Orlando Magic have lost their chance to experiment before the end of the season

R.J. Hampton continued to show improvement as he gets comfortable playing for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
R.J. Hampton continued to show improvement as he gets comfortable playing for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Time is running out for the Orlando Magic.

If there is a sense of urgency within the team it is not for the attempt to get wins as the season comes to a close, it is the sense of urgency of running out of time to learn about these players and develop them in the course of games.

The Magic are already preparing for their offseason — Chuma Okeke did not travel with the team on this final road and is done for the season as is Terrence Ross. They are hoping that they can get young players the last bits of experience on the floor to kickstart their offseasons.

So time is indeed running out.

It is not merely about the players getting that last bit of experience and chance to play in games. It is also about getting a chance to test things out for next season.

Even the coaching staff is freely admitting this season is about growing and developing now. The team has been officially eliminated from the playoffs for a few weeks now, but even before then, the coaching staff was trying to build habits and create playing groups that would help the team next year.

The Magic are running low on time to do this. And their injury issues throughout the latter half of the season have further hampered this information-gathering technique.

The Orlando Magic wanted to begin building for their future after the trade deadline. Injuries though prevented the team from experimenting with their lineup in low-stakes situations.

This was a perfect time to experiment within the context of the players who are developing toward next year. This was a chance to try out playing groups and even some different strategies and roles.

Clifford acknowledged this week this was one of their goals. One that injuries foiled once again as they planned for their offseason and beyond.

"“We’ve been trying to do that little by little,” Clifford said after practice Monday. “The Wendell [Carter] injury kind of messes us up a little bit along those lines. You can always learn something every game. It’s a good point, we are trying to do that.”"

Injuries have taken away Chuma Okeke (now out for the rest of the season) and Wendell Carter, two young players who desperately needed more time on the court. Carter is now back after a week-long absence with an eye abrasion. Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis, all key veterans who can stabilize the Magic’s lineups, have been in and out of the lineup since the trade deadline too.

Orlando has had a tough time getting consistent playing groups or putting forth a lineup that could potentially look like one the team puts out next year. These absences hurt the team’s ability to try out new things.

Clifford, who is not always considered a creative offensive coach, has shown a willingness to try some unique things in an effort to get his five best players on the floor. He never fully embraced small ball — although Jonathan Isaac logged 4-percent of his minutes in the 2020 season at center, according to Basketball-Reference — but he has put out lineups that had some logic to them if not a clear guiding vision.

Fans criticized his decision to play two guards together in Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams, but that actually continued a trend going on around the league to play multiple ball-handlers together.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This is one of the things the coaching staff has wanted to look at when they felt R.J. Hampton, whom the coaches were still learning about and easing into the team, was ready for it. Hampton has continued to grow and he is playing more and more alongside Cole Anthony.

In 19 minutes on the floor together, the Magic have a -7.8 net rating but a 115.5 offensive rating. The offense seems to play really well and at the pace — 102.0 possessions per 48 minutes — with the two on the floor.

The most common third in that group is Mohamed Bamba (110 minutes with a -3.7 net rating). With Carter, the Magic have a -9.2 net rating in 59 games.

But what is clear is that this is a young group that deserves a closer look. The way of the future seems to have two ball handlers on the floor.

With Markelle Fultz set to return next year with this roster full of ball-handlers — and the potential to add another in the draft — this is the way the team is likely to play in the future. Clifford said he wanted to use Anthony and Fultz together once Anthony got acclimated to the NBA a bit more. But obviously, Fultz’s injury halted any of those plans.

It is safe to assume then that lineups like that are something Clifford will use next year.

Even if Anthony and Hampton are ultimately not a pairing the team uses often next year, this is a valuable time to figure out how to build lineups and strategies that might turn useful next year.

The team could have also tried something similar with Mohamed Bamba and Wendell Carter.

With Carter’s size and lateral mobility, he could have been able to play power forward against bigger forwards in the league. His defensive support might have enabled Bamba the chance to roam a bit freer defensively. And while both players have had some struggles on the defensive glass, they could both be strong enough rebounders to help the Magic with one of their weaknesses.

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But Carter’s injury prevented the Magic from even exploring that possibility. Orlando did not have a ton of depth at center anyway — although now with Donta Hall and Moritz Wagner, the team could fill in some minutes. Perhaps this is something the Magic examine before the season ends.

The point is, this was an opportunity to try out some different combinations to see what works. This was a chance to be a bit creative and experimental. Especially without much practice time anyway, games are really the only place a coach has now to try things out. And with the stakes so low in these games, there is less harm in doing so.

Clifford will be the first to say this is not how things actually work. This is not a video game where you can throw random lineups together and somehow they work out. There is definitely some timing and familiarity that comes with it. And Clifford’s approach is to use practice time to grow these things before throwing them into a game.

He is not wrong to believe that. Things are always a bit more complicated than putting five guys on the floor.

Still, the Magic are acknowledging they are playing more for their future than their present right now. Their roster is severely depleted and even with their best efforts, it is going to be hard to pick up wins.

So if there is urgency or the Magic, it is less about wins and losses and more about how the team is preparing for its future.

The team is still heavily depleted with injuries. And Clifford has put less focus on experimenting with lineups than he has been with putting together a rotation that can get his team productively through the 48-minute game. That is by necessity.

Next. Orlando Magic must have eye on next year to end season. dark

It has been something of a missed opportunity. But with three games left, there is still at least a small chance to learn and experiment as the team turns its attention to the 2022 season and the kind of roster they want to build moving forward.