Orlando Magic trying to return some versatility as big lineup shows weakness

The Orlando Magic have made versatility their calling card. They lost some of that thanks to injuries and are trying to get it back by adding Gary Clark.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was not happy following the team’s 114-112 win over the Sacramento Kings.

The Kings went small fairly early and started to pull the team apart. The team’s overall defensive coverages broke down as the game went on. And nobody seemed able to find Nemanja Bjelica on the perimeter as he hit eight 3-pointers.

There were numerous problems throughout the game tracking shooters. The lack of mobility on the wing made things worse. Nikola Vucevic looked extremely slow as he tried to close out on Nemanja Bjelica only to watch him move right by him. Khem Birch did not fare much better despite his better mobility.

Steve Clifford said after the game, it was the worst their two-big lineup idea had worked so far this season since Jonathan Isaac’s injury. That group always seemingly had a precarious hold on things. It worked because it was different, but it certainly seemed like it had a shelf life. The lack of shooting was making the offense difficult.

What the Magic have staked their claim is the kind of versatility that players like Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon give the team. And they had lost that thanks to injuries. Their roster forced them to play a different way.

Some of those bigger lineups might be working, but the Magic are going to try to go back to the way they were originally built to play.

The Magic have parted ways with Josh Magette after signing him to a 10-day contract Saturday. They have instead signed former Houston Rockets forward Gary Clark to a 10-day contract.

It is a move that is clearly designed to give the team more forward depth and a little more shooting. But more importantly, give the team a bit more positional versatility, setting everyone back into their more comfortable roles.

Gary Clark appeared in 18 games this year for the Rockets, averaging 3.9 points per game and 2.2 rebounds per game. He made 18 of 51 3-pointers (35.3 percent), shooting almost exclusively 3-pointers for the Rockets (51 of 59 total field goal attempts).

Clark was a career 38.3-percent 3-point shooter in four years with the Cincinnati Bearcats. He hit 43.5 percent of his outside shots in his senior year in 2018.

Like most Bearcats players, he made his name mostly on defense. Even at an undersized 6-foot-6, he came into the league with a pretty solid defensive reputation. He was someone that could plug into any system and hold his own defensively.

That is something Clifford certainly values in adding players midseason. It would be fairly easy to envision Clark moving right into the rotation if he grasps the defensive schemes quickly.

Statistically, the Magic are not struggling much with Khem Birch in the starting lineup.

Since Jan. 1 (when Isaac was originally injured), the Magic have a +6.8 net rating with Birch on the floor. That is actually a really good number but still the third-worst mark on the team in that time. The Magic’s starting lineup with Birch in there has a +12.7 net rating in 38 minutes.

Something has clicked. But the deficiencies are still pretty apparent. Birch does not look to shoot much and the team takes him out fairly quickly. In Monday’s game, the Magic’s starting lineup was -8.3 points per 100 possessions.

It still is a precarious balance. The Magic are still looking for the right combination and right rotation to make it all work. The results have been mixed overall.

As teams get used to the Magic’s lineups, they will find it difficult to generate offense. That has not quite happened yet.

Perhaps the Magic will stick with the Birch-based lineups for a little while longer. But it has undoubtedly hurt the team’s depth.

As good as Birch might have been to boost the Magic’s starting lineup at least in this small sample size, he has struggled when paired with Nikola Vucevic. And the Magic’s offense still goes through long stretches where it cannot score or space the floor properly.

How a team like the Kings were able to stretch and break the Magic’s defense Monday was a perfect example of how 5-out teams will attack the Magic.

Much of Orlando’s defensive strategy was built on its versatility. The team has lacked that since Jonathan Isaac went out — especially with Al-Farouq Aminu out of the lineup too and Aaron Gordon in and out of the lineup with his ongoing calf and ankle issues.

Clark will provide the Magic at least a small option to go back to that level of versatility. Despite his size, he is tough and difficult to move off his spot. He can handle the power forward spot and hit from the outside when left open.

Next: Orlando Magic's defense is finally coming into form

The Magic need to get back to their versatility. They may stick with some of their bigger lineups for a little while longer, but it appears the Magic are trying to get back to the versatility that makes them dangerous.

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