Orlando Magic’s lineups will be another experiment

Markelle Fultz made his triumphant return as the Orlando Magic defeated the Indiana Pacers. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz made his triumphant return as the Orlando Magic defeated the Indiana Pacers. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

There is optimism around the Orlando Magic.

You may not see it in the previews and preseason predictions, but it will surely be in the text. Getting the first overall pick will do that to you. The outlook for the Magic is positive.

How positive depends on who you ask.

The most optimistic fans believe this team has the talent and the ability to make the playoffs. With the uncertainties over Jonathan Isaac’s future and the potential of even a player like Bol Bol on the roster has this team uncertain about what it can do. And that does not even get to Franz Wagner’s breakout.

Even realist Magic fans know this team is going to be much improved even if the Magic are still near the bottom of the standings. The East has gotten better and this is still a young team learning to win.

That is one of the team’s goals this season. And there will inevitably be starts and stops along the way as they figure out what they have on the roster.

The Orlando Magic are teeming with some optimism. But a lot of their lineups will be new after an injury-filled year and new additions coming into the rotation.

Outside of the optimistic bubble surrounding Orlando fans, the outside world is not giving the Magic a ton of thought. There are the hipsters who are already preaching what the Magic are building.

But outside of Paolo Banchero, the team is not getting much attention — just look at all the rookie ratings coming out for the class of 2021 and 2020 that are just dripping with ignorance of the Magic or the NBA 2K23 ratings.

The reality is probably somewhere in between and closer to the realist’s side. But this is not a group to dismiss out of hand. Not immediately at least.

Yes, the Magic are going to do plenty of experimenting this season. The team was so full of injuries last year that it is hard to believe in anything as permanent. This season will be a blank slate.

That certainly raises some more of the doubt around this young team. The Magic are essentially adding two starters to their lineup. That alone creates uncertainty.

But the Magic have at least the baseline of something good.

As the Magic themselves liked to highlight last year, their starting lineup was one of the best lineups in the league through the early parts of the season.

Until Jalen Suggs’ injury on Nov. 29, the Magic’s starting lineup of Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba had a net rating of +11.4 points per 100 possessions. That is the fourth-best lineup of all lineups in the NBA that played at least 100 minutes together.

The team still had its struggles offensively. But the team’s 94.1 defensive rating is certainly pretty impressive. That was the foundation the Magic wanted to build from.

Orlando insisted this was something as the team struggled through the early part of the season. And injuries hit the team very hard.

This group played 163 minutes in 15 games before injuries hit. It was hard to sustain much momentum as injuries began gutting the roster, including that starting group.

The group finished the season with a net rating of -1.1 points per 100 possessions in 424 minutes and 34 games. They still posted a solid 103.2 defensive rating during their time together. But clearly whatever worked early in the season did not click later in the season. injuries and poor offense played a role for sure.

Orlando was so full of injuries though that the team only had three lineups play more than 100 minutes.

That has left many believing the Magic are something of a blank slate. There is a lot of unknown in the player combinations and how the Magic could create playing combinations.

But this starting group was always something they could hang their hat on.

Change is expected, however. The team is expected to slide Paolo Banchero into the starting group. And Markelle Fultz will also likely become the starting point guard.

There is obviously no data or no understanding of what Banchero can do on an NBA floor. That is always the mystery of a rookie. Many expect Banchero to take over a lot of the primary scoring role. But only time will tell.

Fultz had very limited time with the starters during his post-All-Star Break cameo. He made only one start last year in the final game of the season with many other players sitting out.

It is hard to judge anything that Fultz did because the most frequent lineup he played with — alongside Terrence Ross, Ignas Brazdeikis, Moe Wagner and Robin Lopez — played together for only 17 minutes.

He played 10 minutes with Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba to poor results (a -27.7 net rating).

In other words, it may be difficult for the Magic to recreate the lineups that had even limited success last year and fit in the new additions — or relatively new additions — that are now entering the rotation. The Magic may use their lineup data from last year to help create some lineups, but this group may very well be a brand new thing.

That may be why lots of projections do not have a good feel for what this Magic lineup could be. NBA 2K23’s default rotation is reportedly pretty nonsensical as they try to sort out the potential of this Magic lineup. Even projections for rankings of the starting lineup do not add much to the optimism.

Orlando though has lineups it can turn to and lineups that have shown promise. The team has players teeming with potential.

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A lot of the doubt surrounding the team could quickly turn into promise if things click. But this is going to be a year of experimentation. And, for now, there is a lot of unknown.