Orlando Magic find their starting five

Ask the Orlando Magic and they will say the biggest key to their recent run of (or feeling of) success is because of stability.

The team had its most successful run winning eight of nine games because the team did not see players going in and out of the lineup with injuries. The Magic had the same starting five for 14 games and had virtually the same rotation.

But that lineup — Markelle Fultz, Franz Wagner, Bol Bol, Paolo Banchero and Moe Wagner — was not the lineup anyone envisioned in the preseason. They were always going to bring back Wendell Carter to the lineup — the team brought Carter off the bench after his prolonged absence dealing with a plantar fascia strain to try and keep that group together and maintain stability.

Nothing ever stays stable for long. And the Magic have not quite hit the highs of that December run.

Still, something has been brewing in the last six games as the team played its projected starting lineup together for the first time all season — Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter. The team is just 2-4 in that time, but the starting group has played well.

The Orlando Magic have started to settle into their starting players and have found a group that is dominating their minutes and giving the team a vision of the way they want to play.

In the last six games, that starting group has a net rating of +24.1 points per 100 possessions in 77 minutes together. The group has an offensive rating of 123.5 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Since Jan. 5, that group is the top five-man lineup among lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together. Among groups that have played at least 24 minutes together in that time, the group ranks sixth.

The group still has some struggles on the glass with a 72.0-percent defensive rebound rate. But they shoot well — 64.1 percent effective field goal percentage and 66.2 percent true shooting percentage — and they play at a much faster pace at 105.4 possessions per 48 minutes.

This is essentially everything the Magic have ever dreamed about playing out on the floor right now as the rest of the team continues to get settled and the Magic settle their bench rotation.

“I think our starting group has a great mixture of everything you need,” Wendell Carter said after practice Wednesday. “We’ve got great scoring, great rebounding, great defense, great passing, great playmaking. I think we have a little bit of everything in our starting lineup. We gel together really well. We all have the same goal in mind which is to win. We understand with winning comes everything we want to get out of this game. It’s easy to play with guys who have the same goal in mind.”

The wins have not quite followed. But one thing the Magic seem to have down or seem to have a direction with is this starting group.

To further show how well that group has played: Among the Magic’s eight most-used lineups, this current starting group is the only one with a positive net rating.

The Magic’s most-used lineup is that lineup they used during the win streak — Markelle Fultz, Franz Wagner, Bol Bol, Paolo Banchero and Moe Wagner. That group has a -6.7 net rating (106.7/113.4 split) in 193 minutes (14 games).

The next lineup with a positive net rating is Terrence Ross, Franz Wagner, Bol Bol, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter at +43.8 (134.2/90.4) in 36 minutes (four games). There are a few other positive lineups in there too that the Magic have to figure out how to balance and use.

What is key for this team is that this core starting group has really found something in at least early statistical significance and the Magic are pressing that advantage while they can.

“I think it’s just a very dynamic lineup,” Banchero said after practice Thursday. “I think it is a good defensive lineup with perimeter defense and inside defense. With me being able to guard inside and out, Wendell being able to guard inside and out and with Franz, Kelle and Gary being great perimeter defenders. On the offensive end, we just move really well together. I think we just naturally that five has a great feel for how we play and knows where guys want the ball and are going to get the ball.”

There is definitely something inherent in the way that group works. It seems to have a good balance of shooters but more importantly seems to be locked in defensively.

They have done a good job turning their defense into offense even with plenty of areas the team can improve on defense. The defense was a big catalyst in turning games around and giving the Orlando Magic a chance to win against both the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.

But that group especially has been on the same page. Everyone is communicating and covering for each other and growing pretty organically.

“I think it just takes time,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Wednesday. “We have said that time and time again as we continue to have guys in and out. The chemistry is going to change. It just took a matter of time before they started to click and work together and understand the different pieces and how well they play off each other.”

It is worth noting too that the “core four” players for the Magic perform well regardless of who slots into that fifth spot. The quartet of Fultz, Wagner, Banchero and Carter have a net rating of +26.0 points per 100 possessions (126.0/100.0) in 108 minutes together.

The Magic are still finding the right player to pair them with at shooting guard. With Bol Bol, the team breaks even with a 106.0 offensive and defensive rating in seven minutes. With Jalen Suggs, the group has a +44.4 net rating in 10 minutes with a gaudy 90.0 defensive rating. With Caleb Houstan, that group has a +93.2 net rating in six minutes.

The only lineups that have not worked so far with that quartet are with Cole Anthony — a -20.0 net rating and 130.0 defensive rating in 10 minutes across four games so far — or Terrence Ross — a -50.0 net rating in just two minutes together.

Outside of the lineup with Harris, these are hardly a sample size worth considering yet. But the Magic are certainly eager to explore this lineup further.

There are the seeds of something there. But this all has to be put into the bigger picture too.

The last piece for this Magic team is building a consistent bench group that can maintain and grow the leads the starting group has typically handed off — or prevent that group from having to make up a deficit. And then there are the late-game struggles that have vexed the team for much of the season.

That gets back to the larger issues the team has faced with consistency — something even this starting group has dealt with beyond late-game struggles.

“I feel like at the end of the day, we have to be more consistent closing games,” Carter said after practice Wednesday. “Usually give or take a player or two, we are usually the guys out there in late-game situations. Sometimes you make one little mistake and that costs us the game. I think being more consistent with late-game decisions, late-game playmaking and late-game shotmaking, taking that up another level is probably the next step for us.”

That is the biggest issue facing the team as a whole. Orlando still needs its young players to play more consistently.

The Magic though have to feel good that they have this starting base to build on. It may make it more difficult to justify trading Gary Harris without getting real value in return as the deadline approaches. Because Orlando has something that works.

At the very least the Magic have seen in six quick games that they have a starting lineup that can work and something they can keep building on.