2021 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Steve Clifford must optimize Magic’s offense

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has helped build the team's defense. But he will go only as far as he can build the offense. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has helped build the team's defense. But he will go only as far as he can build the offense. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Steve Clifford will need to develop a strategy to optimize a roster with serious offensive limitations if the Orlando Magic are to return to the postseason.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has built his reputation in this league for being a defensive-minded coach. His résumé speaks for itself. He has continually taken lesser defensively-talented groups and molded them into league-average outfits or better.

As coach of the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic during the last four seasons, Clifford’s teams have finished 17th, 17th, eighth and 11th in defensive efficiency league-wide, respectively. A glance at the rosters for these four seasons should provide Clifford sufficient credence for being able to squeeze all he can out the talent handed to him.

Losing Jonathan Isaac creates a big hole for the Magic defensively, but we have seen Steve Clifford ameliorate feeble defenses with a focus on team principles before. Magic fans should be confident in his ability to conjure the same defensive prowess in 2021 as he has done the last two seasons.

Not satisfied with last year’s defensive performance, Clifford said he took the team’s defense for granted and promised to recommit the team to a defensive mentality. This is still the central focus for the team and its path to success.

But the offense, well, is a different story.

The Magic have never been a strong offensive team under Clifford. They have not been a strong offensive team since Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard were the central figures for the Magic.

The team’s defense kept things close for the Magic the last two years as they made the playoffs. But it is a delicate balance.

If the team’s play on either side of the ball deteriorates even slightly, it could cost the Magic wins. So, what can coach do to take the-projected-to-be middling Magic offense and make it passable?

This is a central question for Clifford. And one of the big riddles he will work to solve.

The Magic feel like they found something offensively toward the end of last season — the team had the top offense in the league in the 10 games after the All-Star Break before the team went on hiatus. They did so with a focus on pace.

But that quickly fell apart as injuries overtook the team in the bubble. The Magic will have difficulty to recapture that spark and make it something consistent.

A lot of it will rest in Clifford’s decision making and strategy.

Lineup stratification

One recommendation to ensure the offense stays afloat: lineup stratification.

During media availability from training camp, Steve Clifford has hinted at using particular lineups that he found effective during the Magic’s bubble play. He also admitted he is exploring several odd lineups in preparation for potential absences during the season.

The most eccentric of those, which has gained traction with Steve Clifford and his staff, features Nikola Vucevic playing center alongside Khem Birch at power forward.

For a lot of reasons, this pairing makes sense defensively. It frees up Vuvevic to play in space, rather than owning the responsibility of serving as the main rim protector — a role he has not excelled at.

In 3,500 non-garbage-time possessions last season, the Magic defense allowed a mediocre 110 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic at center, per Cleaning the Glass.

Birch, as Clifford mentioned during media availability at the start of camp, is a versatile defender both in space and as a rim protector. Birch is the best defensive insurance for Vucevic-dominated lineups, and the data backs it up.

During the Orlando Magic’s five playoff games against the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble, lineups with Birch and Vucevic together limited opponents to 103 points per 100 possessions, in the 97th percentile among all lineups, per Cleaning the Glass.

But the greater concern with this pairing is Vucevic’s ability to elevate the Magic offense enough to compensate for Birch’s limited impact on that side of the ball.

To be certain, Vucevic is an underrated offensive threat. The numbers say he has been essential for the Magic’s offensive stability. But his offensive efficiency has never reached an elite level.

Vucevic has maintained a 51-percent effective field-goal percentage for his career, largely due to his passable 33.5-percent from beyond the arc.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Maybe the impetus for additional production this season will increase Vucevic’s efficiency. Maybe his tendency to ensure teammates are involved was intentional, and now he can make the compartmental switch to a “score-first” role.

I would not count on it. Vucevic understands his versatility impacts the Magic more than his shot creation, and he is cerebral enough to recognize that hero ball play is unsustainable.

The Magic are exploring every way they can maximize things. And Clifford, often seen as stubborn and unwilling to experiment, is showing some willingness to try some off-the-wall ideas.

Clifford even admitted he initially deployed the Vucevic/Birch lineups incorrectly. A measure he fixed in the bubble.

But with just 72 games, Clifford has to pull the correct levers quickly.

The shooting problem

The more grave issue for Steve Clifford is that, once again, the Orlando Magic lack outside shooting. There is an essence of untapped potential as training camp concludes and the preseason begins. But for now, that is all it is, potential.

Will they be able to rely on Chuma Okeke, who showed elite shooting prowess in his two seasons at Auburn? It seems probable he will make a gradual transition to the NBA, both in terms of his impact and minutes played following recovery from a serious injury.

D.J. Augustin’s departure spells further trouble for the Magic offense. He has been on the league’s best kept offensive secrets despite his size over the past half-decade.

But, is it possible that the Magic’s loss is Fultz’s gain? Could he reclaim the shooting stroke he showcased in his college days?

The Magic’s best offensive lineup comprised of only returners last season featured Markelle Fultz and Nikola Vuvevic alongside Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross. The secret to a better-than-expected 72-game offensive performance lies in the latter trio.

Shooting was the key to making many of the Magic’s oddest and most frustrating lineups work.

Gordon’s struggles last season are well documented.

His offensive efficiency — though never stellar — was well below what fans and the franchise expected of him. If Gordon could reclaim some form of an outside shot (he shot 36-percent from outside for the 2019 season), this adds one more wrinkle to the Magic offense.

Fournier has been an offensive savant for man years and he may be one of the league’s most-underrated pure-shooting offensive options. His outside shot has kept the Magic offense afloat, especially the last two seasons. We should expect that his production remains constant, especially since he will enter free agency next summer.

Ross may well be the X-factor that could take Orlando’s offense over the edge. It does not help that he suffered a hairline fracture in his big toe during camp workouts. Assuming Ross returns for the start of the regular season this may be his year to shine.

He has shown stretches of stellar 3-point shooting during his career. There is no reason to think Ross cannot display that level of efficiency again in the upcoming season.

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Ultimately, the offense will revolve around Vucevic, as it has throughout Clifford’s tenure. An increase in Vucevic’s minutes with Fultz, Fournier and Ross more could be a bellwether for Clifford and his staff’s gambit to juice the Orlando offense at the start of the season. It is much easier to continue an offensive streak than to start one midseason.

The main concern with an offensive game plan centered around Fultz and Ross is that both have shown inconsistent shooting stretches during their careers. Maybe Magic fans and Clifford can truly bank on Fultz’s struggles being due to injury. He was the brightest spot for this franchise last season.

It is clear though, the Magic are hoping for some player to make an offensive leap to take the team forward. Otherwise, the Magic will face the same difficulties as years before. And Clifford will be searching for a way to make it work.

In the end, what other options do Clifford and the Magic have?

And, even if this strategy is successful, will it be enough for the Magic to claim a third postseason appearance under Clifford?

Next. Orlando Magic Countdown to Opening Night Mailbag. dark

Clifford had his work cut out for him when he arrived in Orlando. Indeed, it will still be a tough task for Clifford to make the most of this team’s offense.