One of the biggest offseason questions for the Orlando Magic was who they were going to start at the center position.
The team selected Mo Bamba with the 6th overall in 2018 and Wendell Carter was brought in as a major piece in the Nikola Vucevic trade. Carter, taken one pick after Bamba in that 2018 Draft, got a big new extension to boot after a 20-plus game run with the Magic to finish last season.
Both players hold a lot of value to the franchise. And both have played well to start the season.
The question entering the season, and seemingly answered by Carter’s extension, was: Who would start at center? It felt with Carter’s limitations as a shooter and perimeter defender, he would not be able to play power forward.
But coach Jamahl Mosley elected to give a completely different answer and has started both players through the first seven games of the season. Some credit should be given to Mosley for sticking to his initial intuition and not bailing on his idea when things did not click immediately. This young Orlando team needs as much stability as possible. And he is putting out his five best players with his current starting group.
With that being said, it is time to end the experiment of playing both of the big men in the starting lineup and give the center position to Wendell Carter.
The Orlando Magic have found some success pairing centers Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba together. But with Chuma Okeke returning and the team struggling to find balance, splitting the two might be the best path to success.
Statistically, Carter is averaging 12.6 points, 34.8-percent 3-point shooting, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game. Bamba is averaging 13.1 points, 44.3-percent 3-point shooting, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game.
While on the surface level, it would appear Bamba is slightly outperforming Carter, a lot of it has been from the awkward dynamic created with them on the floor. To make up for their size, both players have been forced to combine for more than seven three-point attempts per game to stretch the defense.
Statistically, their combined 39.6-percent 3-point shooting percentage is not bad but given how many more threes they are taking than normal, one would expect those numbers would regress closer to the mean as the season goes on.
There have been so many moments this season where Carter has shown off flashes of diverse offensive ability. He is only averaging one midrange shot per game but shooting an incredible 80-percent on those attempts. He has shown just how comfortable he looks in those situations.
Since he starts alongside another center, that space is taken more frequently taken up preventing him from having more opportunities in those areas.
Another reason Carter should get the edge in the starting role is his ability to push the pace.
The Orlando Magic are 29th in the league in fast-break points per game, averaging 7.7 per contest. Not only are the Magic the second-youngest team in the league, but their key players are the best versions of themselves in space.
This is possibly the biggest issue Mosley should be focusing on in the early part of this season and starting only one center would certainly help achieve that. With Chuma Okeke returning from his hip injury, Jamahl Mosley certainly has a quality player to add back into the rotation and fill that spot.
Okeke is a more comfortable shooter and floor spacer. And as he showed in his limited minutes alongside Franz Wagner, becomes a much more versatile and flexible defender on the perimeter. The Magic’s defense can become the switching, suffocating defense they envision with Okeke alongside.
It will also prime the Magic for Jonathan Isaac’s return. Isaac will undoubtedly slide into one of the starting forward spots when he returns. This is the ultimate vision for the team.
So far, the biggest issue for the Magic has come off the bench. Orlando has struggled to balance rotations and keep a consistently strong playing group on the floor at all times.
This is not saying the Bamba/Carter pairing has not had some success.
Orlando’s starting lineup remains the top lineup in the league in terms of net rating among all groups that have played at least 48 minutes together (+21.5 net rating/110.7 offensive rating/89.2 defensive rating).
Lineups with Bamba and Carter on the floor together have a -1.7 net rating (103.5 offensive rating/105.1 defensive rating). The duo is not in itself a successful one. But considering the Magic’s overall struggles, it is still one of the best groups the team can deploy.
It is something the Magic should not go completely away from. But it is not exactly the reason the Magic are finding whatever pockets of success they have, despite how well the two appear to work together.
A lineup change or tightening the team’s current rotation might create this balance.
If Bamba moved to the bench, that would give Orlando the opportunity to start Terrence Ross or Chuma Okeke, who would provide a dangerous trio alongside Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony.
Franz Wagner would be forced to work extremely hard for rebounds, but they drafted him eighth overall for a reason. They expect him to be a long-time starter for the franchise and he has to be willing to elevate his play for the betterment of the team in the long term.
The pressure would not last forever either, as Jonathan Issac will join the starting lineup once he is healthy.
Still, it would behoove the team to make this lineup change now so Wagner could get that experience fighting for more rebounds now and playing and switching now. That will certainly happen with Wagner and Okeke sharing the floor more.
As it stands, the Magic will not be competing for a playoff spot so they can prioritize player development even if it technically does not give them the highest percentage chance to win any given game.
Bamba has earned a spot in the rotation and heavy minutes at that. This has easily been the best he has played in his career. He is averaging a career-high in each major stat category. His improved 3-point shooting has paired well with his ability to protect the paint.
The issue comes with the fact he is not exactly the best fit with the players around him. While he is not as slow as someone like Jonas Valanciunas, he is simply not as mobile as Wendell Carter.
Another problem is how bad he has been on the pick and roll. Bamba is averaging 0 field goals on 2 attempts per game when involved in a pick and roll. His scoring frequency of 18.8-percent is the worst in the NBA. Bamba is floating to the perimeter on almost every possession rather than looking for chances to attack the paint.
Anthony and Suggs benefit so greatly with a good pick and roll partner since they are so explosive and dynamic coming off a screen. They are not getting that kind of action from Bamba right now which has hindered them greatly at times.
Whether or not Jamahl Mosley elects to do that with a small amount of pressure brewing from the fan base will have to be seen.