Orlando Magic’s best lineups hint at strong immediate future

The Orlando Magic have a solid group of young players who are still finding themselves. But they showed hints of their potential last year. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic have a solid group of young players who are still finding themselves. But they showed hints of their potential last year. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It is hard to look at the overall picture of the Orlando Magic following its 2022 season and see something pretty.

That was never the point of course. The most promising asset that was likely to come from that inexperienced team was the pick they would earn from the draft lottery — and that turned out to be top pick Paolo Banchero.

The point of the 2022 season was to begin laying the foundations for the work ethic and idea of who this team would be growing into. Orlando merely wanted to see the outlines of the team they might become as they continue to add players and talent to the equation.

To be sure, such a season is not going to be as acceptable moving forward. Orlando is under the directive to “level up” from their coach. And while no one wants to put pressure on the team to make the Play-In Tournament or the Playoffs quite yet — they are still incredibly young and inexperienced — they do want to see the team start to put winning habits together.

The Magic want to be on an upward trajectory.

The Orlando Magic are aiming to improve this coming season. Their best lineups last year provides hints of where that growth can come and how quickly they could take that next step.

Last season’s 22-win campaign was not full of anything that looks sustainable by the numbers. There were moments of strong play and solid games. And there were hints of what the team could be — among the most notable figures was the team finishing seventh in defensive rating after the All-Star Break.

That, of course, was only for a quarter of the season.

If there are people who are a bit skeptical of the Magic’s ability to make the leap this year it is because of the lack of that consistency. The Magic certainly want to show that.

But there are at least a few signs the team could be poised for a big jump. And it is not just Banchero’s addition to the team.

In a point made on The Athletic NBA Show over the weekend, the Magic actually had some decent pairings and trios that performed better than expected. Orlando was hit hard by injury and by a general lack of depth. But the team actually has some decent lineups it could throw out.

The big one that Magic fans may remember is that the team’s starting lineup was actually pretty good.

Orlando’s opening night starting group of Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba (the team’s most used lineup last season) had a full-season net rating of -1.1 points per 100 possessions. In the first half of the season, that group had a net rating of +11.4 points per 100 possessions and was one of the best heavy-minute lineups in the league.

That was something. Although it is still a small sample of 163 minutes — 38.4-percent of the group’s total minutes last season. That was something a lot of Magic fans hung onto through the early struggles of the season. It felt like there was something there.

Considering the Magic had an overall net rating of -8.1 points per 100 possessions, this is a sign something in that lineup was working.

But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. It was still a net negative on the floor overall even when they played. Orlando still needs some lineup tinkering and internal improvement. The Magic have a lot of things to work on.

Their best lineup that played at least 100 minutes together last year replaced Jalen Suggs for Gary Harris (+5.8 points per 100 possessions) and the lineup with Harris and Suggs manning the backcourt without Anthony had a +2.1 net rating in 68 minutes.

Again, this suggests there are combinations for the Magic that worked last year when the team could use them.

Orlando will obviously jumble its lineups a bit this year. There is no data to figure out how Banchero fits in with the team. And Markelle Fultz played surprisingly few minutes with the team’s starters. Those are two projected starters — likely replacing Jalen Suggs and Mo Bamba.

There is a lot up in the air for this team.

Even looking at trios, there are hints things could be just fine.

The trio of Anthony, Wagner and Carter had a net rating of +0.5 points per 100 possessions. This was the Magic’s most common trio in their lineups. Replace Anthony with Fultz, and the Magic’s net rating climbs to +0.8 points per 100 possessions in 36 minutes. It is a small sample.

Lineups with Suggs, Wagner and Carter came out to a net rating of -1.7 points per 100 possessions. So there is still a fair bit of mix and matching that needs to come.

As a duo, the pairing of Wagner and Carter had a -0.5 net rating. Adding in a guard or adding in Banchero could be something that tips the Magic’s lineups over the top.

There is still going to be some mixing and matching going on — the Magic’s top trio among groups that played at least 100 minutes was unexpectedly Chuma Okeke, Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs thanks to a 102.3 defensive rating.

Obviously, these numbers are not enough to make conclusions.

Partial lineup data can be hard to decipher because the other players on the floor matter. And so the Magic will still be trying to find a good five-player group and the right minutes to play them — starters going up against starters tends to depress that group’s numbers, etc.

What it does seem to suggest is the Magic have something to build on. That is all the team wanted to see last year — the hints of who they can be. There are indeed some player combinations that show potential.

Obviously the team will be jumbling lineups a bit. Orlando still has to settle on who starts at shooting guard and may end up going with the veteran Harris over the younger Suggs. The team will be integrating Banchero into the mix. Jonathan Isaac should be returning too.

Orlando will be looking at some different lineups and experimenting throughout the season.

And a lot of the lineups that had Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter as a backstop will no longer be there. Splitting those two players up will have ripple effects throughout the roster. Carter played 54.7-percent of his minutes alongside Bamba — to a -5.5 net rating, for those that care.

Last year’s lineups may not produce the same results. And the Magic themselves may change a bit of how they attack with some of the new players in the fold.

Every season is different and there are things to sort through in training camp as the Magic aim to put their best players and lineup combinations out on the floor each night. The team is going to spend the year discovering a lot.

Still, the Magic’s limited success, especially with the players the team cares about and especially considering virtually the entire roster returns from last year, leaves hints of where the team can continue to improve.

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It gives hints of where the team can find success. And perhaps hints that the team has the ingredients to be good much faster than anyone expects.