2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Khem Birch bumps against his limit

Khem Birch remains a reliable option for the Orlando Magic off the bench. But his game has seemingly hit its limits. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Khem Birch remains a reliable option for the Orlando Magic off the bench. But his game has seemingly hit its limits. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic know they have a quality backup center in Khem Birch. But putting him in odd spots showed his and their limits as a team.

Orlando Magic center Khem Birch knows who he is.

Often times in the NBA, that is half the battle. Understanding your role and playing it to its fullest is the only way to stick and make your mark in the league.

The offseason is for trying to expand your game and grow it. But ultimately you have to translate that into the team scheme. And sometimes those improvements just are not ready for the big show.

Or sometimes there is not much of an opportunity to display them within the team construct. Sometimes that is just not what the team needs either.

Khem Birch is not one to complain if he does not get the chance to show his expanded game. He displayed some improved jump shooting and offensive awareness in a strong run for Canada at the FIBA World Cup. With them, they run more pick and rolls for him and gave him more opportunity to be an offensive factor.

Anyone hoping for Birch’s game to expand in any way once the season began was probably going to be somewhat disappointed. The Magic used him in the same way they always have.

Like the team itself, it spent its 2021 season hoping to be a whole lot more and ending up back where they were anyway.

Birch entered the season with real questions about how much he could improve and the hope that he could take on and adapt to a new role all while fighting off a future that is waiting in the wings.

Instead, Birch essentially filled the same role he always had. He filled it well. But he inevitably struggled when he got put into a different bin and a different box.

His role was to fill in minutes when the team needed him, defend the paint, block shots and set hard screens. He was still largely very good at those things.

But that expansion never came. After averaging 11.6 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game in helping Canada qualify for the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments that were scheduled to take place before the 2020 Olympics, Birch came back to the Magic in a fight for backup center minutes.

That was always going to be a tall task with the return of Mohamed Bamba from an injury and needing minutes as a young player the Magic have clearly invested in.

Birch finished the season averaging 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in 19.2 minutes per game across 48 games. His rebounding and minutes increased over 2019, but he played in fewer games and his scoring stayed the same.

Per Game Table

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Generated 10/9/2020.

Playoffs Per Game Table

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Coach Steve Clifford trusted Khem Birch whenever he needed him. And Birch, an easygoing guy to begin with, was willing to do whatever the coaching staff asked him to do.

No one will fault Birch for sticking to his role and what he was comfortable with. He is still a solid player and undoubtedly an NBA-quality player.

If that was the goal for Birch to join the Magic, leaving more lucrative offers on the table in Europe to do so three years ago, he has accomplished that. But that should not be the end of it.

But during the team’s playoff run in 2019, Birch was a vital piece of the puzzle. His defensive consistency helped solidify the Magic as one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Birch’s success was always a product of knowing his role. He never really expanded beyond that. He proved he belonged in the NBA, but that lack of expansion ultimately cost him the opportunity to do more.

Limited offensively

Birch might not ever be anything more than a spot starter and solid backup. His offensive game is not likely to expand beyond putbacks and rolls to the rim. And his overall effectiveness will depend on both how he defends and his ability to create some roll gravity attacking the lane.

Like the Magic’s poor perimeter shooting, Birch’s non-existent offense is something that is holding him back. It is hard to see where his game expands.

In 2019, Birch took only seven of his 150 shots from outside of 10 feet. This season, he took nine of his 143 shots from outside of 10 feet. Birch simply does very little offensively when he is outside the paint.

That is why it was odd to see the Magic try to use him as a power forward in the immediate aftermath of Jonathan Isaac’s injury was so odd. He provides no spacing whatsoever off the ball.

light. Related Story. 2020 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Khem Birch

Offensively, Birch’s only value is as a roller and screener with the occasional putback. There, he is extremely effective.

According to NBA.com’s player tracking statistics, the Magic scored 1.06 points per possessions on plays where Birch was used as the roll man. That is an effective play, but still only put him in the 47th percentile.

Birch is still very good at getting into space and finding ways to stay around the basket. He is effective as a cutter and dump-off option. But defenses were able to congest the paint whenever Birch came in there.

There is something effective about the play, but even that could be much more effective. Defenses do not go with Birch on the roll. His ability to score on those plays might well be because defenses focus more on the ball-handler than going with Birch on the roll.

According to Basketball Index, Birch’s roll impact is 0.26 points per possession worse than what would be expected by the league average.

