Rock, Paper, Scissors: Frank Vogel and Flexibility

Line-up versatility could prove the key for a promising Orlando Magic roster



Frank Vogel has said all the right things since being officially announced as the new Head Coach of the Orlando Magic earlier this week. Along with a verbal commitment to play fast and get out in transition, a style this team has been crying out for, Vogel waxed lyrical about the young core he has at his disposal, what a great job GM Rob Hennigan has done in assembling it, and most important of all, a promise that “we’re gonna win”.
Whilst this is all par for the course for any new coach, it is easy to believe in Vogel’s words when you take into account his impressive track record with the Indiana Pacers, which includes two Eastern Conference Finals appearances. By all accounts the Magic front office has done extremely well to lure him to Orlando given Vogel’s pedigree and stiff competition for his signature from other teams in need of a head coach, such as Memphis. Vogel hinted that the reasoning on his part was relatively straightforward: the Magic’s roster holds much more promise than the Grizzlies.

However, by ‘promise’, he isn't just referring to the age. In his press conference Vogel stated that his team were “going to adapt to the way the NBA is played today” without going on to explain exactly how that was. There are a myriad of interpretations to such an ambiguous statement but the image that springs to mind is of the Golden State Warriors and their emphasis on ball movement, the three point shot and small-ball line-ups. Not every team is trying to play like the Warriors, however. Simply put, most teams can’t. A certain personnel and level of talent are required before you even begin to think about those perpetual motion flare screens and corner threes.

The one thing teams can replicate, and the smart ones are already beginning to do so, is the line-up flexibility that has allowed Golden State to flourish. It is no surprise to see the Oklahoma City Thunder, currently leading 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals, causing the Warriors all kind of problems with constant line-up changes to match their own. This was previously the ace up Golden State’s sleeve. Facing a fourth quarter deficit? No problem, Steve Kerr would say, as he moved Draymond Green to center and watched the rest of the line-up of death queue up at the three-point line and eradicate whatever lead the other team had worked so hard to build. Now, it is happening to them. The Thunder are wheeling out an extra large, mustachioed line-up with both Adams and Kanter on the floor and killing the Warriors on the offensive glass as a result. If that isn’t working, they can match the Warriors and go small, moving Ibaka to center and thus having four capable shooters stretch the floor for either Westbrook or Durant without losing too much rebounding or rim protection.

The reason the Warriors and the Thunder can switch so seamlessly between line-ups is down to the players each team possess that are capable of defending multiple positions. Whether Green, Iguodola and Barnes or Durant and Ibaka, having forwards capable of holding their own against opposition big men, as well as switching onto smaller guards on the perimeter, is incredibly beneficial in the modern NBA. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, they can all shoot. Few teams in the league can boast a single player that can genuinely do all of the above… the Warriors have three.

This brings me back to my original point and why the Magic are so attractive to Frank Vogel. In Aaron Gordon, the Magic have a 20 year old who has the potential to guard all five positions, from point guard to center, and create absolute havoc on the defensive end. Like the aforementioned Draymond Green and the man that strikes fear into absolutely everyone with a basketball in their hands, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon will one day have the ability to switch every pick and roll without losing an inch and then run the floor like a guard when the opposition inevitably turn the ball over. Along with his renowned athleticism, Gordon boasts an improving outside shot and a solid defensive IQ that will only improve with more playing time. It is important to remember he only claimed a starting berth from the stringent Scott Skiles during the latter half of the current season.

Gordon is undoubtedly the key to unlocking a multitude of different line-ups that Vogel will work on with the Magic, but he is supported by a number of young, versatile players still developing. Victor Oladipo is already an accomplished disruptor on the defensive end and will be key to shutting down the star point guards rife within the league. Elfrid Payton meanwhile, possesses great size for his position but has struggled defensively at times during his first two terms. His length and height, however, do mean that he and likely back-court partner Oladipo can swap assignments at will, with Elf picking up less threatening guards or wing players.

Sliding up or down a position will be an important feature of this Magic team going forward, and to do so they’ll need long, agile wing players. Evan Fournier has proven himself an extremely valuable defender at shooting guard and whilst he is occasionally undersized at the small forward position, he has shown over the course of the season that he can still make life tough for bigger wings just through sheer hustle and work rate. Mario Hezonja, meanwhile, has all the physical tools necessary to lock-up anyone from 1-4 and will undoubtedly be trusted with more minutes under Vogel's tutelage. 

Taking all this into account, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vogel experiment with a genuinely frightening super-small five of Gordon/Hezonja/Fournier/Oladipo/Payton for a few minutes a game. Whilst not sustainable for long stretches, that line-up would completely decimate opposing units if allowed to run the floor. That five man unit features four very good ball handlers who can all create off the dribble and more importantly, pass. The extent of the group's success, both as a singular line-up and as the core of the Magic, will likely rest on Elfrid Payton's continued development of an outside shot to keep defense's honest and maintain the spacing required for small-ball to thrive.

When Payton is struggling and defense's begin cheating, the beauty is that Gordon can slide down to either forward spot and create room for one or two big men and a more traditional post-orientated offense. In Vucevic and Nicholson (should he re-sign), the Magic also possess two players who can really hurt teams down low, and if Vucevic begins attempting corner threes this coming season, as anticipated, it won't hurt their spacing as much if they keep Payton on the floor. Like the San Antonio Spurs Duncan/Aldridge/Leonard frontcourt or the Adams/Kanter/Durant adjustment that has worked so well for the Thunder, this versatility will prove invaluable come playoff time for this young team, whether this year or the next. The Magic are perfectly situated to evolve faster than most other teams in the league and catch up with the likes of the Western Conference Finalists simply by having greater flexibility; a rock, paper, scissors style counterpunch to swing a game, or eventually, a series.

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