The Orlando Magic are answering the question of the most definitive position in the NBA today with versatile, quick power forwards and not with a stretch-4.
The NBA’s definition of a power forward is changing. Or rather, it has changed. And changed pretty dramatically.
Two decades ago, the power forward was a mini-center. He was someone who could provide some extra size in the paint and decent post offense and defense. Their only difference was their little bit of mobility and ability to hit a mid-range jumper.
Players like Karl Malone, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman and Charles Oakley typified the power forwards of the 1990s. Charles Barkley previewed some of the versatility in the position, but he preferred to have his back to the basket (see: all his comments on Inside the NBA).
Someone who was in a coma since those days in the 1990s and watched basketball today would not recognize the position. It slowly transformed into the ultimate flex position.
The Orlando Magic had a role in that transformation. Following the downsizing that began in earnest with Shawn Marion and the Phoenix Suns’ seven seconds or less offense, Rashard Lewis became the ultimate stretch-4. The versatile forward could defend the traditional power forwards like Kevin Garnett, but forced them to defend the 3-point line.
Lewis and the 2009 Magic proved this style could win in the NBA. And it spread like wildfire throughout the league.
Now the ideal power forward is Draymond Green, a versatile defender who can step out and hit the 3-pointer and guard just about every position. Even the archetype of a stretch-4
Even the archetype of a stretch-4 has changed. He is no longer a Ryan Anderson-type shooter. The position almost requires versatility.
The Magic are embracing this new type of stretch-4 now.
Both Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac are versatile, big wings who can guard multiple positions and get out on the perimeter while having the size to work closer to the basket. They fit the super versatile defensive wings the league seems to favor right now.
It definitely fits a type for Orlando.
Aaron Gordon especially went on a strange journey to get to power forward finally. The Magic tried him at small forward for the first three-quarters of last season to accommodate Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was more of a hybrid stretch-4, a traditional power forward and rim protector who grew into a 3-point shot.
Gordon did not quite fit the small forward role. Against other athletic forwards, Gordon’s struggles to handle the ball and create off the dribble from the 3-point line limited what he could do. His poor 3-point shooting did not help either.
Largely at small forward before the All-Star Break, Gordon averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 29.2 percent from beyond the arc and 42.8 percent overall. This did not fit Gordon’s skills, dulling his athleticism and his ability to put pressure on interior defenses with his speed and slashing ability.
When he went back to power forward after the All-Star Break, Gordon averaged 16.4 points per game and shot a much more efficient 50.3 percent from the floor. Gordon found his home at power forward.
Gordon fits that mold. So too does Jonathan Isaac, another rangy and athletic wing player who has the size to guard players big and small.
Eventually, Gordon and Isaac will have to learn to play together. But for now, it seems the Magic are falling into using both at power forward. They are looking at the versatile, long wing player as their power forward more than the traditional shooter. They want to use their switching ability to disrupt offensive flow.
This is the power forward the Magic are trying to use, not the traditional stretch-4 who uses his size to pull players away from the basket and drain 3-pointers.
This could end up being a problem. The Magic lack any great outside shooting and could probably use a power forward who can spread the floor. Both Isaac and Gordon likely need to develop a stronger 3-point shot to reach their true potential and eventually play together.
Orlando does not have a ton of options to play that more traditional shooting stretch-4. The Magic are not going to have a stretch-4 at all. They will have that new model versatile-4.
Orlando’s attempts at a stretch-4 always struggled. They tried Channing Frye for a few years. While he made a lot of 3-pointers, he struggled defensively next to Nikola Vucevic. Frye ultimately did not fit. Neither did Ersan Ilyasova.
Nikola Vucevic may one day evolve into this new wave of stretch-5s. He shot 30.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, but averaged 1.0 3-point attempts per game for the first time in his career and took 75 of his 101 career 3-point attempts last year.
The Magic are still looking for shooting somewhere. They will have to find it in odd places considering their lack of shooting elsewhere on the roster. The rest of the roster will only serve to constrict space for the team’s ball handlers and drivers.
Orlando is seeking to find versatility in the roster. And the power forward position is the center of that versatility. Gordon and Isaac are likely the premier players on the Magic roster at the moment. And, for now, they both play the same position.
This critical position to the modern NBA.
Orlando seems set there. And it will define their style of play for the foreseeable future.