Shock of Orlando Magic’s jumbo lineups is starting to wear off

The Orlando Magic have used an unconventional big lineup that has given opponents problems. But its effectiveness has worn off. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have used an unconventional big lineup that has given opponents problems. But its effectiveness has worn off. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

When the Orlando Magic announced before their Oct. 28 game against the Charlotte Hornets that Bol Bol would take Cole Anthony’s place in the starting lineup after Anthony’s oblique injury would force him to the bench for an extended time, everyone raised an eyebrow in shock.

The going thought would have been the Magic to replace a point guard with a point guard. While everyone — mostly NBA Twitter — had dreamed of the Magic rolling out excessively big lineups, no one imagined the team could try something like this and get away with it.

The Hornets though were clearly not prepared for it. They were not ready for the versatility off the dribble that Bol Bol could bring or the growing playmaking from Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero could bring.

The Magic won the game easily 113-93, blowing the doors open from the start. The Magic’s starting group that night of Terrence Ross, Franz Wagner, Bol Bol, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter had a 62.3 net rating (130.0 offense/67.7 defense) in 15 minutes together.

It was hardly enough to draw any conclusions other than that something here worked. Orlando earned its first win of the season and did so in blowout fashion. The team stuck with it.

The Orlando Magic have stuck with an unconventional big lineup that has clearly had long moments of effectiveness. But injuries have sapped it of its strengths and left the team figuring out how best to deploy it.

The big lineup is undoubtedly here to stay. It is effective enough to keep working and using. But its successes are starting to slow as teams get a scout on this group and as injuries have sapped it of many of its strengths.

The Magic are going to have to ask themselves very soon how best to deploy this big lineup and whether this is the starting group long-term.

Injuries have obviously slowed down any concrete analysis of any of the Magic’s lineups — their most-used lineup has played only 65 minutes together (the team’s current starting lineup with Jalen Suggs and Chuma Okeke in the lineup for Terrence Ross and Paolo Banchero). And the team has second-half issues even before switching to this lineup.

Taking a look at the lineups the Magic have used reveals this split.

Orlando started its jumbo lineup with Ross, Banchero, Wagner, Bol and Carter for three games before Suggs returned. That group has played 34 minutes together with a net rating of 50.7 points per 100 possessions (139.1 offensive rating/88.4 defensive rating).

Initially, it was clear how much this team put a stamp on games. Its length and versatility was something very few teams could properly prepare for and they were able to pounce with a ton of energy and length.

When Suggs returned, the Magic moved him into the starting lineup for Ross. That group has played 55 minutes together at a net rating of -5.9 points per 100 possessions (110.4 offensive rating/116.4 defensive rating).

When Banchero went out, the Magic moved on to Chuma Okeke in the starting lineup. That group has played 65 minutes together at a -4.5 net rating (94.0 offensive rating/98.5 defensive rating).

When Carter missed two of the last three games, the Magic put Mo Bamba in his place. That group has played 36 minutes at a -34.5 net rating (87.0 offensive rating/121.5 defensive rating).

The first thing to notice is the diminishing returns of this lineup as the team goes through different iterations. It shows the careful and delicate balance that lineups have between working and not working. One wrong player that does not fit can throw an otherwise successful group completely off.

It should make clear that while Suggs has made some steps forward, he still has his offensive struggles as does Okeke. It should also make clear how critical Carter is to make a lot of things work for the Magic.

And it should come with the warning that these are all incredibly small sample sizes and subject to wild swings.

But that pattern is still there. The Magic have likely stretched this lineup as far as it can go. Just as their roster has been stretched to its limits of consistency and effectiveness.

To the eye test, the Magic’s big lineup presents a lot of problems. It is a versatile group with both Wagner and Bol capable of playmaking and taking players off the dribble. But since its original iteration, it has seen injuries take it apart and rob it of another playmaker in Banchero and some shooting from Ross.

If Orlando has learned one thing from going super big it is that there is some proof of concept to it.

The Magic last year spent a good chunk of their time focused on putting their best players on the floor — thus the unconventional for the time lineup that featured both Carter and Bamba together. That is something the team should continue to look to do.

But the big lineup is starting to get scouted. And it can no longer cover for its weaknesses — mainly its lack of attackers and even shooters to give some relief.

Necessity was the mother of invention to bring this lineup into existence. But it has been stretched as far as it can go. Not that Orlando has many other options to make it better or make adjustments.

The Magic should still be willing to go to this lineup. Health remains the biggest impediment to the team’s success one way or the other. That more than anything has clearly upset the team’s balance and potential. It has kept this group from finding any kind of rhythm and consistency.

Orlando does not have many options to fix broken lineups other than to try to find playing groups that work and limit the ones that do not work. Orlando has struggled to do that because of how few players the team has available and how few effective groups it can turn to.

The Magic should be getting healthier soon. That is at least the hope of what three straight days without a game will do.

But it has been clear the lineup’s effectiveness is waning.

The Magic are likely going to move into a phase where either they are able to play big lineups full-time — like when Jonathan Isaac eventually returns — or move to a phase where this lineup with Bol Bol becomes more of a changeup. Markelle Fultz’s eventual return will bring with it the decision to start him alongside Jalen Suggs or to keep the big lineup with just one guard.

These may be good problems to have considering how surprisingly effective the big lineups have been.

Next. The importance of Bol Bol to the Orlando Magic. dark

The Magic though are getting to a point where they need to consider some alternatives. Or consider how best to use this lineup when the team finally appears healthy again.