This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
On the surface, the Orlando Magic do not have a ball handler other teams fear in the pick-and-roll. Elfrid Payton is long gone, and the Magic haven't had an All-Star guard on their roster since Jameer Nelson a decade ago.
Opponent scouting reports won't highlight ball screens as a major point of attack or key in on individual players. Human nature can kick in and almost make Steve Clifford's team seem like a breather in between opponents with star guards that create a high volume of offense. It is true: the Magic do not have a single player that dominates the ball and facilitates everything for them.
Instead, they have five players averaging between three and five assists per game this season.
No other team has more than four players with at least three dimes per game that has played at least thirty games on the season, according to Basketball-Reference. Only the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers have an assist leader with fewer assists per game. Instead of playing through a single playmaker and facilitator, they pick apart opponents through an equal opportunity offense.
Thus far, Clifford's play calls revolve around leading scorer Nikola Vucevic acting as a stretch-5 at the top of the key. By far their best player, Vucevic has been outstanding this season, averaging 20.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 53 percent shooting. More impressive still, Vooch launches nearly three triples a game and is shooting close to 38 percent from deep.
Clifford's offense places Vucevic 25 feet from the rim and often reverses the ball through him to at least start plays—similar to what the Denver Nuggets do around Nikola Jokic or the Boston Celtics with Al Horford. Opposing bigs are then sucked out of the lane to guard his effective three-point range, and a series of cutters around him help dizzy the other four defenders.
A talented passer with great feel, Vucevic finds all the breakdowns that result from guard-to-guard screens near the corners. He delivers the ball on time and on target to those cutters surrounding him:
The value of a 5-out offensive scheme, which their possessions normally begin with, is the space provided at the rim when the ball is at the top of the key. Backdoor cuts can open up, as do numerous angles for screens to free shooters. Plays aren't called for specific players to score, just for certain ones to initiate the actions.
Beyond simple cutters, the Magic will engage in plenty of dribble handoffs and ball screens with Vucevic on the perimeter. These act as the same type of action, springing an advantage towards the middle of the floor for guards to capitalize. With his handoffs, Vooch has a wide frame that blocks defenders from sneaking through the action. With his ball screens, the pick-and-pop is likely always lurking in the back of his defender's mind.
The whole team runs with great changes of pace around Vucevic. Someone slow cuts into speedy handoffs. Someone sharp cuts that springs open a teammate. All while the slow-motion Vucevic comfortably bounces the ball along the three-point line and springs open his options. The movement is dizzying to prepare for:
Such a diverse offensive player requires unique coverage, and most teams cannot provide that extra attention away from the basket. The result is a borderline All-Star campaign that has propelled the Magic to the edge of the playoff picture and near the top in their division.
Following the roller derby of movement around Vucevic, the offense settles into other sets or some ball screens designed to thrive with little time on the clock. That is where traditional facilitating guards like D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant shine.
Augustin, in particular, thrives in a conservative system where ball security is key. Among qualified players, he is seventh in in assist-to-turnover ratio.
As patient off the bounce as they come, Augustin has a great feel for cycling through the lane after an initial action and dribbling along the baseline, a la Steve Nash. Defenses don't know how to react to his constant zig-zagging, and cutters spring open around him. He's got an excellent feel for re-finding Vucevic on the pick-and-pops, toying with the center's defender in the process:
This is how a team that isn't too heavily ball-screen reliant sees assists rack up from some of their other sets within early offense. Augustin and Grant routinely handle the ball while combination screening actions take place. All the guards must do is secure the rock and wait for an opening to appear.
From there, an assist is easy.
An underrated scorer and facilitator in his own right, Evan Fournier can thrive in these actions as well. Since he's such a great shooter, he'll draw extra attention coming off screens. So man-down screens and dribble handoffs come his way that, with that volume of time with the ball in his hands on the move, he's bound to find his teammates open as he draws attention to himself:
Even Aaron Gordon gets in on the facilitating fun.
He runs around three ball screens a game as the ball handler and derives a good deal of production from them. His passes out of those scenarios result in 1.281 PPP, a rate that would place him in the league's top ten percent. A.G. stands in at the 4-spot, meaning the second-largest defender frequently guards him.
Big-to-big ball screens are difficult to stop because most of the height is involved in the action on the perimeter. That takes away their availability to help from the weak side and means the secondary defenders tasked with protecting the rim are smaller shooters. As such, Gordon needs just one quick move to accelerate past the screening action to either finish at the rim himself or find a rolling big man for the dump down:
The length and finishing ability of Mo Bamba and Vucevic certainly attract gravity on their rolls. The team's leading scorer, Vucevic has generated more points out of roll situations this year than Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis or DeAndre Jordan. Weak-side defenders must run to the rim in a hurry to prevent those easy dump-down finishes for Vooch.
Staying one step ahead, he moves the ball off these short rolls and finds the open man, anticipating the coverage from the defense:
The Magic are still a bottom-half offensive group in the league but are also probably a bottom-half group in terms of talent. Clifford knows how to maximize the effectiveness of the talent he's given by making sure they employ ball security, sets that fit their personnel and are always doing the simple things well.
As Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman remarked during the introductory press conference for Clifford this spring, "The bottom line is when you play a Steve Clifford team, you have to beat them. They don't beat themselves."
The level of discipline his teams play with, and their care for the basketball, comes from his willingness to spread the ball around the floor. Defenses can easily load to one star player and take it out of their hands, a common way turnovers are generated.
Based on the system Clifford has installed that spreads the wealth around the floor, it's hard to pick what to take away for those trying to beat them.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).