Returning Orlando Magic players will force rotation decisions

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is certainly happy to have players back in his lineup. But some big choices will come with more options to choose from. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is certainly happy to have players back in his lineup. But some big choices will come with more options to choose from. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports /

Last week, the Orlando Magic were running on fumes.

Cole Anthony had just cracked a rib and would have to miss time. Frank Mason would strain his groin and be off the team because of the Magic’s desperate need for bodies. James Ennis would strain his groin in Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings.

Orlando played all four of its games on that West Coast road trip essentially with just eight players each game. Even when they got players back, another one would go down.

It was a scramble to create rotations and coach Steve Clifford was openly concerned about the minutes he had to play key players throughout the game. Everyone was playing at least partly out of position for some of their minutes. The team had to piece everything together.

Clifford still came away from that trip encouraged. He felt the team made some progress in their play. They just needed a breather and a chance to get some guys back.

All those pieces seemed to come together in Wednesday’s win over the New York Knicks. The Magic got back Evan Fournier and Al-Farouq Aminu giving the Magic 11 — 11! — active players. All of them played as the team put together perhaps its best half of basketball since Markelle Fultz’s injury.

Things felt a bit more normal. Almost.

The Orlando Magic are working players back and should have a full rotation very soon. That means inevitably the team will winnow things down and squeeze some players off the court.

Clifford broke one of his preferred rules in playing 11 players. Even the relatively healthy center spot saw its rotation split open and broken up. Yes, Nikola Vucevic still played 37 minutes but Khem Birch and Mohamed Bamba had a fairly even split of the minutes at the 4 and 5.

Clifford said after practice Thursday the team is hopeful Ennis will return from his injury for Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

Clifford has said several times he suspects Ennis’ injury was a product of overuse. And that concern is present for every player. But now that another rotation player is coming back into the fold, Clifford faces the conundrum of re-integrating players and forming a rotation that brings everyone back safely but also puts the team in a position to win.

"“Some of this, I can’t lie, is going to be a work in progress,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “Last night, we’re going to have to get through this stretch where you bring guys back and they can only play a few minutes.“You’re going to have nights where you have to play 11 guys because with minutes restrictions and being smart about the pace we bring guys back so they don’t get reinjured, they can’t play too much. I think as a coach all you can do is sit, watch, figure out who can play with who. I’m just glad to have him back and I think he can make a real difference for our team.”"

A lot of this is because the Magic are trying to be careful with players’ minutes as they return from injury. They do not want to push players too hard too fast so they can stay in the lineup for the long haul.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The never-ending cycle of this season’s schedule — the Magic started a stretch of eight games in 15 days to close the first half of the schedule Wednesday — has tested and stretched the team thin. Orlando wants to be careful and keep those players in the rotation.

Aminu, for instance, was only supposed to play five minutes in each half when he returned last week. That seems like it will be the plan for the immediate future. He played 11 minutes in his return to the lineup on Wednesday.

That move is largely why hem Birch played fewer minutes. Clifford seemed to prefer playing Aminu alongside Bamba — the two shared all but two minutes on the floor together. Maybe Steve Clifford believed the team needed a bit more offensive push that Mohamed Bamba can provide with both Al-Farouq Aminu and Chuma Okeke out on the floor together.

If this is the case, it bodes well for Bamba getting some more minutes in the rotation. Although who can tell at this point. Clifford said Bamba’s minutes may be matchup dependent going forward as the team tries to manage all these returning players.

Okeke too is still on something of a minute restriction since his return from a monthlong absence. But he eclipsed 30 minutes by necessity in one of the games during the road trip.

With Ennis returning, Clifford said the plan is to return Okeke to playing power forward more. Clifford said he believes Okeke can be more successful at that position so he is not yet defending primary ball handlers and scorers — although he said he believes he one day can get to that defensive level.

But Aminu, Okeke and Ennis are all likely to play meaningful roles. Someone is going to get squeezed out.

Certainly, Birch’s minutes at the 4 will begin to cease — he still played all 16 of his minutes in Wednesday’s game alongside Vucevic. That would squeeze out Bamba’s minutes. Yet Bamba played in Wednesday’s game even with both Okeke and Aminu available to play power forward. Maybe their return squeezes Gary Clark’s minutes a bit more.

Then again, Fournier returned from a prolonged absence to play 31 minutes Wednesday. As much as Clifford says he is watching minutes and usage, he is still leaning heavily on the players he trusts most to help deliver wins.

Clifford tells the media all the time how difficult it is to create a rotation with more than nine players. Somehow he pulled it off successfully Wednesday. But it is not certain how long that will last or how comfortable Clifford ultimately is with it.

Clifford said the goal right now is to get the team back into the playoff race. And eventually, he is going to winnow his rotation down to nine players once again. Someone is going to have to get squeezed out. A couple of players are going to be out of the rotation at some point.

Clifford is going to have to be willing to experiment with some lineups and combinations as he makes these decisions.

Nikola Vucevic's All-Star bid makes him part of the team's future. dark. Next

For now, the team remains open to playing a whole lot more players to get everyone back into rhythm and to see what works.