Orlando Magic must give Khem Birch, Wesley Iwundu time to regain rhythm

Wesley Iwundu is starting to get more playing time and the Orlando Magic hope that will increase his production. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Wesley Iwundu is starting to get more playing time and the Orlando Magic hope that will increase his production. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have turned to Khem Birch and Wesley Iwundu to fill in the rotation with Jonathan Isaac’s injury. The returns are mixed early on.

118. 96. 38. Final. 109

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford addressed the media following the team’s 109-96 loss to the Utah Jazz and took the blame for the loss.

The reality of the Magic’s situation was they have had to tape their roster together as injuries broke many of the plans they had before the season. Aaron Gordon returned from his sore ankle, but the depth the team had at power forward quickly dissipated — and even Gordon does not look quite 100-percent yet.

Clifford said some of the breakdowns the team had, especially early in the fourth quarter as the Jazz hit five 3-pointers within the first four minutes to break the game open, were simply rotations and coverages the team had not gone over. They were things that Jonathan Isaac would have covered and it was on Steve Clifford as the coach to instruct and drill the Magic on how they want to cover those situations.

Clifford could do nothing but praise his team for their fight in the face of this adversity. And without any practice time — the Magic have not practiced since Jonathan Isaac’s injury and will not get practice time until Tuesday before the end of the homestand and the beginning of their West Coast trip — the Magic are scrambling to find their footing.

Steve Clifford saved praise after Friday’s win over the Miami Heat for someone like Khem Birch. Until Friday’s shootaround, Khem Birch had not practiced any time at power forward. There was still clearly even in that big win moments where the Magic were a bit confused and in the wrong spot.

The team is still adjusting to its new reality. The roster is limited because of injuries — adding to the list Michael Carter-Williams and Al-Farouq Aminu, neither of whom are close to a return.

Lineup flexibility

Clifford is already starting to refine rotations and try out combinations that he likes. He is looking for ways for the Magic still to maximize their advantages.

He is showing plenty of flexibility with his lineups — choosing to match up with the Heat’s size to start Khem Birch on Friday and going smaller with Wesley Iwundu in the lineup on Saturday.

Both lineups had their successes and their failures — Friday’s starting lineup had a -24.0 net rating in 12 minutes and Saturday’s starting lineup had a -26.1 net rating in 12 minutes. The Magic did not get off to good starts in either game.

Clearly the team is still seeking its way and the right combinations to make things work. The samples are still too small to draw any conclusions.

But the added size from playing Birch at power forward has at least had some benefits. His screening has helped spring free Terrence Ross on several occasions. And the added size has helped protect the paint a bit better.

In the last three games, the Magic post a -9.7 net rating with Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic on the floor together. The team has a 120.0 defensive rating with that duo sharing the court and a 79.3-percent defensive rebound rate.

Mohamed Bamba sharing the floor with Khem Birch has had a lot more success. The team is a +1.0 net rating with the two on the floor together in the last three games with a 107.0 defensive rating and 66.7-percent defensive rebound rate.

Statistically, it seems like neither group fits together particularly well. Khem Birch is not a strong rebounder and the rebounding suffers when Mohamed Bamba is on the floor with him. While Bamba has also improved as a rebounder, he still gets easily moved off his spot.

This is an experiment that is borne out of necessity for the moment. There simply are no other options to play at the 4 with the team right now.

Clifford will have to consider having a quick hook and continuing to find ways to get an advantage. It is tough to play Birch long stretches at the 4 because he is not a shooter and does not space the floor much further than the lane. Bamba was the one hanging around the perimeter Saturday’s game as the nominal 4.

Still, Saturday saw its potential to work. The Magic did a good job attacking the offensive glass and challenging shots during Bamba and Birch’s second-quarter stint against the Jazz. Orlando got back into the game because of that energy from the second unit.

The team had something, using Birch and Bamba’s size and mobility to stay with players on the perimeter and challenge shots while also protecting the paint for blocks and turnovers.

Of course, things turned around in the fourth quarter. On one early possession, Bamba missed a 3-pointer and got back in transition trying to chase his defender in Georges Niang. He naturally sunk to the paint to protect the rim, but with Birch there too, his responsibility was to get to the foul line.

This is part of the coverages and mindset that Clifford has not quite had the time to get to. Being in the right spot and making the right reads is different when playing power forward compared to playing center.

Getting back his rhythm

Wesley Iwundu has done his thing too. His play to end last season was vital to the team’s playoff run, especially his surprisingly strong 3-point shooting.

To this point in the year, he has not had enough minutes consistently to find any kind of rhythm. He has looked hesitant to shoot at times and that is a big problem for him (not that he was shooting efficiently when he did).

But now with the seeming promise of more minutes and consistent playing time, Iwundu is showing that plug-and-play nature that makes him valuable. He was solid defensively and especially disciplined on closeouts. His offense needs work, but he can make an impact once he gets his rhythm and comfort back.

So far, Orlando did some things well, but there was still plenty to improve on. And that should be part of the tweaks and instruction Clifford hinted at after the game.

The Magic are playing on instinct and determination right now. That can get them far, but obviously not all the way against smart teams that can take advantage of it.

Seeking the ideal rotation

Orlando needs some time to find its center and find its ideal rotation. The reality may very well be that the Magic have to hit the market for a 10-day contract to reach the proper balance.

The Magic are already narrowing how they want to play. Even after some solid play Wednesday against the Washington Wizards, Amile Jefferson is seemingly out of the rotation. So too was Melvin Frazier. This despite Clifford’s confidence that they could step into roles if given them. The reality is that neither had much time to make an impact.

Two-way player B.J. Johnson has not even gotten a call up to the main roster at least to be available, even as he continues to put up crazy numbers in the G-League. Johnson has averaged 29.3 points per game on a 59.2-percent effective field goal percentage.

With the Magic’s back against the wall, Clifford is turning to players he trusts most — for better or for worse, that is Iwundu and Birch.

For Iwundu, Clifford promised that as he gets more regular minutes, he will resemble the player that helped the Magic make the playoffs last year. The fact is, this year he has not had the time to get any kind of rhythm with his limited minutes and inconsistent appearances.

Birch is also going to find comfort with more playing time and more experience in refining his role at power forward. Clifford is not someone to make hasty decisions. If there is something he likes, he will give it time to develop fully before making a change.

The Magic, despite those poor numbers in the early going, are playing well overall. And the Magic are still finishing with their offensive-minded lineup featuring Terrence Ross. That has still delivered them plenty of success in this limited three-game sample.

There certainly seems to be signs pointing to the Magic having to add a player to make up for the injury. The roster does seem unbalanced still.

Next. Grades: Utah Jazz 109, Orlando Magic 96. dark

For now, the Magic are seeing some promising signs and some struggle with their new rotation and their new reality. The hope is they will be able to resolve any issues with some instruction and practice to get things right and do more than just survive.