Shooting will give Orlando Magic the lineup flexibility they need

A limited roster forced Steve Clifford to try some funky lineups. Finding shooting would make dong that so much easier. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
A limited roster forced Steve Clifford to try some funky lineups. Finding shooting would make dong that so much easier. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic tried to get their best players on the court and had to resort to some funky lineups. Finding some shooting will enable more flexibility.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford can get very regimented with his rotations. He has a specific idea of how he wants his team to run and he wants playing groups to get time to get comfortable playing with each other and the time to get into a rhythm together.

Tweaks to the rotation can be slow sometimes. This is part of his foundation-building ethos it seems.

But Clifford also makes some things clear too.

He is trying to get his best players out on the floor. His aim is always to put the team in a position to win. And if a roster is mismatched, he is going to do what he has to do to get wins, trying to find a balance to get them all to work together.

In doing this, Clifford has centered on several ideas that have worked and not worked. It has taken him in both seasons until late January to settle in on a rotation that works — or in the 2020 season’s case, to be healthy enough to build a rotation that will be the same consistently.

There were plenty of bad ideas thrown in there — moving Aaron Gordon to small forward to play Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic together in the aftermath of Jonathan Isaac’s injury. But one idea has stuck with him, something that dated back to his time with the Charlotte Hornets.

He reached for one idea that showed signs of working that he stuck with. Sometimes sticking with it a little too long and sometimes to fans’ chagrin.

Clifford’s decision to play two point guards was not something he possibly wanted to do. But with Michael Carter-Williams making such a big impact on the team and the team having Markelle Fultz and D.J. Augustin ahead of him on the point guard depth chart, Steve Clifford had to find a way to get him on the court.

Lineups that featured Michael Carter-Williams at shooting guard was the only way for him to do so. And so Clifford showed some flexibility and a small amount of creativity in doing so.

Clifford has stuck with lineups that did not work a bit too long at times. But this was actually an idea that worked. It got Carter-Williams on the court and proved to be more effective than anticipated.

Even if it may not be something sustainable. The pairings and what worked about it provide clues — obvious ones — of what the Magic ultimately need to do as they aim to build depth and improve.

This season, D.J. Augustin and Markelle Fultz played 253 minutes together with a 109.9 offensive rating and 98.7 defensive rating. It was the eighth-most frequent player Fultz played with — behind the four other starters, Terrence Ross and Khem Birch.

Fultz played 163 minutes with Carter-Williams, helping the Magic post a 103.7 offensive rating and 115.4 defensive rating. Certainly, that duo did not have as much success.

The Carter-Williams and Augustin pairing saw similar success as the Augustin/Fultz pairing. In 409 minutes, the Magic posted a 116.9 offensive rating and 106.1 defensive rating. Carter-Williams was the sixth most-frequent playing partner for Augustin this year and Fultz the 10th.

What worked about these lineups is clearly the shooting. The Fultz/Carter-Williams pairing struggled mightily on both ends of the floor. Neither is considered a strong shooter and defenses essentially ignore both beyond the arc. But adding Augustin and his floor-spacing was a big factor.

The most common lineup the Magic played that featured both Markelle Fultz and D.J. Augustin also included Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac and accumulated a +11.7 net rating with a 96.2 defensive rating in 35 minutes.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The best lineup that did not feature Jonathan Isaac included Aaron Gordon and picked up only a -0.2 net rating with a difficult 95.8 offensive rating in 25 minutes.

These are not big sample sizes. But the addition of shooting in Vucevic and Fournier with defense from Isaac helped the group work better together. Even playing Birch instead of Vucevic left a lineup that was effective in the limited minutes they played together.

Naturally, during the playoffs, the duo of Fultz and Augustin struggled mightily. The Magic posted only an 81.0 offensive rating and 130.0 defensive rating in 35 minutes together. In the playoffs, using James Ennis in that role left the team with a 78.1 offensive rating.

Maybe that is not enough time for Clifford to make the conclusions he likes to make before abandoning a lineup. But it also becomes clear that if the Magic are going to play a lineup with Fultz and another point guard, the team needs reliable shooting on the wings and a rim protector to clean everything up.

Eventually, teams like the Milwaukee Bucks could hone in on the Magic’s complete lack of shooting and close down the paint. And everything the Magic are trying to do is supposed to have an eye on the postseason.

Similarly, the most-used lineup that featured Augustin and Carter-Williams included shooting in Terrence Ross and Mohamed Bamba and a defender in Aaron Gordon — the team had a +4.1 net rating with a 120.0 offensive rating in 136 minutes.

These are still lineups that are not used for long — the most-used Augustin/Carter-Williams lineup played together for 6.8 minutes per game. These are meant to fill minutes. But the task was always to put the best players on the floor.

Clifford had to find a way to play Carter-Williams and split minutes between Augustin and Fultz too. Playing them together became a viable and statistically successful solution. It was just about finding ways to piece lineups together that made them better just as they would make others better.

It is safe to say then that this idea is not going anywhere. This is not an emergency plan.

Clifford has gone to these two-point guards arrangements when his roster has called for it. It is something he did in his time with the Charlotte Hornets.

In 2018, Kemba Walker played 148 minutes with Michael Carter-Williams with a net rating of -1.8 points per 100 possessions. In 2017, he played 121 minutes with Ramon Sessions with a net rating of -1.9 points per 100 possessions.

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The real year Clifford experimented with this was in 2016, the last season he made the playoffs with Charlotte. He played Kemba Walker alongside Jeremy Lin for 1,179 minutes with an offensive rating of 104.9 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 101.5 points per 100 possessions (+3.3 net rating). It was the third-most common pairing Walker had that season.

There are obviously mixed results. But each time, the lineups worked when there was a pairing that could successfully space the floor. Lin is a better shooter than Carter-Williams or Sessions. But the Hornets’ backcourt depth was so depleted that Clifford had to try these pairings.

At the end of the day, Clifford’s task is to play the five best players he can as much as he can. And then to find the right combinations to get the most out of them.

The obvious answer for this Magic team has always been about the team’s shooting. That is how you solve this problem. And having shooters will enable the team to mix and match lineups better so the best players can play together.

It has been repeated ad nauseum that this team needs better shooters to space the floor. Clifford has said this himself and several players on the roster will have to work hard to improve their shooting.

But these two-guard lineups, as controversial as they were, are a sign of Clifford’s creativity. He was willing to try something, experiment a little and find a way to get his best players on the floor.

At one point that was Khem Birch. And he tried very hard to get him on the floor, only admitting after the season ended that his mistake was playing Birch at the 4 rather than at the 5. That was something he believed worked in the playoffs.

Clearly, adding shooting though makes lineups more flexible. It enables a coach to mix and match lineups that much more effectively.

Next. 2020 Evaluations: James Ennis settling in to Orlando. dark

If Clifford wants to play his best players together more often and for this team to become the versatile monster the front office hopes, then they have to find shooting. It makes everything — even these two point-guard lineups — work better.