Orlando Magic’s Khem Birch a ‘silent assassin’ and willing to sacrifice for the team

Khem Birch has had to play out of position at power forward. He has done so quietly and without complaint doing the best he can in an imperfect situaiton. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Khem Birch has had to play out of position at power forward. He has done so quietly and without complaint doing the best he can in an imperfect situaiton. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Khem Birch is playing out of position for the Orlando Magic. They know they can rely on him to give whatever the team needs however they want to use him.

The first thing everyone on the Orlando Magic notices about Khem Birch is that he is quiet.

Maybe that is what endears him so much to coaches. He lets his game do the talking. And in that sense, it is not his scoring that usually chats anybody up.

Khem Birch is not a scorer. If there is one thing that could drive a fan crazy about Birch it is how he does not look at the basket when he gets the ball. He is trying to get it to the next part of the offense as quickly as possible.

That is his role. His game is more about screening and rolling hard to the basket. It is more about being a brick wall defensively. It is all about helping others.

Birch is at the center of the biggest controversy facing the Magic right now. Coach Steve Clifford, facing injuries to power forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Jonathan Isaac, has started playing Khem Birch as the starting power forward.

It is, even by Clifford’s estimation, not in Birch’s comfort level. He is not a power forward by any stretch of the imagination.

For Clifford, it works because Birch is simply a guy who helps build up his team. And he is someone everyone wants to play with.

"“He’s playing out of position,” Clifford said before last week’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “There are things that he is still finding a comfort level with. Here’s the bottom line to me about him because so much of it as a coach is your belief in somebody. All I know is this: He plays for the team. They all like it when he is on the floor. His effort and physicality help our team a great deal. And he is really smart.”"

Players have a different word for him. Some call him their “silent assassin.” They are happy to have him on the floor because then they do not have to go up against him.

They know when Birch is on the floor, they have someone who is playing for the team and trying to boost his teammates over his own stats. They know they have someone they can trust to help defend the lane and the rim behind them.

Even with the perceived struggles that Birch has had at power forward, that comfort level and willingness to sacrifice endears him to teammates.

That kind of trust is valuable and why the Magic have stuck with Birch at power forward for so long. There is so much he does that does not stand out on a box score and teammates appreciate his efforts.

"“Being a teammate with Khem is a good thing because you don’t have to get screened by him,” Markelle Fultz said after a practice last Thursday. “He is a brutal screener. Two, he’s an unbelievable guy. He’s a hard worker. He goes in there and competes with the best of them. You can see that he is strong and gets rebounds and plays hard. He’s just getting better and better. I know when I’m out there on the court with him it’s fun because he is going to compete as hard as my other teammates.”"

The numbers with Birch tell a much more mixed story.

Since Jonathan Isaac’s injury on Jan. 1, the Magic’s starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic has a -7.8 net rating. Heading into that game against the Thunder last week, it was at +6.5 points per 100 possessions.

The numbers showed that lineup was working. But the three-game homestand against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics and LA Clippers and then the road game against the Miami Heat has revealed some of that lineup’s overall weaknesses.

In those four games, the team went from a robust 111.0 offensive rating and a 104.5 defensive rating in 75 minutes to a 106.9 offensive rating and a 114.7 defensive rebound rate in 115 minutes.

Essentially, the group played one really bad game. And the sample sizes are small enough that it could dramatically affect the team’s numbers. It is easy to hone in on Birch’s discomfort playing at the 4.

"“It’s definitely different guarding smaller guys. It clogs up on offense,” Birch said after a practice last Thursday. “I’m not the best shooter on the team so I have to find a way to do the dirty work. It’s taught me a lot. It’s taught me I can guard a little bit on the perimeter and I can play a little bit of 4.”"

It is unclear entering Saturday’s rematch with the Heat whether this shift will convince Clifford to change his lineup. He may go back to evaluating the lineup game-to-game.

But it is also clear that Birch compresses a lot of the team’s spacing when he is out there. He is not a threat to shoot or even do much offensively. It may not be because of the pairing with another center, however.

Lineups with Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic together post a +4.2 net rating in January — surprisingly an 114.2 offensive rating with an 110.0 defensive rating. Lineups with Khem Birch and Mohamed Bamba post a +2.8 net rating in January — an 105.7 offensive rating with an 102.9 defensive rating. The biggest issue with the latter lineup being both Khem Birch and Mohamed Bamba’s struggles to rebound (a 66.2 percent defensive rebound rate).

That should give some pause. But clearly there is something more at work here then the numbers might show. And warning signs like that rebounding number that should be blaring.

Birch may not make a huge box-score impact on the game. But he dislodges people and teammates know when they come toward him to initiate action, he will be in the right spot and able to spring them free.

This quiet player speaks loud on the court to his teammates.

"“I think he is mean,” Fultz said after a practice last Thursday. “I always tell him he is a bully. He always walks around trying to push me off my spot. I think that’s just what he has known. He’s almost a silent assassin. He doesn’t say anything, but at the same time, he is competing hard. He wants to win and he wants to be a physical player. It’s almost like a cape that he can hide in a little bit. It throws people off.”"

That cape can hide a lot of Birch’s effectiveness. It can hide a lot of why coaches and teammates like him so much while fans are a bit more lukewarm.

But there is the reality too that these lineups are a bit mismatched. Birch, not yet comfortable or even allowed to display the jumper he has worked on this offseason, is still a bit lost on the floor offensively and a bit overmatched and overeager trying to get out to the perimeter. His presence is confined to his defense and screening.

The issue of whether the lineups work or not is certainly more complex than the numbers show. It certainly does not pass the eye test or even the logic test, to some extent.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The lineups have put Birch in an uncomfortable position. While they may have caught some teams off guard with their physicality and size early on, it is clear teams are figuring out

Despite the team’s perceived struggles since Isaac’s injuries and the heavy usage of this lineup, Orlando went 7-8 in January. Although the team has lost six of its past seven games. And things seem to be trending in the wrong direction.

Birch has had already had to sacrifice some comfort to play out this idea. It is hard to say he has not done the best he could under the circumstances.

Another sacrifice on his end might be necessary. And that is the beauty of Birch. He is willing to do it.

"“I feel like some guys on the team have to sacrifice,” Birch said after a practice last Thursday. “We’re trying to make the playoffs. It’s not time to show off your game. I’m trying to do what I do best and help us win games.”"

That is still what endears Birch most to coaches and everyone else. Orlando has a logjam at center with Vucevic as the clear best player on the team, Bamba as a young player to develop and Birch as a backup big that does all the little things coaches like.

Birch has always been the one to sacrifice. Playing out of position is yet another sacrifice. One he has done quietly and without complaint.

Next. Orlando Magic facing identity crisis at season's crossroads. dark

It is hard to get a real grasp on what is working and what is not with Birch. But the Magic know he will be willing to do whatever they ask of him next.