That was probably dulled some by playing alongside Nikola Vucevic so much — the two shared 251 minutes together with a -3.0 net rating.

Coach Steve Clifford admitted after the season ended that he made a mistake using Khem Birch as the power forward in those early lineups.  During the playoffs, he played Birch as the center in those lineups and Vucevic as the power forward to more success — a +9.4 net rating in 34 minutes.

Usage is a big factor in some of these odd lineups Clifford was forced to use throughout the season.

The one area where Birch’s impact is unquestioned though is his screening. He averaged 5.9 screen assists per 75 possessions, one of the best marks in the league. Clifford praised Birch’s screening throughout the entire season.

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  • Whatever roll gravity Birch loses, he seems to make up in his ability to spring ball-handlers free with his screens. That could set him up for more offensive opportunities.

    Birch is also an opportunistic rebounder, as one of the better volume offensive rebounders in the league with 3.3 offensive rebounds per 75 possessions. Many of those were contested too — nearly two-thirds, in fact. Birch’s rebounding is a huge factor in his value on the offensive end as he can clean up scraps. Or at least has the opportunity to do so.

    It was clear too that his screens helped. But offense is not Birch’s forte or where he has made his mark in the NBA.

    Interior defense

    If a center is not going to be able to do much offensive — even as a roller — then they have to be a major factor defensively. That is where Khem Birch proved himself valuable during the team’s 2019 run.

    He was great positionally, helping form a wall in the paint and able to protect the rim better than just about any player on the roster. He was solid and was the Magic’s best rim protector. The Magic could rely on him to execute their defense flawlessly.

    That is the basis of Birch’s presence in the NBA. He uses his body to position himself in the paint and protect the paint. He is an excellent shot-blocker and good at challenging shots overall.

    This is what a lot of people think of when they think of Birch. Someone who has the awareness and the ability to slide over in transition or in the half-court to block shots. And even the shots of some pretty good players. He makes those solid plays.

    But this play in the January game against the LA Clippers also reveals some of his weaknesses. While he has the recognition to slide over and make the stop, he does not have the speed or athleticism to make the second play. Ivica Zubac still scores on the play.

    That is a tough play for everyone. But Birch’s inability to make a second jump is what holds him back from being a better defensive center and a consistent backup.

    That is something Mohamed Bamba has. What Bamba lacks in positional awareness, he makes up for with this speed.

    It is hard not to compare Birch and Bamba directly. They are both competing for the same spot in the rotation.

    While defenses attacked Bamba much more often, he led the team with 51.0-percent defended field goal percentage at the rim according to Second Spectrum. Khem Birch was at 58.6 percent.

    Birch’s interior defense is solid but not spectacular. Opponents shot 8.7 percentage points worse at the rim than expected. But Bamba rated higher in that metric at -14.6 percentage points worse than expected.

    Birch might make fewer positional mistakes, but the potential from Bamba is undeniable. So too might the impact Bamba makes over Birch.

    Birch is solid and the Magic trust him implicitly. But they saw his limits this season. And Bamba started to pass him. It was no longer merely about development that Bamba was playing.

    Birch is solid defensively. But he is not an impact defender.

    Out of position, no complaints

    B-. . C. Orlando Magic. KHEM BIRCH

    A lot of this needs to be said within the context of Khem Birch playing out of position. The Orlando Magic put him in a lot of bad positions by playing at power forward. The team did not put him in the best spots for his skill set.

    That was by necessity. And Steve Clifford usually tries to find a way to play his best players, even if that means putting them in some poor lineups to begin with.

    Birch did his best and he did it without complaint. If there is one thing that is positive about him, it is that he plays to his role and plays it well.

    But there is little expansion to that role. And it is not looking like Birch is ready to do much more than what he is good at.

    That has value. A player who knows his role and sticks to what he is good at serves the team. And the Magic could trust Birch when they needed to call upon him.

    But that does not help him get playing time or expand things much. Bamba statistically was better than Birch. This was no longer about playing Bamba for development, Bamba was the better option.

    Birch, to his credit, stayed ready. When the team put him in an uncomfortable spot, he did his best to fill the role. But that discomfort clearly showed his weaknesses and limitations as a player.

    Like the Magic themselves, they were forced into an uncomfortable position, they did their best and they displayed their limitations. That is ultimately how Birch’s season should be seen.

    Evaluations: D.J. Augustin gives a guiding hand. dark. Next

    The Magic again know they have a reliable backup center option. But probably a guy who is not going to give them much more than they are getting now.