Orlando Magic putting focus on youth in waiving Khem Birch

Mohamed Bamba will have to step into Khem Birch's big shoes as the Orlando Magic put their full focus on their young players. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Mohamed Bamba will have to step into Khem Birch's big shoes as the Orlando Magic put their full focus on their young players. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic probably never would have reached whatever little levels of success they have in the last three years without Khem Birch.

To no one’s surprise, he has embodied everything the Magic’s program has been about to coach Steve Clifford.

As he looks to rebuild his team and develop young players, Clifford has consistently returned to the idea that it is not just individual improvement that leads to improvement, it also takes improvement within the team concept. Improvement is much deeper than a box score.

It is here where Birch made his impact. He was not a big scorer, although his offensive game had slowly started expanding. But he was a player that made a lot of players better with his solid screening and his dependable defense.

If there was a reason Clifford leaned on Birch despite his relatively low ceiling, it was because he could count on Birch to play his role and to do whatever the coaching staff needed him to do usually without fail. He played within his role and rarely ventured beyond it.

"“He just stands for everything that you want in a professional athlete,” Clifford said after Thursday’s practice. “He’s a serious-minded, committed player. He was a good player when we got here and he is much improved now. He cares about the team and cares about his teammates. He badly wants to play well and contribute. To me, of all the guys we’ve had on our roster, he has sacrificed the most. When he got his chances to play, he has played very well. he has the great respect of everybody, all his teammates, all the coaches and everyone around the organization.”"

It is hard to let a player like that go. Especially one who seems to embody the entire culture the team is trying to build and what the team is trying to be about. There will be a loss from letting Birch go.

But Orlando is pushing forward with its rebuild plan. And that plan requires saying goodbye to a player like Birch to open up room for younger players to fill in and grow.

The Orlando Magic waived veteran big man Khem Birch clearing a path for Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba to get every opportunity to develop this season.

The team waived Khem Birch on Thursday to bring about this plan, marking a clearer path for playing time for both Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba, the only two remaining centers on the team.

With two young bigs both in need of playing time and confidence, that made Birch much more expendable. It was certainly not that Orlando did not want him around or did not value the things he did. If anything, his way was instructive for young players like Bamba.

"“Just watching him play you can see why coaches love to play him,” Bamba said after practice Thursday. “His energy. He does all the little things. He’s a really easy guy to cheer for. I got to know Khem on a personal level off the floor. He’s a great guy. He has been in my corner since I got drafted. Going forward, that’s a guy I know I can lean on for advice on how to be in this league.”"

But that is no longer the goal for the team. The Magic in deciding to rebuild have handed the keys to the franchise over to their coach to instruct and grow their young players.

Freedom on the roster

Aaron Gordon’s departure opened an avenue for Chuma Okeke to grow and blossom. Evan Fournier’s departure should give players like Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton more playing time than they would have before the deadline.

And now, Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch’s departure give Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba the split of the center minutes.

The Magic have no choice but to play these young players and truly see what they have in them.

"“That’s what these last 21 games are for,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “To be honest, 20 games is a small sample size. That’s why I think evaluating every game is important. But there has got to be a big picture evaluation also. Some of it is who you’re playing against, the matchups, who they are on the floor with. Those are the things we have to tinker with and find out as we go.”"

James Ennis said he felt Wendell Carter made an immediate impact with his presence and energy. He added Bamba has taken to the consistent minutes — perhaps the most consistent playing time he has gotten since before his injury in his rookie year — well.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

No doubt, without the pressure of getting a quick pull in favor of an All-Star center, Bamba has played well. He is averaging 11.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in 17.6 minutes per game since the All-Star Break. With Birch gone, his minutes are surely going to spike again.

This is the exact opportunity Bamba has been waiting for. And it is an opportunity he must take advantage of, especially heading into a contract year next season.

"“It’s the opportunity I have been looking for since I have been drafted,” Bamba said after practice Thursday. “Now is the time to go out there and play and just get better.”"

Growing and developing

Steve Clifford’s biggest concern for the team the rest of the season is losing this sense of team-play improvement.

But it was also fairly clear, the time for the Orlando Magic to use a grind-it-out player like Birch had long passed.

The team was struggling on both ends of the floor and had fallen in the standings. Birch is a winning player and what he provides is necessary for teams trying to climb the standings. What he gave the Magic during the 2019 season was invaluable and very well might have tipped the team over the top to make that postseason run.

But like that team on the way up needed a grinder who could simply do his job, this team on its way down the standings needs players with upside who can help lift the team up offensively and learn to be better and more reliable.

The Magic are now sending the clear signal that his development — along with the development of the extremely young roster the team has now put together are coming first.

So long as that young group continues to understand and improve on the concepts Clifford is teaching — along with playing hard, which has not been a problem minus the loss to the Utah Jazz since the trade deadline — the team will progress the way Clifford wants.

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Clifford has had some reticence toward throwing out lineups full of young players. He will still lean on veteran players like Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Dwayne Bacon. But he has also sent signals that he is not beholden to them.

In the Orlando Magic’s loss Wednesday to the Washington Wizards, he more evenly distributed minutes with the struggling Ennis (2 for 5, 0-for-3 shooting from deep) and Bacon (3-for-9 shooting) each played less than 20 minutes. Clifford rode his bench group that had helped the Magic climb back into the game for virtually the entire fourth quarter.

Only Terrence Ross and Chuma Okeke played more than 30 minutes in that game.

This may not be a sign of how Clifford intends to spread his minutes out but it shows a willingness to let young players who are playing well ride things out. And it signals that player development and experience, when directed in a positive way, will be an overarching goal and theme for the season.

Young players are going to get the chance to make mistakes now.

"“Very comfortable and very in rhythm simply because of the position the coaches have put us in,” Bamba said after practice Thursday. “We have done a lot of organizational work. It’s tough because we don’t have as many practice days. We’ve done a good job utilizing film and utilizing shootarounds to the point where we could be as productive as possible so we can play in a manner where we look organized.”"

The organized part is the part Clifford is most concerned about. And losing a player like Birch will hurt the team’s overall organization. Grinders like him make everyone else’s job that much easier.

But the Magic’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. They have taken to amassing young talent and seeing what sticks through the course of this final quarter-plus of the season.

Next. Cole Anthony makes return all about the team. dark

And Birch no longer fit into those plans.