2021 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Veteran big men got their chances

Khem Birch was a solid veteran for the Orlando Magic but not the veteran the Magic needed. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Khem Birch was a solid veteran for the Orlando Magic but not the veteran the Magic needed. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

The constant criticism Steve Clifford faced throughout his tenure with the Orlando Magic — and really too with the Charlotte Hornets — was his penchant for leaning on veteran players.

That is not out of some spite or hatred of young players, for the most part. Clifford played plenty of young players and lots of young players met his eye and got the patience to play and develop with on-court experience.

Clifford was always looking for a base level of understanding before he threw them out on the court.

At the end of the day, his focus was on putting out a rotation and a lineup that would give him the best chance to win. And so when push came to shove, he went for players he could trust. And when there were spot minutes or rotation decisions, he often leaned toward the players with experience.

There were a lot of veteran players who passed through the Magic during this frustrating season. Eventually, by the end of the season, those veteran players were largely held out so that the young players could play. Perhaps that was part of the tension that led to Clifford’s departure.

The Orlando Magic had several veteran forwards who stepped into the rotation this year. The team still did not get what it needed and that is part of why the team fell short.

Veteran players will still be really important for the team moving forward. But it will be less to help the team win than it is to give the team off-court guidance and help in practice.

There were plenty of veterans who had secondary roles for the Magic this year. With the injuries the team faced, the Magic needed the depth these veterans were supposed to provide. Players like Khem Birch, Gary Clark and Al-Farouq Aminu, especially, needed to fill in with solid minutes to keep the Magic in the playoff race.

But their struggles even within their limited roles ultimately hurt the Magic. No team should have to rely on the deep bench as much as this Magic team did, but they needed a whole lot more from these veteran players. Especially with Clifford’s penchant for leaning on these players when he is in a pinch.

There were certainly times when the Magic should have rolled the dice and gone with a young player. Even if it failed, what was there to lose?

The Magic ultimately lost this season because of injuries to key players. Even Clifford would say a team goes only as far as its best players can take them. But certainly both the roster construction and the veterans the Magic invested in and the opportunity they gave, these veterans as a group fell pretty short.

B-. . C. Orlando Magic. KHEM BIRCH

It is hard to be too upset with Khem Birch and the way that he played this season. Once the Magic had a clearer understanding of what he could do as a player, everyone knew his limitations offensively. He was on the floor to provide some defense and be in the right spots.

Sure, people were upset that Mohamed Bamba was not playing. But it was hard not to be upset with Birch and feel like he was not playing the role he was always designed to play.

The Magic had a 107.6 defensive rating with Birch on the floor. The team was only better defensively before Birch was cut with Michael Carter-Williams on the floor. Birch was a solid defender.

So if there was a reason Clifford kept going back to him over Bamba, this was the reason. Birch was always dependable and reliable.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But he was not what the Magic needed and that was clear. Orlando needed upside and someone who could play beyond their roles on occasion. This was the kind of team and the kind of season where Birch’s consistency was not what the team needed.

Nowhere is this seen more than how much better Birch played for the Toronto Raptors when he joined them in April.

With the Magic, Birch averaged 5.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 19.8 minutes per game. With the Raptors, Birch averaged 11.9 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game in 30.4 minutes per game.

The Raptors were able to get the most of Birch because they had better balance offensively.

Birch was always the kind of player who made winning teams better. He fills gaps without soaking up any possessions. But he is almost completely useless to rebuilding teams. The Magic should have played Bamba because his upside would have a greater potential for the team, even if it ultimately failed.

That is not Birch’s fault. But this was by far his worst season with the team despite the consistency he provided.

F. . F. Orlando Magic. AL-FAROUQ AMINU

Jeff Weltman has not had many outright failures as the leader of the Orlando Magic’s front office. He may have put his resources in the wrong spot or passed up some opportunities to fill needs that the team desperately needed with picks. The Mohamed Bamba pick certainly stands out as a miss but understandable considering what people thought on draft night.

The biggest miss though, and the one that perhaps proved most consequential to a team trying to make its way up the playoffs was his lone big free agent move.

There was confusion when the Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu to the full mid-level exception in the summer of 2019. But some logic too. The Magic wanted a third switchable forward to help the team defensively after the Toronto Raptors bullied the Orlando Magic’s second unit.

Aminu though never got off the ground. A torn meniscus virtually ended his entire first season with the team. Orlando did not even get the chance to see if their thought experiment with switchable forwards would work (Jonathan Isaac’s injury compounded that).

Aminu’s recovery though was unusually slow. Orlando is cautious anyway with injuries, but Aminu did not even return to the court this year until 25 games into the season. And even that first game presented a setback that kept him out another week.

Aminu’s defense was still as good as advertised. But he struggled in 2020 with his shooting at all levels. He was a negative offensively and that did not change. Aminu averaged 5.5 points per game on 40.4-percent shooting. He never really found his place in the rotation.

Orlando would have had only one more year of Aminu weighing the team’s cap down. The team was lucky to find a deal where it could include him and get off his contract to receive some cap flexibility again.

C-. . F. Orlando Magic. GARY CLARK

The Orlando Magic’s acquisition of Gary Clark last season was a necessary stopgap for a team that was hurting for forward help. He provided solid defense and at least the notion of 3-point shooting. His performance in Game 1 of the playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks will go down as an all-timer for the team.

This season was back to cold reality for Clark. The Magic needed him with their lack of depth at forward and he fell back into the sort of reserve role that he was probably always meant for.

The Magic’s biggest problem was always they relied on their reserve players to do more than they were capable of doing. Clark was no different. And because Clark had a basic understanding of defense, Steve Clifford felt more comfortable relying on him more.

Clark finished his run with the Magic averaging 3.4 points per game and shooting 28.7-percent from beyond the arc. Clark’s 3-point shooting was always more an idea than a reality. And that is ultimately where his play failed.

Clark was fine in other aspects of his game. But nowhere near what the Magic would need.

INC. . F. Orlando Magic. OTTO PORTER

The Orlando Magic acquired Otto Porter from the Chicago Bulls as a salary-matching contract. That is all that he likely will end up being.

Porter has a reputation as a solid scorer and there was hope that he might display some of that, perhaps even enough to get a second contract with the Magic. And he had some really good moments, including nearly helping the Orlando Magic beat the Los Angeles Lakers on the road.

But Porter played only three games before a recurring knee injury sidelined him. He averaged 8.0 points per game in those minutes, albeit on not-so-efficient shooting. It was hardly enough to judge anything with Porter.

Could the Magic still use a veteran who can score at the rate Porter can when he is healthy? Sure. But Porter has not been healthy for several years now.

Next. Evaluations: R.J. Hampton's sprint to the finish. dark

It does not seem like the Magic will retain him this offseason.