Orlando Magic’s problems go much deeper than placing Markelle Fultz in the lineup

The Orlando Magic hope Markelle Fultz can inject some offense into the struggling team. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic hope Markelle Fultz can inject some offense into the struggling team. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic made their first lineup change. But it is clear though the problems are much deeper than adding more Markelle Fultz.

38. Final. 91. 73. 87

The Orlando Magic made the change that seemed inevitable. It just did not seem like it would happen this quickly. Not with so much lost time to make up for and a coach notorious for being patient with rotation decisions. Five games were hardly enough time to make any major decisions.

But there he was. Six games into the season, Markelle Fultz was in the starting lineup.

The choice felt more inevitable than ever with how Markelle Fultz was playing to this point in the preseason and regular season. He showed he was a dynamic playmaker, able to get into the lane and find angles to dish passes that shocked fans but had become commonplace in practice.

The highlights of the early season came either from Jonathan Isaac‘s defense or literally anything Markelle Fultz did. Fultz just taking and making a 3-pointer was a case for celebration.

Fultz was coming off the bench and had some freedom to operate. The lineups were not good, playing without most of the starters, but it was a place for Fultz to experiment and get his comfort level back. When he did play with the starters, for however brief it was, the team played well.

Fultz had some impressive moments and games for someone who had missed so much time. Everything the Magic were getting from Fultz felt like a bonus.

The team brought in Fultz last February as its low-risk, high-reward answer at point guard. The supremely talented former top overall pick had been out for the entire year. This season was essentially his rookie year and the Magic were going to ease him in and try to keep the pressure off as he got his NBA legs under him.

But ultimately this team is about winning. It is trying to make the playoffs and expand on its first-round exit from last year. The team had to evaluate what was best for winning.

The Magic through five games were anemic offensively. And that might be putting it lightly.

No matter who the Orlando Magic put out there, the team’s defense was solid (except in a slip-up against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday) but the offense has struggled. Starters have not produced or shot at the same level as they did last year and the bench, very similar to early last season, has struggled to get any traction.

A five-game sample is still a bit early, but the team clearly felt like something needed to change and felt like they had enough evidence to suggest what that change needed to be.

So for Saturday’s game, Fultz was the starting point guard. He posted nine points on 4-for-7 shooting with two steals and three assists. It was not an overwhelming performance by any stretch.

Markelle Fultz had his moments — most notably an end-to-end and-one finish to give the Magic a five-point lead at the half or a nice transition pass to Aaron Gordon for a dunk early in the third quarter. But he largely stayed in the background. He brought the ball up and let Evan Fournier or Nikola Vucevic direct traffic.

Fultz is still strongest in transition with an open floor in front of him. He has not quite taken control of the offense in the half-court. Then again, no one for the Magic has.

In Saturday’s game, the Magic had a 112.2 offensive rating with Fultz on the floor. Only Khem Birch‘s four minutes saw the Magic scoring more effectively. Indeed, every starter for the Magic had an offensive rating better than 100 points per 100 possessions except for Aaron Gordon (who spends a lot of his minutes with the bench group).

For the season (a small six-game sample size), the Magic have a 96.9 offensive rating with Fultz on the floor, fourth among the Magic’s regular rotation players. The Magic’s new starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic has a 96.9 offensive rating and a -5.1 net rating.

The early season numbers are not exactly encouraging. Fultz might help make the Magic a better offensive team just from the threat of his attack off the dribble. But, even in small sample sizes, the results seem minimal.

The Magic added Fultz into the starting lineup hoping to add more balance to the rotation and more offensive punch and energy early in the game. But that is not enough. The team knows it has some big issues to solve, adding Fultz to the lineup is the first try to fix them.

Orlando is the only team that has yet to eclipse 100 points in any game. The team is last in almost every offensive category, or near the bottom in every category. Fultz alone is not going to fix this.

Fultz alone is not going to fix the team’s stagnant ball movement or imprecise passing. It is not going to fix the team’s often poor decisionmaking at the rim.

It is not going to make the Magic make the open shots they are getting. The Magic are shooting 29.6 percent on shots where the closest defender is six feet or more away and seventh in such attempts. And they are seventh in shooting (47.5 percent) when the closest defender is 4-6 feet away and 17th in such attempts.

The Magic’s margin for error is small with the number of shots they are missing. The culprit in the 91-87 loss to the Denver Nuggets was more because of turnovers and imprecise execution and fouling coming late in the shot clock to bail out the offense.

Orlando will not need a whole lot of offense if the team keeps playing defense at this level. The Bucks game excepted, the Magic are playing defense at an elite level. The Nuggets entered Saturday’s game as one of the best offenses in the league. The Magic essentially shut them down and frustrated them in the half-court.

Most of the Magic’s mistakes remain correctible and within their control. The team has only had poor late-game execution to blame for three of their four losses. The Magic’s season is not lost.

But the problems for this team offensively are clearly deeper than a simple lineup change.

One player is not enough to wake them up — certainly, one still getting his footing like Fultz. Coach Steve Clifford will have to ramp up minutes to normal levels and continue tinkering with the rotation until he hits on the right groupings. And the team will have to hit shots.

But the team is trying to find that pick-me-up and kick in the pants. That is what starting Fultz was designed to do.

Next. Grades: Denver Nuggets 91, Orlando Magic 87. dark

Perhaps it will. Fultz can provide a spark and the more confident and comfortable he gets with that lineup, the more he will be able to take over. And that might give the Magic an unpredictable attack the team currently lacks.