Orlando Magic’s success based on lineup stability

Wendell Carter has slowly gotten into the swing of things after his prolonged absence due to injury. But the Orlando Magic have struggled reintroducing him. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter has slowly gotten into the swing of things after his prolonged absence due to injury. But the Orlando Magic have struggled reintroducing him. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The good times for the Orlando Magic appear to be over.

The spark that guided the team to win eight of nine games has seemingly dimmed. The energy, aggression and confidence that guided the team to thrilling victories and the sense the team was turning the corner.

They were not going to last. There will always be challenges in the course of the season. Part of the learning process for this young team is learning how to deal with those challenges and weather the ups and downs.

That is the story of this season. And it is not always going to be a straight path.

So this — the lifeless and frustratingly dispiriting losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons on back-to-back nights — is another twist in that journey. It is another crossroads and a moment for the team to settle itself down.

There is one pattern to the Magic’s success and failure this season. A clear one at that.

The Orlando Magic have struggled with the constant shuffling of lineups, only experiencing success when they had the same lineup and rotation available. With Wendell Carter especially, the Magic need to start establishing their groups and making things easier.

The story of the Magic’s season has been one of starts and stops. It has been filled with injuries and absences. It is a story of a constantly rotating cast of players and a team that has struggled to find stability.

The moment when the team found its most success? That was the longest string of consecutive games with the same starting lineup.

The Magic have used the group of Markelle Fultz, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, Bol Bol and Moe Wagner to start for 14 straight games. The next most frequent starting group has only started four games together.

That winning streak also featured a fairly consistent rotation. There were no players exiting because of injury and no players returning from injury. Orlando had stability and a clear rotation. Everyone knew who they were playing with and when they were going in.

That was never going to last. The Magic knew it and everyone knew it.

The team reintroduced Wendell Carter and Gary Harris to the lineup. They always knew they would and the team has seemingly braced for it. And eventually, Carter would return to the starting lineup and even possibly Harris.

There are more returns on the way — eventually, Jonathan Isaac will play and Jalen Suggs and Chuma Okeke will return. This adjustment is not something that will be novel or new. And it is something the team has to learn.

There is a clear dividing line from when Carter returned, especially. It has thrown off some of the Magic’s rotations and set lineups and has not done much to benefit anyone besides getting Carter a taste of playing time — one that he increasingly looks like he no longer needs as he has played well averaging 13.0 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game on 55.6-percent shooting in 20.9 minutes per game.

But Orlando has had an uncharacteristic -9.2 net rating with Carter on the floor the last three games, the worst among the Magic’s regular rotation players. The team has a 126.7 defensive rating with Carter on the floor since his return.

This is a small sample size and should not be taken as gospel. But it certainly suggests the lineups the Magic have put Carter in since he returned are not working.

Fans will quickly point to the return of the Mo Bamba/Wendell Carter pairing. Indeed, 25 of those 63 minutes Carter has played have been alongside Bamba at a net rating of -21.0 points per 100 possessions. Only two other of his pairings are worse in the last three games (alongside Terrence Ross and R.J. Hampton).

This though is an example of the awkward fit the Magic have had while they try to blend the lineups that worked during the win streak and the returning of key players.

Jamahl Mosley has shown some of his inexperience — and perhaps his over-commitment to development in the face of an opportunity to win — by not better balancing lineups and rotations and making the difficult player groups simpler for returning players and the team.

What probably should have happened is the Magic should have slotted Carter into the rotation naturally rather than create this feeling of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. Instead, Carter has been jammed into an existing rotation rather than taking some minutes as a bridge between Wagner and Bamba.

The team is trying to have both a reintegrated player and its old rotation. That has simply disrupted everything.

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Carter is certainly good enough to make an impact, but it is clear that these decisions have ripple effects throughout the roster, decreasing space on offense, putting another post player who might have trouble defending in space and making it harder for everything to operate.

The perfect synergy the team had and the rotations Mosley settled on were always going to get disrupted with returning players. Everyone has to adjust. But this adjustment has gone poorly so far. It is hard to see the team keeping the same playing groups it is using right now.

The goal should always be trying to make it seamless for these players to integrate and return. And that is not happening with this team right now.

With Carter and Harris’ workload increasing, the Magic are near the point where they should go to the lineup and rotation they ultimately want to see. That will mean making difficult choices and perhaps sitting some players or taking them out of the rotation.

The Magic need to start establishing the playing groups and lineups they ultimately want to see. And they will need to make the reintegration of other injured players much more seamless than this reintegration has been.

The team can bring players back from injury and still field a winning group.

So much of this season has unfortunately been about managing these returns and injuries. The next two games will continue that theme with the anticipated suspension coming from Wednesday’s game.

What Orlando has to do is find a way to re-establish consistent playing groups and rebuild confidence. The Magic have seen what a little bit of comfort and familiarity can do for the team. Now they have to rebuild it as more players return from injury and the lineups become whole.

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This will take a little bit of time. And the Magic have to weather the storm better. But it is time for the team to get more consistent with these rotations and cut out some of the fat.