Orlando Magic need more dynamic players to make lineups fit

The Orlando Magic have focused on building lineups with positional versatility. But skill versatility might be what is missing most. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have focused on building lineups with positional versatility. But skill versatility might be what is missing most. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have stressed positional versatility in their drafting and player acquisitions. But skill versatility is a big piece missing too.

Ask anyone who watches the Orlando Magic enough and the first need anyone will point out is their need for shooting.

That part is obvious. Despite finishing 11th in 3-point shooting in 2019, everyone knew that was likely a batch of good luck and hot shooting. The team cratered this year, making 34.3-percent of its 3-pointers (25th in the league). And things were worse in the playoffs when the team seemingly could not even hit open shots.

Jeff Weltman’s big free-agent acquisition last year focused on shoring up the team’s front-court depth — even with rookie Chuma Okeke waiting in the wings to join the team in 2021. He did not really address the shooting needs and the Magic suffered for it.

Injuries ultimately killed that experiment, but the idea was to add more versatility defensively to the rotation. The Magic hoped that versatility would help them throughout the roster.

The Magic will probably be trying out that experiment again next year. But everyone recognized quickly as Al-Farouq Aminu struggled to shoot that the team needed more shooting.

Orlando added two veterans to help boost the roster on that front. But if those moves were supposed to shore up the team’s shooting, it did not quite do that.

Gary Clark at least provided some shooting — 35.0-percent this season with the Magic. His four 3-pointers in Game 1 and in Game 4 made those two games competitive in the playoffs. But despite Steve Clifford’s statements that James Ennis spaces the floor, he shot only 28.6-percent from deep (he is a career 35.0-percent shooter).

Most observations about the Magic and their need to boost their offense ultimately turns to shooting. And that leads to some questions about their long-term build with non-shooters occupying three spots in the starting lineup right now.

Shooting alone is not going to solve the problems for this lineup, however. It is not merely the Magic’s need for shooting that is important for the Magic to address. They need players with multiple skills.

Versatility cannot be just about positional versatility and the ability to defend multiple positions. Versatility has to be about adding players with multiple skills. And this is where the Magic seemingly fall short.

Lineup limitations

Part of the reason it feels like the Orlando Magic have reached their ceiling is because of these lineup limitations. The team is still figuring out how best to build workable and successful lineups. Clifford has had to piece together lineups that can compete with imperfect skill sets, to say the least.

For sure, part of the task facing Jeff Weltman this offseason — regardless of Jonathan Isaac’s health or not — is shaping this roster so that it becomes what it will look like when the team reaches its next level. And that includes having this skill diversity.

That will take a careful analysis of the team’s starting lineup, depth and every combination they use to figure out how to get the most of this team. It is going to take that regardless of the depleted roster the Magic will have without Isaac on the floor.

At least with the roster the Magic have, lineup fits are OK at best, but nowhere near optimal.

Todd Whitehead of Nylon Calculus was trying to visualize what makes a lineup work and came out with an app that tries to visualize how well lineups fit together and the lineups they are most similar to.

The data tries to categorize players into three important roles — creators, shooters and defenders (more specifically rim protectors).

Taking a look at the Magic’s preferred starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, the team does not have any players characterized as “spacers.” Fournier is the only player even close to being considered a spacer, but that might have more to do with his role as a secondary creator.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But more than that, under these metrics, no player is really anywhere near the middle of the chart or in the middle between the three sides of the triangle.

Fournier is the closest player on this, somewhere between a creator and a spacer. Most Magic fans would agree that he is not the best creator either. Similarly, Gordon’s circle sits closer to “creator” but between spacer and defender. That is probably not his ideal makeup either.

But Gordon is the kind of player the Magic should be going for — someone who can do a bit of all three. He just was not nearly effective enough as a floor spacer to be successful in that role — his creation toward the end of the season provided some positive toward the offseason.

The Magic’s starting lineup had a +1.9 net rating. That is not a poor lineup by any means. That lineup would project to be slightly better than .500. The Magic have something resembling a proof of concept with this lineup.

According to the lineup app, the most similar lineups are some of the Memphis Grizzlies’ better lineups — Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. Of course, it also says the other similar lineups belong to the New York Knicks or Washington Wizards — more specifically Ish Smith, Davis Bertans, Bradley Beal and Moritz Wagner lineups.

It feels like this lineup skews more toward the Wizards version than the promising young Grizzlies version. A lot of the Magic’s players have been in the league long enough to know what they can and cannot do generally.

That has led to much of the hand-wringing about where this team goes next.

The fit in this lineup is average at best it seems. The team does well, but not well enough to compete at the highest levels. It is still subject to wild swings.

The Magic are not a team bereft of talent — maybe top-end or star talent — but they are still trying to find the right mix.

The shooting element

Let’s look at the Orlando Magic’s next most-used lineup — Markelle Fultz, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic. This was essentially the team’s closing lineup for much of the season. But it had a -0.5 net rating, the rating of a team slightly worse than .500.

You would think adding Ross’ spacing would help the team’s lineup perform. But that is not the case. Maybe some of that is the teams this lineup goes up against. But shooting alone is not going to fix the Magic’s problems.

Indeed, the app says this lineup with Ross is a better fit with the lineups it compares to than the lineup with Jonathan Isaac. So shooting would help. But it is something more than that the Magic need.

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The Magic’s most successful lineup that played together more than 100 minutes was D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams, Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon and Mohamed Bamba. That group put together a +4.1 net rating in 136 minutes.

This lineup compares favorably to Indiana Pacers lineups featuring Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Holiday, T.J. Warren and Myles Turner. That sounds a bit more promising.

And it features at least two players who have dual skills — both Gordon and Carter-Williams are creators who defend and have some spacing ability. But even that feels imperfect.

Having more reliable and capable shooters will help space the floor. It will make Fultz’s creation a lot easier. It will make Fournier’s creation a little bit easier. It will make everyone’s life a bit easier.

So too will improving the team’s defense and adding better defenders. Especially as the Magic try to increase their pace. That remains a huge buzz word for the Magic and getting easy baskets in transition will hide a lot of the team’s shortcomings offensively.

But they also need players who can do both. Players who can create and defend. Players who can shoot and create. Or players who can shoot and defend. That latter marker might be as important as anything else.

Next. Orlando Magic Evaluations: Jonathan Isaac suffers another setback. dark

As the Magic look to rebuild their lineups, they need to find players with all kinds of versatility. As they look to the draft and look to the free-agent and trade markets, they cannot look for players who check one box. They need guys who check multiple boxes.