Veterans are still key to getting the most of Orlando Magic’s lineups

Chuma Okeke has emerged as a solid player for the Orlando Magic and important to the team's future and rotation. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has emerged as a solid player for the Orlando Magic and important to the team's future and rotation. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is not the first coach to make this admission, but he certainly will not be the last.

The final 15 games of the season can be a bit of a crapshoot. It is extremely tough to evaluate games and players in the final weeks of the season. Teams are not always playing their best lineups. Their goals are different as they rest players in preparation for the playoffs or for the end of the season. It makes for a mismatch.

As Clifford put it, in the final weeks of the season, a player can look like they have turned the corner when in reality they have not. Not even close, in his words.

The Magic are going to be guilty of this as much as anyone (if they are not already). Players will sit out with injuries when they might otherwise play and minutes are going to get spread out evenly. Right now, the Magic’s bench is not the kind of group that is going to be competitive most nights.

For the team’s young players, context matters as much as anything. The team is not going to learn a ton about Mohamed Bamba playing in a lineup with Devin Cannady and Chasson Randle. R.J. Hampton has ended up playing a lot of small forward in these depleted lineups. The Magic are not learning a ton about him there either.

The team is still trying to win. That is their job as players and coaches. That will not stop. But their roster is going to find it difficult to muster up the ability to compete on most nights. That is the reality of the team in its current depleted state.

Figuring out how to get value from these current lineups is going to be the key to seeing the team develop. The Magic may not win games, but they still want to see success from key lineups and key players.

Piecing together rotations and lineups is the most difficult job facing Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford. But the team’s veterans still have an important role to play to support the young players.

Perhaps this is where we want to focus our attention on measuring success beyond the final results of games.

Even here, injuries have put the Magic in a bind. Their most-used lineup since the trade deadline was their starting lineup of the last two games — Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Dwayne Bacon, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter. That group has played only 40 minutes across three games with a -18.2 net rating (96.4 offensive rating/114.6 defensive rating).

There simply are not big enough sample sizes to say what groups are successful or unsuccessful at this point. Only four lineups that have played 10 minutes together have a positive net rating this year.

The three that are relevant are: R.J. Hampton, Dwayne Bacon, Terrence Ross, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter (+57.7 net rating, 134.4 offensive rating, 76.7 defensive rating in 14 minutes across two games); Chasson Randle, Terrence Ross, James Ennis, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter (+10.7 net rating, 100.0 offensive rating, 89.3 defensive rating in 14 minutes across three games); and Michael Carter-Williams, Gary Harris, James Ennis, Chuma Okeke and Wendell Carter (+3.2 net rating, 131.8 offensive rating, 128.6 defensive rating in 12 minutes in one game).

These samples are so small that their success could very well be matchup dependent.

But a few things are fairly clear: Carter is the Magic’s best option at center for the moment (although it would be curious to see Bamba get that opportunity). Okeke is probably the only realistic option for the Magic at power forward. And the team relies on veteran players to give the team some stability on both ends. As much as they have struggled, Ross, Bacon and Harris are fair stabilizers for the team.

Still, this does not paint a complete picture. Context matters and none of these lineups have played long enough to draw conclusions.

Clifford is a coach who thrives on repetition. He believes young players especially grow best when they know what their role will be and who they are playing with. He wants things drilled and routined so players can play on instinct and trust.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The injuries this year from the start of the season along with health and safety restrictions limiting practice time and training camp have gotten rid of all that trust. The Magic have struggled defensively especially with so many new players.

The Magic still have to evaluate how players are playing and get a sense of what they have talent-wise and with their team. How do they do that with so much shifting in the lineups?

Moving down to three-man groups, the Magic can try to find at least some combinations that lead to success.

Here it is clear how valuable veterans are to get the most out of these players.

Wendell Carter’s best lineups are when he is paired with Otto Porter and Dwayne Bacon (+48.3 net rating in 18 minutes across two games), with Terrence Ross and Dwayne Bacon (+23.0 net rating in 38 minutes across seven games) and Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams (+10.5 net rating in 47 minutes across six games).

Okeke’s best lineups are when he is paired with James Ennis and Gary Harris (+17.5 net rating in 21 minutes across two games), Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis (+8.7 net rating in 99 minutes across seven games) and Dwayne Bacon and Mohamed Bamba (+7.6 net rating in 48 minutes across eight games).

Cole Anthony’s best trios come with Khem Birch and R.J. Hampton (+32.8 net rating in 16 minutes in one game), Khem Birch and Mohamed Bamba (+32.8 net rating in 16 minutes in one game) and Terrence Ross and Khem Birch (+32.8 net rating in 16 minutes in one game). Anthony has not played a ton to draw conclusions. But he seems to work really well with some of the Magic’s bench lineups and with another ball-handler around.

Hampton’s best trios are with Ross and Porter (+15.5 net rating in 27 minutes across two games) and Bacon and Ross (+13.5 net rating in 34 minutes across four games).

The clear conclusion is the Magic’s veteran players, as few as they are, still matter for this team. They still make this team better and give the Magic’s young players a chance to be in successful lineups.

Orlando has to continue finding ways to sprinkle their veterans throughout the rotation and the lineup to give their young players the chance to be in successful lineups. It will ultimately help the Magic in the long run too.

The Magic are still in the reality that they have to piece everything together. They do not have their full complement of players and getting a full 48-minute rotation will remain a challenge for Clifford. Playing a competitive roster to that effect will be difficult too.

But the Magic have to find some way to stay productive and evaluate their important players. They have to find some way to make the most of their minutes still.

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It may not result in wins all the time, but the Magic have to put their players in a position to succeed and grow still. Piecing together a lineup and a workable rotation remains the biggest challenge.