketball genius with rare vision, a tricky arrhythmic dribble, and hair that blows in the wind when he sprints up the court. Oladipo is a power running back learning to harness his speed. On their own, Payton and Oladipo each intrigue scouts and league executives. But there is a burbling skepticism about whether they can win together. If you’re looking for a good reason to watch some random lottery team slog through April, Orlando is what you want: a franchise that has banked everything on a quirky backcourt, trying to see what the hell it has.
March was an encouraging month for the Magic, even if it’s also a time to avoid overreacting to trends that emerge as teams play out the string.1 Oladipo just wrapped the best month of his career, and the Magic scored 104.6 points per 100 possessions with their backcourt of the future on the floor — a mark that would rank about 11th overall for the season. Payton notched triple-doubles, Oladipo nailed 43 percent of his non-corner 3s, and the two showed a deeper understanding of how to play off of each other.
That type of skepticism may also apply to Utah. I don’t think it should, but a lot of people around the league do.
“We’re still just getting used to it,” Oladipo says. “It’s barely been, what, half a season? We can complement each other.”
Oladipo is not officially a point guard, and with Payton at the controls, he’s going to have to add a dash of Dwyane Wade’s cutting to his game:
“I’m just a basketball player, man,” Oladipo says. “Whatever position they put me at, I’ll do my thing.”
Oladipo draws the most curiosity among league insiders. People feel more certain that they understand what Payton is and will be: a crafty point guard who can’t shoot. Players improve, of course, and the Magic have a killer shooting coach in Dave Love, who will help Payton. The precedent of Jason Kidd exists. But most guys who enter the league as poor shooters usually top out at tolerable, and Payton will likely always be a pass-first dynamo with an unreliable jumper.
It’s on Oladipo to become something different — to evolve into a player who can fit alongside Payton. Part of that is simply shooting better, so that defenders don’t feel comfortable straying off of him to clog Payton’s driving lanes. “Both of them have to grow as shooters,” Borrego says. “And we’ve already seen that with Vic.”
Oladipo’s mechanics aren’t bad, and he feels more comfortable stepping into midrange jumpers and 3s when defenders go under screens. “Just taking what the defense gives me,” he says.
His evolution is going to be a long process. Oladipo remains a below-average shooter and ranks toward the bottom among shooting guards in gravity and distraction scores — proprietary SportVU tracking stats that measure how closely defenders stick to players (gravity) and how willing defenders are to drift away from those same players (distraction). Payton has the third-worst distraction score among all guards in the NBA, ahead of only Rajon Rondo and Ronnie Price, per data from STATS provided to Grantland. When Payton doesn’t have the ball, his defenders tend to ignore him to block Oladipo’s path to the lane; Oladipo and Monta Ellis could have a fun conversation about that.
But Oladipo is a driver at heart, and every functional NBA offense needs at least two guys on the floor who can penetrate into the teeth of defenses. League insiders love comparing Oladipo to other driving tweeners — Wade, Ellis, Russell Westbrook — but often focus on how Oladipo falls short of those players. He doesn’t have quite the explosiveness of Westbrook or peak Wade, nor the natural pace and passing touch that Ellis and Wade do.
Oladipo has mostly been a high-speed driver who jets north-south until something gets in his way but struggles to finish when a help defender impedes his path. “Sometimes he gets too deep, and he can’t make a pass out of there,” Borrego says. “There are still some turnovers that come from driving into a crowd.”
That raises an interesting question: Everyone agrees that driving into the paint is a good thing, but is it possible to have too much of that skill on the same roster? Oladipo and Payton both rank among the top 15 in drives per game, according to SportVU data. A player running a pick-and-roll can do four basic things: drive, shoot, pass to the screener, or pass to someone else. Those SportVU cameras track all such outcomes for the hundreds of pick-and-roll duos in the league, and wouldn’t you know it? Damn near every Orlando pick-and-roll combination involving Payton or Oladipo ranks among the 20 most likely to result in a drive by the ball handler.
That predictability comes at a cost. Defenses know Payton can’t shoot and go under picks against him, walling off the paint. Payton has to drive into a forest and often ends up literally colliding chest-to-chest with his defenders, resulting in charges and awkward shot attempts. Just throwing a pass back to his screener on the pick-and-roll is hard, since defenders lean into that passing lane.2 Here’s George Hill about to pick off a pass from Payton to Nikola Vucevic — a pass Hill anticipates early, since he’s unconcerned with the possibility of Payton shooting:
This is a tendency that has also hurt Ricky Rubio.
Payton has coughed up the ball on 23 percent of the pick-and-rolls he has finished, one of the worst marks in the league, according to Synergy Sports. It’s enough to make you long for a clean midrange jumper, and Orlando’s offense could use some simpler options. “You can’t strictly live on getting in the paint,” Borrego says. “We have to have balance.”
