2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Gary Clark reveals Orlando Magic’s need for a stretch-4

Pressed into duty during the playoffs, Gary Clark showed the Orlando Magic how valuable a stretch-4 can be. Mandatory Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Pressed into duty during the playoffs, Gary Clark showed the Orlando Magic how valuable a stretch-4 can be. Mandatory Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic signed Gary Clark to help soften the blow of losing Jonathan Isaac to injury. His playoff performance revealed his value as a stretch-4.

In a playoff series, teams are essentially making a series of gambles and bets about where they should put their focus. They ultimately have to decide what they are willing to give up and what they will allow to beat them.

With so much time and focus to put on stars and pet plays, teams have to be creative to get their best players in their spots. They ultimately need role players to step up and provide unexpected contributions to free up space for starts to operate.

The Milwaukee Bucks did not change very much defensively in Game 1 against the Orlando Magic. There was definitely a vibe of the Bucks simply playing their regular-season scheme and seeing what the Magic would do to challenge it, banking on their talent and Giannis Antetokounmpo to keep the game competitive.

Nikola Vucevic took advantage of the holes in that defense — really throughout the series — popping to the mid-range and draining jumpers with ease. That was the first adjustment.

But what gave the Magic the lift to steal Game 1 and make the Bucks really worry came from that unlikely source. It came from the kind of player the Bucks were seemingly willing to live with.

Gary Clark, like D.J. Augustin in Game 1 of the 2019 Playoffs, will forever live in Magic lore for how he helped deliver a playoff victory (although nowhere near as dramatically). He scored 15 on 4-for-12 shooting (all from beyond the arc) and proved to be the difference in the Magic being able to compete and potentially win in the series.

Gary Clark added another strong game in Game 4 with 12 points and another four 3-pointers (this time 4 for 8). That shooting was a huge impact for the Magic that the team clearly lacked.

Clark deserves a ton of credit for doing his best to defend Antetokounmpo throughout the playoffs. It was a huge task for a player not known for his defense and who played inconsistently throughout the course of the season after the Magic added him in January.

But therein lies the problem. Clark probably was not best fitted for the role the Magic ultimately came to rely on him for. That is why his minutes were sporadic and why the Magic ultimately opted to acquire James Ennis to make the lineup fit better. Clark got lost in the shuffle.

Gary Clark was used as a utility hitter it seemed, trading time with Wesley Iwundu or Khem Birch depending on the matchup.

Gary Clark essentially played because Aaron Gordon could not play 48 minutes. When Jonathan Isaac was back, it was clear Gary Clark was not needed.

That is an oversimplification, of course. The Magic signed Clark to get more versatility and size at power forward after their experiments with Birch at the position flamed out. And he largely provided that.

Clark averaged only 3.6 points per game and shot 35.0 percent on 3-pointers in his games with the Magic. Orlando got good use out of him early but quickly reduced his role as he struggled to shoot. He found his rhythm again once the team entered the campus and his playing time became more consistent out of necessity.

Pressed into a starting role because of injuries in the Playoffs, Clark made his mark, averaging 7.4 points per game and shooting a 50.0-percent effective field goal percentage thanks to shooting almost exclusive 3-pointers.

Per Game Table

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/12/2020.

Playoffs Per Game Table

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/12/2020.

But it was not a complete picture. And his playoff run revealed how valuable the idea of Clark could be.

The Stretch-4

The Orlando Magic needed Gary Clark in the wake of the Jonathan Isaac injury. And they immediately employed him like a stretch-4.

The problem is that is probably not his complete role. He has the capability and everyone envisions him a shooter, but he is not a great shooter, even if he is above-average in that respect.

About the only place where Clark was well above-average as a shooter was in the corners where he made 42.9 percent of his shots. Unfortunately, that is not exactly where the Magic are good at getting shots.

This would not be a problem except almost all of Clark’s shots are 3-pointers. So if he is not hitting 3-pointers at a consistent rate, his value decreases dramatically.

But there was something to the way the Magic used Clark that proved revealing. The Magic’s lack of shooting left a lot of their shooters open, but they have at least a few guys who can make the defense think. They would undoubtedly benefit from a pure stretch-4.

When the Magic won Game 1, it was because Clark was able to hit from the outside.

While the Magic lack a reliable creator off the dribble, they have players who are capable of getting into the teeth of the defense. Especially if Markelle Fultz continues to improve as a driver, creating space and being able to kick out to shooters will be key.

