In the modern NBA, big men have to be able to play on the perimeter.
Most teams seem to prefer going smaller, using a rim-protecting center along with a bigger forward who can switch across positions on the perimeter and hold his own whenever a player goes into the post. Finding a center who can blow up plays at the rim and on the perimeter is the golden fleece for defenses in the league.
While other teams have gone smaller and smaller, the Magic have gone bigger and have found surprising success.
Where Orlando thought it had at least two big men who could protect the paint and anchor the team’s defense, the team instead has found two versatile big men whose size has proven to be a problem for teams.
Orlando Magic big men Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba have proven themselves to be versatile and modern big men who have found a fit together as they grow.
The Magic have two big men who have adjusted to playing on the perimeter offensively but can still bang around and chase after offensive and defensive rebounds in the paint.
They have both become anchors for the team on defense and threats from beyond the arc.
"“We’re asking those guys to do quite a bit,” said head coach Jamahl Mosley. “They’re out there switching on to smalls, trying to get back to protect the rim, and then coming up with the final rebound. So they’re doing a great job of what we’re asking them to do. They’re getting better every single game.”"
Against the Charlotte Hornets, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter both recorded double-doubles. That has not been so rare an occurrence as both have switched well and found their pockets on both offense and defense.
Bamba led the Magic in scoring and rebounds with18 points and 12 boards. Carter also scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Bamba knocked down 4 of 7 three point attempts and Carter went 1 for 4. The two combined for 11 three-point attempts, which is somewhat alarming considering the Hornets are a smaller team. But the bigs are shooting it if they have the open opportunity.
Lineups with the two big men have an overall net rating of -8.1 points per 100 possessions (99.3 offensive rating/107.5 defensive rating). That would suggest the duo is not working and might be due for a breakup if the Magic opt to change the lineup. But they have also been integral parts of the team’s starting lineup.
And their strong interior defense and expansion offensively have made it possible for the Magic to stick with their five best available players more and more.
"“They’re playing with great confidence,” Jalen Suggs said. “I tell all of them those 3-pointers that you guys shooting are great for our offense. The flip backs, popping out and us kicking out to them. Those are great looks for us. Those guys can knock them down. I couldn’t be more happy for them.”"
If there is a fault for both of these players, it is that they hang around the perimeter. But that is a general problem for the entire team. They settle for more threes than they should probably take.
All those 3-point attempts are great for offense when they are falling, but make for inefficient basketball when they are not.
Bamba said he was not necessarily in a slump after shooting 17 percent from deep in his last six games, but he was admittedly ineffective. Bamba is not necessarily rolling on most of his pick and rolls as he often settles to stay on the perimeter rather than diving to the basket.
Against the Hornets, Bamba put together an all-around performance, moving without the basketball, catching alley-oops, and attempting to post up a few times, instead of settling for the three-point shot.
Bamba seemed to make a conscious effort to find different ways to score against the Hornets. He often had a favorable matchup up against a much smaller defender.
"“I just try not to rely on it so much,” Bamba said. “If it feels good, I’ll keep shooting. But you have to think bigger picture and you have to think how can I help our offense. . . . I’m just going to take advantage of the switches,” Bamba said. “It’s a matter of just staying aggressive. If I don’t get it the first couple seconds, just find another action to create.”"
For much of the season, Bamba and Carter have been highly effective on the defensive end, altering shots and going strong after offensive and defensive rebounds.
That is still their ultimate role. Charlotte scored 48 points in the paint and made just 24 of 44 shots in the paint during the game. For the season, Orlando is giving up 42.5 points in the paint per game, the fifth-fewest in the league.
Orlando has done that at least at a high level. And they can thank their seemingly unique big man arrangement.
"“We talk about what a great job they do protecting the rim,” Mosley said. “I just really like that they’re deterring guys at the rim. They did a great job rebounding the ball and helping us finish possessions.”"
There are still fair questions about whether the Bamba/Carter pairing can work. It certainly works with the starting group but there are fair questions once the team breaks the lineup. Orlando certainly should feel like it has a position of strength to play at least one for all 48 minutes of the game (especially once they are healthy).
The only way this can work though is because the Magic have seen these big men expand their games.
Regardless of how the Magic’s lineup ultimately shakes out, the Magic’s bigs have clearly established themselves as more modern players. And that will help the team build a modern lineup.