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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Vucevic, Bamba and the benefits of going big

The men in the middle figure to be a strength of the Magic’s roster this season

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Genuine regular season basketball is almost back, which means it’s time for us to finish breaking down the state of Orlando’s roster and making an educated guess as to what to expect from each of the different components. With the backcourt and the wings already out of the way, today we’ll cast our eye over the big men in the middle. Remember, we’ll be running through the old and the new before determining whether that section of the lineup is a strength or a weakness for the Magic. Let’s get started!

Familiar faces

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As has been the case for a while now, things in Orlando will run through Nikola Vucevic at both ends of the court. Over the last three years the Montenegrin big man has essentially reinvented himself as the ideal modern center, a multi-dimensional offensive threat who is generally able to hold his own defensively when the opposition makes him a target. Head Coach Steve Clifford has empowered Vooch by installing him as the team’s offensive fulcrum and having him helm a defensive scheme suited to his talents, with an All-Star appearance in 2019 the just reward for his output.

While he didn’t receive the same recognition last season, Vucevic’s campaign was again a very good one. He started slowly, struggling with both his shooting and injury, but by the time the playoffs (eventually) rolled around he was humming; his first round performance against the Bucks was genuinely magnificent, and demonstrated the full extent of his capabilities (when freed from Marc Gasol). Averages of 28 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists on 50.5% shooting (including 40.9% from deep) are impressive but don’t really tell the whole story. He was the reliable centerpiece that any team craves.

There are a few factors working against Vucevic that means he probably won’t get back to his All-Star peak: he’s a little older, there’s a need to find minutes for his backup, and the team’s usage figures to see a bit more of an even dispersal. Still, he should once again be both very good and incredibly consistent. Expect to see him continue to stretch his shot profile out beyond the arc, to facilitate more from the nail extended, and to further develop his two-man game with Markelle Fultz. Preseason has suggested that we may even see him flash some new defensive tricks, with the blitz and hedge in response to pick-and-rolls being deployed relatively frequently in these early contests. For a player who has made incremental improvements at this end of the floor over the last few years it would be another pleasing refinement.

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Behind Orlando’s incumbent is Mo Bamba, the third year big with an enormous wingspan. It’s been an interrupted start to his professional career, with injury, illness and inconsistency all costing the young center playing opportunities at various times. For that reason it’s been difficult to gauge precisely what his ceiling as a player happens to be.

Bamba found the sledding particularly difficult during his rookie campaign, posting generally inefficient statistical contributions and regularly featuring in Orlando’s worst lineups. For that reason it was pleasing to see some strides made during his sophomore campaign, with stronger figures recorded in terms of PER (from 14.9 to 17.5), VORP (0.1 to 0.5) box plus/minus (-1.4 to 0.4) and win shares per-48 minutes (.106 to .135). Much of this was built on the back of an improved long-range shooting stroke, with the big man launching triples both much more frequently and accurately - a great combination! 37.4% of all his field goal attempts were threes, a rate that put him among the team’s leaders and was easily the most prolific among the bigs.

It would also appear feasible that Bamba may one day develop into a difference maker on defense, a conclusion drawn based on his incredible length and prodigious block rate. In 2019/20 he swatted an absurd 8.8% of all two-point shots attempted when he was on the floor, a significant boost over his already impressive rookie rate. There’s no reason not to believe that, should he be able to stay on the court, Bamba can long rank among the league’s elite in blocked shots.

It’s in that last statement that the concern with Bamba emerges. In year two he actually saw a decrease in his minutes per game, including a dispiriting stretch late in which he started to play himself out of the rotation somewhat. A lack of offensive energy and sloppy defensive execution seemed to be the primary culprits, two complaints that have dogged the young big through the early stretch of his career. Bamba’s individual skills are undeniable, but they haven’t always resulted in a positive team impact. The hope is that, once he returns to the court, this is the season when the obvious talents start to coalesce in a way that consistently contributes to winning basketball.

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At the end of the center rotation is Khem Birch, an under-sized guy whose game is predicated on doing the dirty work and forever hustling. Although he’s limited on both sides of the ball he tends to play within his role, which means he’s rarely outclassed by his direct opponent in an entirely egregious manner. When in the game he can be counted on to set solid screens, attack the offensive glass, and play physical defense. In recent memory he’s also demonstrated the capacity to step in and take on more sizable responsibilities when the moment calls for it; remember, it was only eighteen months ago that his leapfrogging of Bamba in the rotation was a key factor in catapulting the Magic to a late season surge. Orlando would feel the sting of his limitations if the Big Maple were called on to play starters minutes, but as a relatively expensive luxury ($3.0 million this year), his presence on the roster only solidifies the team’s strength at center.

New blood

Unless over the offseason someone experienced a shocking growth spurt of which we are not yet aware, no new talent has been injected into Orlando’s big man ranks.

Strength or weakness?

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This section of the rotation is unequivocally a strength of the Magic’s current roster. Vooch is a supremely talented big man only one season removed from All-star honors, knocking on the door of the top five league-wide at the position courtesy of his silky smooth offense and improved defensive presence. Bamba has underwhelmed through his first two professional seasons for a variety of reasons, but he remains a potential-laden recent lottery pick with a prodigious block rate and intriguing three-point range. Even Birch, buried down the depth chart and somehow more likely to see playing time at the four than his natural position (please don’t, Cliff), is a luxurious ‘break in case of emergency’ third-stringer with recent stretches of competent play on his resume.

The main problem for the Magic is that their relative strength at this position is somewhat undermined by the state of modern basketball. The idea of a lumbering behemoth in the middle is a notion as extinct as the dodo these days, with some teams even emboldened to experiment with the idea of simply ignoring the center position entirely. Is it a wise or effective choice to have made such a hefty investment in a spot that has declined so precipitously in relevance?

In Orlando’s favor is the fact that their big man rotation is collectively possessed of many of the skills now seemingly needed to thrive at this position. Within the trio there’s shooting range, solid passing and playmaking, some adaptability on defense, strong positioning and glass work, pick and roll or pop capability, and even a dash of rim running. It’s perhaps made even more impactful by the fact that at least two-thirds of the minutes at this position figure to be absorbed by Vucevic, who has been the central pillar of the Magic’s modest success these last two seasons.

In most games Orlando can be confident that they’ll have the upper hand in the battle of the big men. Whether that tactical advantage is enough to win the war, however, remains to be seen.