Basketball / NBA | MAN ABOUT SPORTS

Magic try to compete without franchise centers of past

by Dave Wiggins

“Go big or go home” has been a recurring theme for the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Any deep postseason runs the Magic have enjoyed since their inception in 1989 can be directly tied to the presence of a humongous Orlando center who was a low-post scoring machine and shot-swatter extraordinaire.

With an absence of the same, the closest Magic players and fans have gotten to the NBA Finals is in front of a TV in their living rooms.

This season, there is once again no such colossus on the Orlando roster. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the Magic are doomed to yet more boob-tube time come April.

More on this later, but first a little history lesson on those former Orlando big men deluxe.

The first was Shaquille O’Neal, selected No. 1 overall in the 1992 draft by the then-struggling expansion franchise.

O’Neal proceeded to lead the Magic to their only finals appearance in 1995 (where they would fall to Houston in four games). And an Eastern Conference final in 1996.

When Shaq took his Big Nickname act to LaLaLand in ’98 and joined the Lakers via free agency, the Magic returned to mediocrity, at best.

Until big boy wonder Dwight Howard came directly from high school in Atlanta to Orlando in the 2004 draft.

The man-child Howard would also spark the Magic to some nice postseason advances between 2005-2012, including a finals appearance in 2009 where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But never a title.

Oft-criticized over this, Howard, feeling under-appreciated, eventually asked out of Theme Park Land and was granted his wish via a trade in ’12.

And in the years since, the Magic have been off the title contender radar.

Now, after four straight sub-.500 campaigns, the Magic once more lack a do-it-all dominator under the hoop this season.

Things look gloomy for them, right?

Ahh, but this is the NEW NBA.

The league has undergone a change in style of play that has given Orlando at least a modicum of hope.

Y’see the NBA is no longer the home of the inside-out game.

The days of the ball going in deep to a low-post center like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Hakeem Olajuwon as the first — and main — offensive option are dead.

In fact, the current prototypical big man is just as likely to be found outside, hoisting up 3-pointers or slashing to the hoop, as he is inside (hello Anthony Davis of New Orleans and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns).

Most of the offensive action now starts, and many times ends, on the perimeter.

Pick-and-pop. Pick-and-roll.

Quick ball movement to find a shooter open in his “sweet spot.”

Transition (from defense) offense.

Slashing to the hoop and scoring or dishing.

And if all this fails, then, OK, let’s throw the big fella a bone.

See if you can muscle up a shot, large dude center. And if the defense converges on you, then kick the ball back out to the open man.

Hello, 2017 NBA.

All this has to be music to the Magic’s ears.

The lyrics?

A center need no longer be the team’s centerpiece.

A center-by-committee approach is now even employed by many teams.

Under this pivot set-up, an outfit sometimes opts for a lean, finesse-favoring center with a good shot but only so-so rebounding or defensive skills.

Alternatively, they might go with a physical screen setter and paint protector who is somewhat offensively challenged.

Which one is used depends on the foe and situation.

Such is the modus operandi of the current Magic ball club under new coach Frank Vogel, who had great success in Indiana with this type of center rotation.

Slender and athletic Nikola Vucevic is their score-from-anywhere center but not exactly a tower of power on D.

So, to complement Vucevic, last offseason the Magic brought in 206-cm, 115-kg Bismack Biyombo, a voracious rebounder/defender/shot blocker who comes with offensive limitations.

And to augment that pair, Orlando also traded for 206-cm vet Serge Ibaka, a rough-and-tumble front court patroller with excellent shot-making skills (15.6 points per game this campaign).

“(Last season) we allowed a lot of points off offensive rebounds,” point guard Elfrid Payton told MAS. “Teams were pounding us in the paint. We needed help down there.”

Situation remedied.

The 193-cm Payton orchestrates Orlando’s New Age offense and is probably the best point guard you’ve never heard of, given his team’s dearth of TV appearances for export.

Super-slippery Elfrid, who averages 5.8 assists and 11.4 points per game, described his game thusly: “I’m most effective when I’m going to the rim and finding open shooters when defenders collapse on me.”

“If the defense sags off me (to prevent penetration),” continued Elfred, “I try to make ’em pay from the outside as much as I can.”

Mission accomplished in that regard.

“Elfrid has developed a nice shot from 15-feet out to keep defenses honest,” said Vogel.

“And he’s done a solid job of running the offense.”

Indeed.

Payton, who possesses a unique floppy-fronted hair-do that can best be described as a hirsute Smurf hat, recently had a 14-assist, zero-turnover game against the New York Knicks.

The rest of the Orlando roster is dotted with athletic, versatile players that are nice-sized, if not gigantic.

Like 206-cm forward Aaron Gordon, a jumping jack who can also bury shots from the corner.

Gordon averages 11.0 points per contest.

And then there’s the Magic’s leading scorer, Evan Fournier (17.5 ppg), a 201-cm swingman (combo guard-forward) possessing an outside touch as well as the ability to work his way inside to do scoring damage.

“We have a lot of talent on this team,” offered Gordon. “When we move the ball and find the open man we can definitely score the ball.”

Vogel says his rebuilt club is “still learning about each other, finding out where everybody likes to get the ball and is at his best.”

After a slow start, the Magic then played a stretch of .500 ball over 20 games.

They are currently 16-23, three games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

“We’ve been winning one, then losing one,” said Vogel. “As we get more used to playing together, hopefully we can start stringing W’s together.”

And maybe even expunge the haunting ghosts of Shaq and Dwight.

Email Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com