Orlando Magic using preseason to experiment with lineups

Orlando Magic coach Jamahl Mosley is still experimenting and testing out different lineup combinations in his preseason games. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Jamahl Mosley is still experimenting and testing out different lineup combinations in his preseason games. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

For the public, preseason is all we get. The only chance we get to have a hint of what the Orlando Magic are going to look like before the season begins.

Like with any preseason game, it is easy to read a whole lot into what we see.

The Orlando Magic’s first preseason game against the Boston Celtics was something of a revelation. The team played with intense energy, hit 3-pointers and looked like they could hang with a playoff-caliber roster.

The Orlando Magic’s second preseason game against the New Orleans Pelicans was something of a frustrating mess. The Magic looked sloppy and a whole lot less aggressive defensively. Their fast start quickly gave way to a middling finish. And ultimately, the Magic could not climb back or find their rhythm.

Players around the league like to say the key to success in the NBA is not to get too high or too low during the course of the season. The preseason is no different. Nobody is likely as good as they look. And, unless there are five alarm bells ringing, they are not likely as bad as they look.

Those warnings are not ringing on the Magic at this point. Most of the struggles and inconsistency through the extremely tiny sample size of two games are likely things the team expected and will continue to expect with such a young roster.

Fans should not take anything as gospel either.

The Orlando Magic are clearly still experimenting with some different lineup combinations in their preseason games, making it harder for the public to tell what this team will look like when the games go live.

While the Magic are midway through their preseason schedule, coach Jamahl Mosley has indeed made good on his promise to use the preseason games as an extension of training camp. From examining the lineups the Magic have used through two games it becomes clear the Magic are more focused on using these games to accomplish certain goals or look at certain lineups.

In other words, do not take the totality of what we have seen in the preseason as any kind of gospel for the upcoming season. The goals are clearly not about winning the entire game, but looking at certain lineups or combinations throughout the course of the game.

For instance, the Magic have used only three lineups for two separate stints this preseason — the starting unit of Jalen Suggs, Terrence Ross, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter from Monday’s game, the second unit from Monday’s game of Cole Anthony, E’Twaun Moore, R.J. Hampton, Moritz Wagner and Mohamed Bamba, and the Magic’s camp invite lineup of Hassani Gravett, Jeff Dowtin, Admiral Schofield, Ignas Brazeikis and Jon Teske.

Only two lineups to this point have played more than 10 minutes together — the first and second units from that game Monday.

Experimenting with groups

This suggests the Orlando Magic are more focused on experimenting than with playing the game with lineups or rotations they may actually use when the regular season begins. For these final two preseason games, it might be more productive to analyze what the Magic want to look at with each playing group rather than trying to use it to predict something about the regular season.

The Magic have displayed at least a few groups that could feasibly play meaningful minutes together. But it is hardly anything significant.

"“We talk about getting better every single day,” Jamahl Mosley said after Friday’s practice. “And we’ve gotten better every single day. There are obviously still things we neeed to put in offensivelya nd defensively. We are on a pretty good track for laying the foundation for where we need to be.”"

In that sense then, the Orlando Magic played Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics far more like a regular game with potential lineups and a real rotation than they did Wednesday’s game.

There was no real focus in that game other than playing more balanced lineups — the Magic only got its three-guard lineup with Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and R.J. Hampton on the floor for eight seconds at the end of the first half. This looked more like a regular rotation and the offense flowed better because of it. Although the Magic’s starting group had a negative net rating and a sub-100 offensive rating.

The game against the New Orleans Pelicans saw the Magic focus more on their big man rotation. It was very clear the Magic were testing out more big-man combinations in that game.

For instance, Wendell Carter played 14:45 of his 22:25 on the floor Wednesday with either Robin Lopez or Mohamed Bamba on the floor with him. That signals a clear intent to give him a look at power forward and likely explains why the team started the way it did to align those lineups.

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Broad strokes

It is obviously preseason and so other teams are also throwing odd lineups or trying to accomplish their own goals with their teams. And with just two games under their belt, it is hard to draw too many conclusions. Looking at preseason data is hard to draw any specific conclusions, just broad strokes.

Those broad strokes include a clear sign the team’s defense is the catalyst for the team’s success — only three of the Magic’s 10-best lineups in the preseason had a defensive rating greater than one point per possession (again, remember these are all extremely small sample sizes).

The other broad stroke is that 3-point shotting is critical to the team’s success, but could also be a bandage over a struggling group. Taking out the lineups that played fewer than two minutes together so far, five of the eight lineups that posted better than a point per possessions made at least two 3-pointers in their short time together.

However, the Magic’s starting group from Monday’s game hit five total 3-pointers in 15:12 on the floor together but still posted an offensive rating of 83.9 points per 100 possessions (26 points on 31 possessions).

While 3-point shooting will be important for the team, it is not a cure-all. The Magic have to defend well and have to still find good shots. And that will become easier once the team settles on firmer rotations.

That time is not likely now.

Tightening the rotation

This experimenting is likely going to continue as the team tinkers with things during practice too. Jamahl Mosley said the team scrimmaged in Friday’s practice after spending time cleaning up their pick and roll coverages from Wednesday’s game. They used this time to continue looking at different combinations.

He said the team will likely still look to test out playing groups in the team’s final two preseason games. Slowly but surely a regular rotation may begin to emerge.

"“It may tighten up a little bit,” Mosley said after practice Friday. “But it will still be about the feel and the chemistry. There are going to be different times we are going to put different combinations out there. They ahve got to be able to understand who they’re playing with at the time they are playing it, the sets they can run with that particular group on the flooor and what your doing with that position at that time of the game.”"

Right now, Mosley is still assessing which players play well together and how many minutes each player can handle. This is a key part of what the preseason is about.

And so there may still be a game where he focuses on testing out different guard combinations or smaller lineups or some other groupings he wants to see. There may be a quarter where he plays a truer reflection of the rotation he is thinking.

This is the time to do all of this. And, of course, doing all this has an effect on the outcome of games and the final result.

Preseason games are certainly not about the final score. But for fans with precious little information, it is at least some clue of how the team is doing and faring.

It is a hint of the progress the team is making.

"“We’re getting better each day,” Gary Harris said after practice Friday. “That’s our goal. Coach says we want to get better each day. We got better today. We will come in and get better tomorrow. We’ll get better against San Antonio and just keep working. Our goal is to be ready for the first game of the regular season. Once that hits, we’re rolling.”"

There is still clearly a lot of work to do from both the players and the coaches. And certainly the team, even through whatever lineup experiments are still going on, will want to see progress as they inch closer to the start of the regular season.

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For now, take the preseason games and the results so far as an experiment more than what the team may actually do when the games count. Then again, we are now a little more than a week away from that day. And there is precious little time to get ready for it.