Injuries have stretched the Orlando Magic’s depth thin

Khem Birch has done his best to play power forward. But the Orlando Magic are still seeking for balance with him starting. (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
Khem Birch has done his best to play power forward. But the Orlando Magic are still seeking for balance with him starting. (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have performed admirably with some mismatched lineups. But figuring out what is sustainable is tough with a roster stretched so thin.

95. 38. 122. 77. Final

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford made a rare admission before Wednesday’s 122-95 loss to the LA Clippers.

His team probably needed some help. Help that is no longer on the roster. And the Magic front office — and coaching staff — have a lot to weigh.

The team played Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers without D.J. Augustin, who was quietly dealing with a knee injury for several games. The team officially diagnosed him with bone irritation in his left knee following a MRI on Thursday. They said they will re-evaluate him 3-4 weeks.

That is a long time to go without a backup point guard. Steve Clifford agreed, telling the media that he would discuss the team’s next steps with president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman. With the hope that it resolves itself with Michael Carter-Williams‘ return.

There is no doubt this had a real effect for the Magic. When Markelle Fultz was off the floor, the team simply struggled.

The Magic’s depth, something they worked so hard to build in the offseason, has been stretched unbearably thin. Orlando is relying on young players they never imagined stepping up and force-fitting players into roles they were not made to play. And they are relying on their starters even more.

It might work for a little while but is not sustainable. It is not something a team can carry forward night-to-night and still pick up wins. Especially against elite teams. Orlando still has half a season to try to solidify and improve its playoff positioning.

The way the team was constructed requires plenty of adjustments.

It is an incredibly small sample size, so do not worry about the numbers so much. The loss to the Clippers weighs all the numbers down. But it was clear how missing a backup point guard hurt the team. It was clear how much the Magic have relied on their starters to generate offense and stay afloat.

In the last two games, the Magic have an 88.9 offensive rating with Markelle Fultz off the court. That ranks behind only Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic in the last two games. Orlando’s offense simply did not work when those three starters were off the court.

Clifford spoke about how the team generally lacks organization without a true point guard in the game. These low offensive numbers certainly suggest it.

But it also suggests the amount of stress that goes on the team’s starters. That makes sense when a team’s depth is stretched thin, they are relying less on quality players or on players that do not quite know the system. Especially with all the new faces entering the Magic’s rotation.

It is hard to look at this team and not see these problems. The Magic had energy and built up a 20-point lead against the Lakers with B.J. Johnson and Gary Clark helping boost the team in Wednesday’s win. But the third-quarter stint for the group was not successful. The Lakers made their push to get back into the game while Orlando rested Fultz.

Among the searing images of the game against the Lakers was Fultz collapsing after his game-clinching layup with cramps. He played a career-high 33 minutes in that game. Orlando has been careful and cautious with Fultz’s minutes. They do not want to push him too much as they continue to manage his injury.

But they might well have to until they find an answer at point guard — whether that is Michael Carter-Williams returning to the lineup or the team looking externally for an answer.

It will be harder than ever before for Clifford to get the most out of this roster all the while still maintaining the team’s hot streak and standing in the league.

Orlando has done that since Jonathan Isaac got hurt. The Magic, even with the loss Wednesday, are 6-3 since Jonathan Isaac’s injury (including the game he got hurt). In January, Orlando ranks seventh in the league in net rating and are still first in the league in defensive rating (103.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) despite giving up 118 and 122 in back-to-back nights.

If there is one thing the Magic have proven throughout the year is they can find a way to play and keep themselves afloat. More than afloat, the team has thrived. Orlando is more than capable of finding a way to win.

It is pretty incredible considering how many games have been missed by key players. Right now the team is without four rotation players — Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu, D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams. Orlando has somehow found consistency.

But that has still stretched the team thin. The Magic are still seeking their way to play and looking to find their footing where they can craft clearer roles. And not only clearer roles but roles that can make their team successful.

The power forward problem has been the biggest example of this.

Orlando has tried to use Khem Birch as the team’s starting power forward. While the Magic’s starting lineup since Jan. 1 with Khem Birch in there (the usual starting lineup at least) has been successful with a +4.8 net rating in 50 minutes (only four of the nine games since Jan. 1).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Khem Birch’s pairing with Nikola Vucevic has statistically been OK. Orlando has a +5.6 net rating in 131 minutes when Vucevic and Birch play together. But the problem is deeper in the numbers. Orlando has a 112.2 defensive rating with those two on the floor.

Birch playing out of position at power forward has zapped the team of some of its defensive fire. Birch is doing his best away from the rim, but it is still clear it is not comfortable for him.

And Birch is not a great rebounder. When Vucevic is pulled away from the paint to deal with pick and rolls, Birch has not been able to make up the difference on the glass consistently.

The lack of mobility and defensive movement for Birch was most on display against the Clippers. He is still not contributing much offensively aside from setting screens. So despite the statistical success of the lineups, good teams know they can pretty much ignore Birch offensively.

Orlando likely signed Gary Clark to try to bring back some of the versatility to the power forward position that the team built up with their offseason moves. Lineups with Wesley Iwundu and Aaron Gordon would probably work out better — lineups with those two are +2.1 since Jan. 1.

At this point, any lineup with the Magic’s starters seems to have a ton of success. Especially if it contains Vucevic, Fultz or Gordon. Everything else is about fitting players around them and creating lineup consistency to make the most of what they do.

The Magic are searching for a way that clearly works with the players they have available to them. But it is obviously not a lot.

More has fallen on the starters and especially the big-name players to get the team through it. Fortunately, Gordon has stepped up since returning from his calf issues. He has put together three straight solid games.

Next. Grades: LA Clippers 122, Orlando Magic 95. dark

But so much about this team has changed and figuring out what is sustainable on a depleted roster is one of the most difficult things for this team.