Breaking the lineup is a gamble for the Orlando Magic

Khem Birch has struggled to keep the Orlando Magic going off the bench and has the worst net rating of any player on the team. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images).
Khem Birch has struggled to keep the Orlando Magic going off the bench and has the worst net rating of any player on the team. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images). /

The Orlando Magic never know quite what they will get when they break their lineup and head to their bench. That inconsistency is hurting the team’s chances.

89. Final. 100. 38. 111

The Orlando Magic were supposed to have everything figured out. Sure, the team was adding in some new rotation pieces in Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba and Al-Farouq Aminu, but the whole roadmap for the team was supposed to be set. The rhythms and patterns that worked last year could all virtually remain in place.

There would be slight adjustments as the season went on. Everyone figured eventually Markelle Fultz might find his way into the starting lineup. Injuries would surely change things. But the Magic had a formula that could work for them in the regular season, at least.

Coach Steve Clifford was not so sure. He wanted to start things fresh.

He saw a team that struggled in the playoffs to score when he put their bench units in. The team needed to do something different to get to where it ultimately wants to go — as more than a playoff cameo.

Injuries did not help with this development. The Magic were slowly ramping up players minutes to a normal level before injuries struck again. Clifford has taken a seeming long-term view to how he gets his team through the season — only Jonathan Isaac has seen his minutes increase among players in the team’s starting lineup. Players are not playing “full” minutes yet.

And that may be the exact problem. The Magic have a working starting lineup and the problems for the team begin when they break the lineup.

It happened against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday in the Orlando Magic’s 111-100 loss.

Clifford addressed the media after the game and simply directed them to the box score to find out why the team had lost the game. There, they would see every player in the Magic’s regular rotation off the bench with a +/- of at least -12. The only starter with a negative +/- is Aaron Gordon, who plays as the anchor of the second unit.

Orlando trailed 18-17 when Terrence Ross was the first sub into the game. By the time the full second unit had entered the game — with Khem Birch and Wesley Iwundu entering for Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier — the team was holding steady down 22-20 with four minutes to play.

By the end of the first quarter, the Magic were down 37-25. The Bucks went on a 13-0 run to close the period.

The Magic’s offense was stuck, unable to find much traction against the Bucks’ strong defensive strategy to pack the paint. And they were able to flow into their offense and make 3-pointers.

Orlando found itself down by 17 when Jonathan Isaac, Nikola Vucevic and Markelle Fultz re-entered the game with eight minutes to play. Orlando had gone -19 in the eight minutes with Vucevic on the bench.

This was an extreme example of the Magic’s struggles late in the first quarter. But it highlighted how much the bench unit struggle — a group that typically features D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Wesley Iwundu (with Michael Carter-Williams out with a shoulder injury), Aaron Gordon and Khem Birch (with Mohamed Bamba currently out with a sprained ankle).

That group has not played much together. Just nine minutes across four games. That is hardly enough of a sample to draw too many conclusions. But a 38.9 offensive rating and 133.3 defensive rating still says a lot.

The Magic’s typical second-unit lineup of D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon and Mohamed Bamba posts a +4.3 net rating in 90 minutes (across 12 games). It is the third-most used lineup for the Magic and it has at least experienced some success.

So the whole system is not broken. The team has a workable rotation. But obviously, that group is not here in full right now. The Magic benefited from good health last year. That was not going to last. And Orlando’s depth — especially its offensive depth — is straining under the pressure.

The Magic’s starting lineup this year — Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic — posts a +1.9 net rating. It is a group that breaks about even.

Still, the starting lineup is fairly dependable. The Magic rely heavily on them to provide stability and movement.

The Magic are at their best with Vucevic on the floor — a +0.9 net rating — and at their worst without Isaac — a -6.2 net rating when Isaac is off the floor.

The Magic have struggled to tailor rotations to fit this fact.

Gordon and Vucevic both lead the Magic with 31.1 minutes per game. Both those numbers are down from last year — Gordon averaged 33.8 minutes per game and Vucevic averaged 31.4 minutes per game.

Injuries are at least part of the story why both have seen their minutes decrease. Vucevic played 31:42 in the loss to the Bucks. He has topped 33 minutes in just 10 of the Magic’s 31 games.

The back to back Saturday is possibly why his minutes were limited somewhat. But it is clear Orlando needs him on the floor. Especially with Birch playing the backup center minutes (the Magic are a team-worst -11.1 points per 100 possessions with Birch on the floor).

Injuries have undoubtedly ravaged the Magic this season. They have not been able to build consistency with their lineups or rotations for very long.

Carter-Williams has been in and out of the lineup. Gordon and Vucevic both came off sprained ankles in late November. Things have never quite settled for the Magic to set their rotation and really see what works.

Still, it is clear what works and what does not work. This is not the first time Clifford has noted the team’s biggest struggle is when it breaks the lineup and the bench comes into the game.

For sure, both Ross and Augustin have struggled this year. The Magic’s two main bench scorers have seen dramatic drops in their shooting. Ross is shooting 33.7 percent from beyond the arc this year after shooting 38.3 percent last year. Augustin is at 33.6 percent this year after shooting 42.1 percent.

That takes away quite a bit of punch from the Magic’s second unit.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

It took until late January for Clifford to find the bench combination that worked. He used Gordon as the primary starter with the bench unit, adding Fournier to the group to start the second quarter. that gave the group plenty of scoring punch with the team’s three best shooters on the floor.

The easy fix is to get healthy. And that does not seem to have a clear answer or be a solution for the moment.

Gordon left Saturday’s game with a sore Achilles and hinted he may take some time to get that injury right before returning to the court. Al-Farouq Aminu had a setback in his return from a torn meniscus. Carter-Williams is still out with a shoulder injury. Bamba is still day-to-day with a sprained ankle.

All four players play important roles for the Magic. Missing them all puts a lot of stress on the Magic.

The team is still looking for some offensive kick off the bench. The team could turn to B.J. Johnson, who has had a strong G-League run with the Lakeland Magic, for some temporary relief.

But it all comes down to what Clifford is willing to try.

The issue is what happens when the Magic break their lineup. And something has to change. Clifford has to be willing to increase starter’s minutes or more freely distribute minutes for his starters. There really should be few minutes where one of Fournier or Vucevic are on the floor. And Isaac probably should see his minutes increase because of the defensive impact he can provide.

Finding the right balance was a task for the Magic throughout last year. It took the team nearly 50 games to find the right playing groups to spark that run. And even that seemed fraught when it came to the playoffs — a place Clifford always has his eye on.

Next. Grades: Milwaukee Bucks 111, Orlando Magic 100. dark

The Magic have a lot of issues. The biggest is probably not having enough offense to spread around. The team has to find a way to force some balance and maintain some semblance of stability with their approach.