Orlando Magic need to begin melding new roster and set firm rotations

The Orlando Magic are still learning their new roster. But the time has come to fully integrate them and use them fully. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic are still learning their new roster. But the time has come to fully integrate them and use them fully. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic team that defeated the Phoenix Suns last week was not the team that took the court last Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Four of the team’s five starters from that win were no longer on the team, spread out throughout the league as part of Thursday’s fire sale. The Magic were already depleted with injuries to core players Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

Without the players the Magic traded, the team played with just eight players against the Blazers.

They welcomed those players to the fold for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Magic were being careful with their introduction to the team as they get organized and try to learn what the Magic want to do on both ends.

"“This isn’t something you can ease into,” coach Steve Clifford said after shootaround on Friday. “You can’t play well if you’re not organized and on the same page. . . . I know this: To play well, one, you have to be organized and, two, you have to be good at some things. Instead of throwing a million things at them, we’ll start with basics and find what everybody is comfortable with, get good at some things and move on from there.”"

They seemed to figure some things out with two games and a practice.

The Orlando Magic’s surprising 103-97 win over the LA Clippers. showed the potential and spirit this team has. The team played with tremendous effort and has found a bit of a niche forcing turnovers and leaning heavily on that energetic defense to catch teams by surprise.

But so much has changed — Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier represented a good chunk of the team’s offense and creation this season — that this is essentially a new roster.

The Orlando Magic are still trying to piece together their new rotation with new players. The team has to start creating a final rotation now that players seem to have some comfort and the team a bit of an identity.

Not only are the Magic looking to fill in for three starters and franchise-defining players, but they will also have to discover a new way to play. All while going through a crazy pandemic schedule starting with a West Coast trip that begins Sunday in Los Angeles.

It is going to be a crash course for everyone as they try to figure out new roles and a new way to play.

The first place to go is to figure out what the roster will look like and who will be available.

Through two games, here is a rough look at the potential depth chart when Clifford feels comfortable with his current roster:

PG: Michael Carter-Williams/Chasson Randle
SG: Dwayne Bacon/R.J. Hampton/Karim Mane
SF: Otto Porter/Terrence Ross/James Ennis
PF: Chuma Okeke
C: Wendell Carter/Khem Birch/Mohamed Bamba
Injured: Cole Anthony, Gary Harris

The Magic should begin to integrate some of their new players into the lineup more fully. They did, after all, trade their best players for them. They should be able to contribute something.

They have proven that through the early parts of their run this season that they can contribute and help the team win games.

But there is a balance here.

Clifford is clearly putting some emphasis on growing young players — thus the nearly even split in center minutes between Wendell Carter, Khem Birch and Mohamed Bamba. It does not feel like Bamba is going to be forever tied to the bench. But he is not one to put out an all-bench lineup on the floor or an all-young player lineup. He will need his veterans to play and contribute.

So constructing a workable lineup and rotation is still going to be a challenge. Even as he tries to settle on his five best players and a nine- or 10-man rotation.

Clifford said he does not want to throw a bunch of young players on the floor together without some veteran to show them the way. Young players going out there and playing without much direction is not going to help them get better and contribute to a winning team down the road. He wants young players playing narrowly defined roles to master the basics and grow from there.

That was evident even in how Clifford pieced together his rotations these first two games.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Clifford is still being careful with minutes for all the new players. They have not climbed over 30 minutes yet or entered the starting lineup. But it is telling that both Wendell Carter and Otto Porter have played the clutch minutes in two close games since joining the team.

He has also been careful to keep R.J. Hampton at shooting guard and to keep his role well-defined. Especially as he learns his game and how best to use him.

But it is also telling that Orlando’s starting lineup is struggling. The grouping of Michael Carter-Williams, Dwayne Bacon, James Ennis, Chuma Okeke and Khem Birch have an on-court net rating of -29.9 points per 100 possessions in 18 minutes.

That is the only lineup that has played more than 10 total minutes in the last two games. That is a sure sign as any that Clifford is still piecing together a workable rotation and where to play players.

But the Magic have to begin to adjust soon and get closer to a normal rotation and playing groups. They have to find a way to optimize their lineups better. And some of it is still going to take some experimenting.

Clifford is already thinking about this. With Terrence Ross returning to the lineup Tuesday, Steve Clifford said before the game he had not decided whether Ross would ultimately join the team’s starting lineup or not. A lot is still very much in the air.

Cole Anthony is set to return shortly after the team returns from the West Coast trip. Gary Harris might be 10-14 days away from making his debut. The Magic might have something resembling a full roster.

What does this team look like then?

PG: Cole Anthony/Michael Carter-Williams/Chasson Randle
SG: Gary Harris/R.J. Hampton/Dwayne Bacon/Karim Mane
SF: Otto Porter/Terrence Ross/James Ennis
PF: Chuma Okeke
C: Wendell Carter/Khem Birch/Mohamed Bamba

The Magic starting lineup will shift and change once again in the next week. And Orlando now has a glut of guards and a shortage of front-court options.

Clifford is still going to lean on veterans — he has already expressed an affinity toward Harris. And Porter was finishing games over the weekend in Los Angeles despite his otherwise careful use of the team’s new players.

Clifford’s philosophy in building a rotation is about consistency. The fair criticism of his coaching style and philosophy is how slow he can be making obvious changes to the rotation. Clifford comes up with an idea that he feels can work — backed by data and hopefully some testing in practice — and then gives it every chance to work even if it struggles early.

But this is also key to him building his foundation and helping a young team grow. He wants everyone to know who they will play with and when they will play with them.

Clifford is not reactionary when it comes to constructing playing time. He is going to give his group every chance to figure out if they can play together.

These early games have seen plenty of experimenting. But even with the holdovers and the new players playing in virtually separate groups, he has kept a consistent rotation. That consistency he feels helps players grow.

Everything he is doing is working to get the most out of his team and to put young players in a position where they can succeed while doing so. He believes the best way to do that is to put them with consistent playing groups and have them easily predict and know when they will play during the game.

Clifford is clearly still getting to that point with this new group.

Next. Orlando Magic finally commit to a path. dark

What the Magic have done to this point is dip their toes into the water. They will need to fully integrate the new players into the rotation and into major minutes at the start and end of games more effectively.