There are only two ways to change that:
1. Have Oladipo and Payton improve their jumpers and refine their driving games.
2. Stock the roster around them with shooters.
The first step is under way. Oladipo is approaching league-average status from 3-point range, and he’ll work his ass off until he’s even better than that. But the work extends beyond his jumper. Oladipo has to become a more varied off-the-bounce attacker, and the coaching staff has to put him in position to attack in more varied ways. Not every attack can be a pick-and-roll bull rush from the top of the arc against a set defense.
Over the last six weeks, Oladipo has shown a more patient change-of-pace game, with hesitation and in-and-out yo-yo bounces that lull defenders to sleep and make his full-speed bursts even more jarring:
He’s also been better about making the obvious, easy pass when the driving lane just isn’t there:
In fact, he says, that has become his mantra: Make the simple play.
“A lot of my turnovers — my charges and stuff — came from just trying too hard,” he says. “I have to make the simple plays.”
His turnover rate has dropped from disastrous to acceptable this season. “We’re seeing him make those simple plays,” Borrego says. “If he draws two guys, he kicks the ball.”
The Spurs’ offense looks intricate, but it’s really just a collection of brainy players making a simple play a dozen times on every possession: Find the open guy. Building a system that produces a constant stream of these simple plays takes years of seasoning and a collection of players committed to playing that way and capable of doing so. The Magic, for now, will take one or two simple plays per possession. You have to start somewhere.
The coaching staff has softened the learning curve for Oladipo by making some of his choices clearer and easier to read in a snap. Payton will start a possession with a pick-and-roll on one side of the floor, bend the defense toward him, and then swing the ball across to Oladipo’s side — where Oladipo can drive into an open lane before the defense can rotate:
The Magic also feature a misdirection play in which Oladipo sprints left-to-right across the foul line, with a screener trailing him, and catches the ball on the right wing for a pick-and-roll that starts when the screener arrives behind him. Look at that gorgeous swath of open land Oladipo has upon catching the ball here, with Vucevic scrambling over in case he needs a pick:
Defenses love to pin defenders along the sideline on the pick-and-roll, and this play is designed so that Oladipo gets the ball before a big-man help defender — the guy guarding Vucevic here — can leap into help position. Oladipo gets a clean lane toward his strong hand. “It’s tough for them to trap me on that play,” Oladipo says. “I can just go.”
Oladipo probably depends too much on his right hand for now. On pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor, he has a tendency to get left around the pick, and then immediately turn back toward his right — cutting into the path of his screener in the process:
That’s a score-first tactic — a way for Oladipo to walk into a midrange jumper or generate a switch. If a big man ends up guarding him, Oladipo can pull the ball out and go to work in a mismatch. It’s a simple play that stops the flow of Orlando’s offense, but it’s a healthy baby step that allows Oladipo some freedom to juke one-on-one.
It took some getting used to for his teammates. Vucevic had to delay his rolls to the basket or risk rolling right into Oladipo’s crossover dribble. “We had to figure that out watching film,” Vucevic says. “He likes to cut in front of me. But I’ve adjusted, and we can do a lot of different things together. We’re both unselfish.”
Oladipo will have to become a better midrange shooter for this to become a real weapon. But variety and patience are healthy qualities, and Oladipo shows both on this action.
The Magic can also help by slotting shooters at the other three positions, clearing help defenders away from the paint. That’s where things get thorny. Vucevic is money from midrange and has talked about possibly shooting 3s. He’s not quite dangerous enough to change defensive game plans — he’s not Dirk — but he qualifies as a stretch center.
The Magic tried to add in a stretch power forward who does bust defensive game plans in Channing Frye, but discovered that the Frye-Vucevic frontcourt offered too little defense and rim protection. Finding a big who can shoot and hide Vucevic’s limitations on defense will be tough; there aren’t many Serge Ibakas around. The LeBron-era Heat were an anomaly — the rare team that used its “bigs” to stretch the floor, allowed the guards to play inside, and survived on defense.
The future of the small forward position is unclear. Aaron Gordon is a hoppy non-shooter, Maurice Harkless vanished for most of this season, and Tobias Harris is headed toward free agency. Harris has improved his corner 3, but he’s spent a lot of his time at power forward, and his skill set runs a bit counter to the drive-and-kick system Orlando envisions. Harris can be a ball stopper, and he doesn’t grind on defense like Payton, Oladipo, or Gordon.
You can build a very good NBA team without great 3-point shooting, though that isn’t the ideal way to do it. But you need defense and a group of clever players skilled enough to execute bang-bang-bang plays in small spaces. The Spurs’ starting lineup features three guys without legit 3-point range,3 but they make it work with precise screening, constant motion, dribble handoffs, and hot-potato passing. If space is tight, you better get really good at operating in tight spaces.
Tony Parker’s random outburst from deep this season notwithstanding.
The Magic aren’t even in that universe, and they’re fighting uphill to create a functional NBA offense around two guards with unpolished jumpers. But every uptick in skill helps chip away at spacing issues, and Oladipo is showing encouraging signs as his second season comes to a close. When Payton and Oladipo are on, this team can produce some electrifying moments. That doesn’t make the future any less murky, but at least the present is fun.