The Magic were a jumbled mess from the beginning of the season.
Hedo Turkoglu broke his hand in the third quarter of the season opener and was not seen until December (and was really a no-show for the entire season.
Before the beginning of the season, the Magic were already prepared to use their second lineup in their second game. And the shifting began and continued throughout the injury-plagued season.
Some of it was certainly by design. Or allegedly by design. The Magic wanted to play their young players and so injured players were slow to get back. They would be on the sidelines until they were absolutely ready to return. And if it was too close to the end of the season, they would not come back at all.
Last season, Orlando used 28 different starting lineups. The most games they used any lineup was 14 games — the Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Jameer Nelson, Maurice Harkless, Nikola Vucevic squad. No other lineup was used more than 10 times last season.
And that most used lineup was also the Magic's best lineup, going 9-5 in those starts. It all came during the 12-13 start that had Magic fans hopeful of a surprise playoff run. That came crashing down when Glen Davis got hurt and inconsistency entered the Magic lineup.
"If the first game of the year we don't get a player hurt, I would love to have the same five guys that I started at the beginning of the year playing right now," coach Jacque Vaughn said before an early March home game against Memphis. "But injuries and other things don't always cooperate, just like the opponents don't always cooperate."
The injuries forced the Magic to put the young players in long before they were ready. Maurice Harkless certainly grew a lot from the time he made his first start to the end of the season.
The inconsistency though hurt Orlando's performance and changed the team's growth in the first year of this rebuild.
Losses were to be expected. This was a young team without a proven star or many players that could be expected to step in to a starring role successfully and consistently. Vaughn though was a coach who stayed within the moment and was coaching his team to play hard every night. That meant trying to win every night, even if that was not in the cards every night.
What was important for Vaughn that first season through all the inconsistency in roles and lineups each night was to put players in a position to succeed. That likely explains why Harkless' role was so small at the beginning of the season despite starting early on. He simply was not ready for much more.
By the end of the season though, Harkless could succeed. That was the growth the Magic as an organization wanted to see.
"I think for pretty much at some points almost every game this year except at the beginning of the year, there is always someone 23 years or younger on the floor," Vaughn said. "They're getting their opportunity to be in early game situations and late game situations. We start how many first and second-year guys? I think you put guys in opportunities to succeed, and that's the rationale behind it. If I like a matchup with one of our young guys and I feel an opportunity to go to him, I'll go to him. If not, I'll pick the matchup that is suited for us to have an advantage."
That was indeed the rationale for a season that went up and down with lineups. It became a joke of a question with the media — mostly because Vaughn always played coy with the answer.
The lineups next year are likely to follow the samem old. The veterans will get their time at the beginning of the season and slowly give way to the young players Orlando hopes to develop over the course of the next few seasons. When there are injuries, players (especially veteran players) will likely sit out extended periods of time until they are fully recovered, giving younger players the chance to start and play.
Consistency in a starting lineup will help the Magic see better results as a team and in the win-loss column. It is yet to be seen whether such a move would lead to the improved growth the organization is looking for. The odds are it would.