NBA All-Star Game only highlighted Orlando Magic’s need for shooting

Big men shooting is the norm as Nikola Vucevic and Domantas Sabonis showed off in the Skills Challenge. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)
Big men shooting is the norm as Nikola Vucevic and Domantas Sabonis showed off in the Skills Challenge. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images) /

The 3-point contest started before the game with Stephen Curry going to his last shot to upend Mike Conley in a classic, but leisurely battle for the player many consider the best shooter of all time. But it continued into Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.

With a minute to play in the second quarter Damian Lillard pulled up from half-court, lofting a 3-pointer that looked like he was shooting it from the regular 23-feet, 9-inches of a 3-point shot. Not to be outdone, Curry pulled up from the same spot with the same ease and comfort.

The game itself, a 20-point win for LeBron James’ drafted team, ended when Damian Lillard hit the target score with yet another comfortable half-court shot. Heave is not the right word for these shots, they were normal shots clearly within range for these two players.

Nobody is about to try half-court shots regularly — although 30-foot “logo” shots are quickly becoming more normal for select players. This was still an All-Star Game.

Still, the game itself, a collection of the best players in the league, always says something about the direction the league is heading in. It is a sugar rush of the place the league is in.

And without a doubt, the 3-point shot is the headliner of this NBA. Not even just the 3-pointer but how far back teams are taking these 3-pointers.

The NBA All-Star Game put on full display how shooting and elite shooting can transform teams and players into superstars. It is a skill set the Orlando Magic are way behind on, despite small signs of progressing.

In an All-Star Game, everyone is liable to chuck up shots — that seemed to be Team Durant’s strategy especially as they fell further behind — but this year saw the teams go a combined 58 for 133. That is 43.6-percent on 3-pointers!

These are the best players in the world after all. And while the rules and intensity of the game are different than a normal game, it still showed off how skilled these players are as shooters and how they have completely warped the game.

Vooch joins the revolution

Even in missing, Nikola Vucevic was part of the revolution himself. He made only one of his five 3-pointers, finishing the All-Star Game with five points and seven rebounds on 2-for-6 shooting.

Even in trying to stay out of the way, the center hung around the 3-point line and remained a threat. The same went for fellow sharpshooting big Nikola Jokic, who finished with six points and seven rebounds although he did not attempt a 3-pointer in the game.

Vucevic was a bit player among the star of stars in the game. He played only 13 minutes and did not seem too interested in getting in the paint partially to stay out of the way of the drivers going for dunks and probably to save some energy for a grueling season ahead.

But even Vucevic would have to admit, he was at this All-Star Game because of his shooting.

"“It opened up so many more options offensively,” Vucevic said after the game. “Obviously The shot itself. From there, once they start closing out to me, I can drive to the paint, score and make plays for others. It opens up more space for me to make plays and get assists. if they switch, I get to the post and that creates mismatches. It’s so much that it brought for me. Not just about my offensive game. Being able to shoot that really helped me add things that fit my skill set.”"

Vucevic’s game has undoubtedly taken another leap this year. The 3-point shot is as big a reason as any.

He is averaging 24.6 points per game and 11.6 rebounds per game. But his shooting has taken a huge leap. He is posting a 54.8-percent effective field goal percentage, near his career-high. That number is made all the more impressive by the fact he is making a career-best 41.2-percent of his 3-pointers on a career-high 6.5 attempts per game.

Vucevic has fully incorporated the 3-pointer into his arsenal. And it has made him that much more dangerous as a player. Even on a depleted Orlando Magic team.

The fact he stood around on the 3-point line at the All-Star Game and remained a threat is a sign of his evolution in the game.

It was also a sign of how the game is evolving and changing in different ways.

Slow progress in shooting

The 3-point shot is in.

The 2009 Orlando Magic were a revolution in 3-point shooting, taking 26.2 per game (second in the league). Now that many 3-pointers would be more than a 3-pointer less than the fewest in the league.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Players like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry have redefined what a good shot is for some shooters. And at the end of the day, shooting is the skill teams look for most to surround star players. Maybe that has never changed. But it has never felt more important now.

Players’ ability to create space with the 3-pointers and have other players space the floor is more important than ever. It literally changes games.

When the Magic talk about how small their margin for error, much of it is born from their lack of knock-down perimeter shooting. The team’s poor 3-point shooting, especially from role players, makes everyone’s life harder.

Orlando for the season is not as bad of a 3-point shooting team as one might think. The Magic rank 20th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (35.6-percent) and 20th in attempts per game (33.2 per game). Those numbers may not matter as much as the perception of their shooting.

The Magic are building a bit better at this than one might expect. The team has three players shooting better than 40-percent from deep — James Ennis, Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu. Chuma Okeke (38.6-percent) and Evan Fournier (37.1-percent) are hanging on the periphery. Aaron Gordon (36.9-percent) is hanging near that mark too.

Vucevic is taking fewer open 3-pointers this year and his gravity rating, according to Basketball Index, is among the highest in the league. Defenders are paying attention to him. The same cannot be said for Ennis and Aminu (both rate among the worst in the league with Aminu still essentially being ignored from deep by this metric).

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The Magic’s other shooters that generate a ton of attention in Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross have struggled this year. Both are solid in gravity ratings according to Basketball-Index, but nowhere near big as Vucevic.

But perhaps, the Magic are getting better at finding spot-up shooter than they are getting credit for (Cole Anthony is shooting 32.5-percent from beyond the arc, but was making 40.7-percent of his 3-pointers in the 15 games before his injury).

Like everything, the Magic are building slowly. But the biggest thing they are clearly missing is a creator in their starting lineup who is a constant 3-point threat.

That is the star that would tie everything together. And it is seemingly even more necessary in this league.

3-point shooting is what lowers the margin for error. It is what gives the team to cushion to have poor defensive games or poor defensive stretches. It is the skill that gives a team the confidence to come back from a deep deficit.

It is not everything for this team yet. But it is increasingly the weapon teams use to leverage drives to the paint and create space elsewhere. It is a tool the Magic just have not been able to use often enough.

Isaac showed signs of being a better spot-up shooter before his injury in the bubble. Gordon has slowly improved as a 3-point shooter (although it remains inconsistent). But the Magic obviously need more. They need the reputation of being shooters as much as anything else.

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This is the direction the league is headed. There is no denying or avoiding it at this point. And the Magic have to catch up.