Orlando Magic need better execution and to refresh rotation approach

Dwayne Bacon has had to carry a heavy burden in lineups beset by injury as the Orlando Magic continue to struggle. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon has had to carry a heavy burden in lineups beset by injury as the Orlando Magic continue to struggle. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

118. 24. 92. 38. Final

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford preaches consistency.

That is as much a secret to his success with both the Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic as anything else. He arrived at a struggling franchise, set up a system and a way to play that was consistent and repeatable and he gave the lineups and rotations he chose the chance to get used to each other and execute.

There is comfort in that familiarity.

Clifford has always been loathed to change. Once he gets a rotation down, he does not want to move too quickly away from it. The reason was always that players need a chance to get used to playing groups and establish a rhythm.

This is both Clifford’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.

His desire to see things play out in practice before trying out in a game is warranted. Games are important and for a team with as small margins as the Magic have, he better be sure they will work or that they can hit the ground running when he tries it out during the course of a season.

But Clifford will be stubborn with lineup changes and shifts to the team. He will point to poor execution as a reason for why things are not working and defer to giving groups a chance to work before giving up. Sometimes a bit too long.

This season though has been completely different.

The Magic have not only dealt with injuries to a lot of the roster, throwing any pre-conceived rotation plans into chaos, they have also dealt with a pandemic season that has greatly reduced practice time. Orlando will not get a lot of live-action in practice to test things out.

Injuries have prevented the Orlando Magic from finding any kind of consistency in their lineups. But as much as execution is a problem, the team needs to be able to shake things up to move forward.

As the team continues to struggle and takes on loss after loss — and non-competitive losses at that like Saturday’s 118-92 defeat to the Chicago Bulls — the Orlando Magic are running out of options and chances to find something that works.

But one thing is becoming clearer: The lineups the Magic are trotting out are not working.

"“Not being willing to pass the ball to the guy beside you, get to the second pick and roll, the flash, the handoff, play not just us but most teams in this league have to play,” Clifford said about the team’s poor offense Saturday. “Too much bad offense that led to hurting our defense. And also a lot of possessions where we didn’t control the ball. It’s intent. Obviously, on a night like this, we’re undermanned, but you have to play the right way. We have a way we need to play, but we can’t play like that.”"

Lineup changes

In addition to better execution, the Orlando Magic need to make some lineup changes. There are clearly groups the Magic are using that are plainly not working. But with few options to make many changes — and a still-growing list of injured players — the team simply needs better execution to get through this.

The Magic started to fall apart in Saturday’s game with a lineup of Frank Mason, Terrence Ross, James Ennis, Chuma Okeke and Nikola Vucevic, followed by subbing out Ennis and Okeke for Dwayne Bacon and Gary Clark. Those two groups went a combined -10 during a 15-2 run that gave the Bulls significant room.

Give Steve Clifford some credit. He put two of the Magic’s best offensive players in a lineup with Mason as he continues to get used to playing with his new teammates. At this point, Clifford’s philosophy is correct and this group should be given some time to get used to playing with each other.

But this also belies some of the logic of constructing lineups. It starts with an idea that in theory should work — keeping Vucevic paired with Mason to improve his integration into the team — but does not play out.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Both of these lineups deserves some scrutiny and further examination. Then again, those lineups were different than who Frank Mason played with during Friday’s win, perhaps a product of Evan Fournier’s late scratch with back spasms shaking up the entirety of the team’s rotation.

Orlando also fell in the hole again with a 10-2 run to end the first half. Both those lineups were more normal lineups (Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross, James Ennis, Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic and then Dwayne Bacon replacing Ennis). That first lineup with Ennis has a net rating of -50.0 points per 100 possessions in 15 minutes across five games. That second lineup with Bacon has a net rating of -65.7 net rating in 50 minutes across 16 games. Both of those lineups had offensive ratings worse than 100 points per 100 possessions.

Those are still fairly small sample sizes. But the results also speak for themselves. Those might be groups that have worked together in practice or they might not. But something is clearly not working.

Execution issues

Things only got worse in the third quarter when the Orlando Magic’s starting group returned in the second half. They went -15 during the first six minutes of the third quarter, turning an 18-point halftime deficit into an embarrassing blowout.

The starting group from Saturday’s game of Cole Anthony, Dwayne Bacon, James Ennis, Gary Clark and Nikola Vucevic has a net rating of -38.3 points per 100 possessions in 24 minutes together across two games.

It is hard to say this is a lineup the team should return to when it is healthy. A lot of these lineups have not played together long enough. But the struggles to function even passably in a short time suggests a deeper issue.

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The Magic are not playing well together or executing effectively. And why that is the case is difficult to say. Orlando’s veterans especially know how the team has to play and they have to be the leaders executing this way.

Orlando is still seeking rotations that can work. Stability definitely would play a part in getting there. The constant revolving door of injuries has tipped the team on its head. But these slow starts have become a repeating pattern for the team.

The Magic got off to slow starts in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. It took to late January for Clifford to find a rotation and a lineup that would consistently work. But the stability and opportunity he provided throughout the course of the season gave the 2019 team the confidence and comfort to race into the playoffs.

Even the 2020 season, the Magic needed time to get a settled roster with all the injuries the team faced. Once everyone was back healthy — especially Aaron Gordon — the team started to find its rhythm. Only the pandemic stopped another late-season run.

The message this season was the Magic wanted to get out to a fast start. Only injuries seemed to slow that down. That has put Orlando behind the 8-ball. But the games continue.

Nothing normal

As much as the team would like to have a “normal” rotation and to maintain those player groupings as much as they can through these injuries, that just is not the reality.

Steve Clifford should not go crazy and jumble up the entire team. He is right that consistency matters. Players will be better when they know exactly how to play off each other.

But something is clearly not working with this group. The Magic have won just three times since Markelle Fultz’s injury. The team as the worst net rating in the league since then. Some minor tweaks are more than in order.

"“It’s a long season still, you’re going to go through ups and downs,” Terrence Ross said after Saturday’s game. “Right now, we’re right in the thick of it. We’re going through a hard time. But it’s not going to last forever. We’ve just got to stick with it.”"

Reintegrating Chuma Okeke has provided a small boost. Al-Farouq Aminu’s return is imminent and he will surely jump right back into the rotation as a consistent defensive veteran. Michael Carter-Williams may not be too far behind.

And, of course, Mohamed Bamba is just sitting there on the bench, seemingly the only player on the roster who cannot crack the rotation. There is a lot to say that despite his youthful mistakes, he could be a playmaker and give an injection of energy and offense this team might need.

The Magic do not have a lot of options obviously. But they also do not have much time to experiment. And change is clearly needed to get this team right.

Next. Nikola Vucevic is in the background no more. dark

Better execution will help and is a necessity. But the team keeps churning through the same or similar groupings with little effect on the bigger picture for this team.