Orlando Magic must find stability with lineup when they return

The Orlando Magic have had a host of different lineups and have rarely been able to stick to one this season. Finding stability will be key when they return.

Looking for evidence of the instability and injuries the Orlando Magic have faced this year, look no further than the starting lineup.

Now with the season set to resume after the coronavirus put a three-month pause, the Magic will have an eight-game sprint to improve and secure their Playoff spot. And more than ever, the team will need to solidify its rotation and, at long last, its starting lineup to make the most of the rest of the season.

That has not been the case this year, partially responsible for the team’s disappointing 30-35 effort so far.

The Magic have fielded 14 starting lineups this season — compared to nine last year. It has been an injury-filled season that has required numerous adjustments and changes on the fly.

Things started just six games into the season when the team replaced D.J. Augustin with Markelle Fultz. It has been a winding road through many different lineups since the beginning of the season.

When Nikola Vucevic suffered his ankle injury in mid-November, Khem Birch stepped in for him and saw action in the starting five for 11 straight games.

Al-Farouq Aminu saw time in the starting five before hitting the shelf with a (likely) season-ending meniscus injury and then Jonathan Isaac saw the same fate with his knee injury in early January.

Wesley Iwundu has been a utility player, jumping into the starting lineup when needed for 18 games. When he does not start, he averages 14.3 minutes per game in 27 appearances as a reserve. He is not a flashy player, but he makes winning plays as a role player. He has been a part of a winning lineup over the past three games. But he will likely be the odd man out once again.

The team found some stability after the trade deadline and All-Star Break. Since the addition of James Ennis into the fold, the Magic used him in a starting spot in the last nine games before the suspension of the season. They won six of those nine games.

Will the Magic continue to use James Ennis in this way? In the final three games before the season was suspended the Magic fielded a lineup of Markelle Fultz, James Ennis, Wesley Iwundu, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.

That group had a +27.6 net rating in 36 minutes, scoring 122.4 points per 100 possessions and giving up just 94.8 points per 100 possessions. Like everything after the All-Star Break, things clicked and the Magic took off.

Is this the lineup the Magic are looking for going forward?

There are a lot of questions about how the NBA returns in general and what teams will look like. They are going to need the full month of conditioning and training camp to get back to playing at a high level.

From there, there are plenty of questions about how the Magic return. Especially with the uncertainty of whether Jonathan Isaac will be ready to play when the league returns.

The Magic’s primary starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic have started just 14 games together (going 5-9), playing 240 minutes together. They were fairly successful with a +1.9 net rating, perhaps a sign things can work out with more time to play together.

But that should tell you just how much the lineup has changed this year — last year’s starting lineup started 58 games together.

Coach Steve Clifford will still be piecing together workable lineups. And he may have to rely more on his depth than ever before as teams get themselves back into playing shape and rhythm.

Even if the Magic come back with that same starting lineup that sparked their post-All-Star Break burst, things will have to change.

Evan Fournier will find his way back into the lineup after his UCL sprain in his elbow left him injured for the final three games before the hiatus. He was still rehabbing the injury when team facilities began to reopen, but it seems reasonable to believe he will be ready to play.

The Magic will need Fournier’s offensive burst from the start. He was second on the team, averaging 18.8 points per game with an all-important 40.6-percent 3-point field goal percentage.

The Magic acquired Ennis to add some stability to the lineup because of his shooting and defense. He could serve the same purpose even with Fournier back in the lineup, helping balance the team and the rotation.

A lineup of Fultz, Ennis, Fournier, Gordon and Vucevic certainly could be viable. However, it struggled so far this year — a -11.0 net rating and 119.7 defensive rating in 100 minutes.

The Magic could rely heavily on Mohamed Bamba. He reportedly put on 30 pounds during the hiatus and coach Steve Clifford told Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel that his staff reports it was good weight.

Bamba was showing signs of progress and understanding that made him far more valuable. Bamba was scratching for more minutes. Added strength to go along with his efficient shooting could make him a more valuable player off the bench and with other starters when the season resumes.

Terrence Ross is always the first threat in the second unit with Michael Carter-Williams as his wingman in that team. Clifford will probably keep that second unit the same and use the ability of the first team to stay consistent as they did the last time we saw the Magic.

Carter-Williams was scoring the ball exceptionally well in the three games prior to the break, scoring 17 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 6, 16 points against the Houston Rockets on March 8 and 20 points against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 10.

After the All-Star Break, the notoriously struggling shooter made 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. That proved to be a big boost to the offense.

There is an argument for him to play in the starting lineup or with more of the starters, but he fits so perfectly in the second unit. He can take over the game attacking the basket and playing aggressive defense, and he has been a catalyst for the Magic positioning themselves for a playoff berth.

If the Magic continue with the lineup they instituted before the season was suspended, they could be able to vault themselves into further playoff security.

Ennis has been a solid pickup for the starting five. Ross has stepped up his scoring prowess off the bench. And the team’s star in Vucevic has been proving his worth even though his three-point shot has not been falling with consistency.

Vucevic is still managing to average 21.8 points ion his last 10 games with 12 rebounds and nearly four assists. If the Magic are going to go anywhere and try to pull off a series upset in the playoffs, it’s Vucevic who’s going to need to help carry them there.

Lineup construction is crucial, and it is so important for the Magic to get off to leads in games.

If the correct pieces are not put together at the start of a game and the chemistry between the team isn’t gelling from the get-go, things can get off the rails.

Lately, Clifford has been pushing the right buttons and the front office with the addition of Ennis made a sly pickup that added to the team’s arsenal.

Next: Orlando Magic are putting their Playoff spot on the line to resume season

But when they return stability will matter most. With so little time to prepare for the Playoffs, having the same groups working together will be vital to the team’s ultimate success in making the Playoffs and fighting in the first round.

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