Here, the Bucks are perfectly content to come off Clark some and try to dig into the paint. Fultz is able to kick the ball out to Clark and he is able to hit the shot before Giannis Antetokounmpo can recover.

It certainly helps too that Evan Fournier is drifting toward the corner to occupy Wesley Matthews. This is the power of having a few shooters. It creates space for everyone and makes everyone’s life easier.

A floor-spreading forward with solid defensive fundamentals proved a great complement to Nikola Vucevic, Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier. The fact the Magic’s playoff games turned into whether or not Clark was able to hit shows how valuable it is to have a catch-and-shoot player at that position.

In all, Clark made just 33.8-percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunities. That shows the Bucks’ bet that Clark would not beat them was the correct one in the end. And it shows the Magic could really use a 3-point shooter at the forward position.

That of course will be tough with the forwards the Magic have in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac — along with Al-Farouq Aminu and Chuma Okeke — who are all not considered shooters at this point. The Magic’s need for shooting is certainly a highlight for the offseason.

The idea with Clark of adding someone who essentially operated as a spot-up shooter only proved to be an effective one. Clark just may have been the imperfect player to fill it.

Defensive toughness

No one would fault Gary Clark for his attempts to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason. Antetokounmpo had a tough go of things at various points, but he still managed to average 30.6 points per game, 16.0 rebounds per game and 6.0 assists per game.

The Magic were down their two best perimeter defenders and the third player they signed specifically to make sure they had a big body on players like Antetokounmpo. Injuries gutted Orlando’s entire defensive strategy for the playoffs.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Clark did his best. He is not a huge impactor on defense, but he makes up for that with opportunistic swipes at the ball, the ability to be in the right place to collect loose balls and strong positioning.

Since Clark is not the most reliable 3-point shooter, he has to make his mark in the league by being a reliable defender. And he is that for the most part, although nobody will confuse him for a starter-level defender despite his best efforts to pinch-hit during the Playoffs.

According to Basketball Index, Clark’s opponents attacked the rim on fewer occasions than almost anyone in the league — he was in the 82nd percentile in that measurement. Of course, he was largely up against bench units who probably did not have players who would attack from the forward spot.

When opponents did get into the lane against him, they shot 11.1 percentage points better than expected. If Clark did not get to his spot to repel the drive, then opponents were going to score over him. This is where his lack of size hurts him.

Clark’s entire defensive strategy was based on his positioning and his ability to beat players to a spot and force them to turn back. He is pretty good at that.

But that is not something anyone can rely on from a starting player, as the Magic had to in the Playoffs. Like everything else, the postseason put Clark in a position where he was not likely to succeed.

Clark did his best in that position anyway. And fared about as well as anyone could expect against an MVP like Antetokounmpo.

Fill-in and the future

B. . PF. Orlando Magic. GARY CLARK

There just is not a whole lot else to say about Gary Clark.

He was sold to Orlando as a more traditional stretch-4 who could help spread the floor and soften the blow of losing Jonathan Isaac. In that sense, Clark largely did that.

But he was nowhere near good enough of a shooter to play the role the Magic had designed for him. He was solid enough to be trusted for sure but not solid enough to use full-time. He was put into the same bin as Wesley Iwundu and Khem Birch. Coach Steve Clifford knew he could turn to Gary Clark when he needed, but it was rarely his first option.

Clark showed all he could do and all his limitations in the postseason when the Magic were forced to play him.

He was tough-minded and disciplined to execute the Magic’s game plan and help try to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, as futile as that might be. He was a reliable 3-point shooter to help the Magic get a win in the series. But he was not reliable on either front to change that series.

Ultimately, Milwaukee adjusted. The Bucks started packing the paint and pressuring ball handlers and daring the Magic’s shooters to beat them. Especially Clark.

He could not copy his Game 1 performance and the Magic could not hold things together long enough in Game 4 to copy that performance and steal another victory.

But it did reveal something, as the playoffs often do. Clark’s threat as a stretch-4 gave the Magic a much-needed added dimension. The idea of using Clark in that role may not have worked out, but there was enough proof of concept that perhaps a purer stretch-4 should be something on the Magic’s wish list.

It does not seem likely Clark will return next year at the moment. Orlando is still pretty loaded at the forward position. They have at least three players who probably fare better as power forwards with another one who seems likely to spend some time at power forward too.

There simply is not enough room on the roster for Clark.

Next. Evaluations: D.J. Augustin gives a guiding hand. dark

And so Clark’s time with the Magic will be short-lived. But the lessons the Magic likely learned from seeing how he could work with the team could prove valuable moving forward.