Orlando Magic test their version of smaller lineups

Paolo Banchero got some of his first run as a center for the Orlando Magic in critical minutes in the loss to the Utah Jazz. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero got some of his first run as a center for the Orlando Magic in critical minutes in the loss to the Utah Jazz. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are known for their size and positional versatility. That was one of the main guiding philosophies of the team’s building. They wanted players who play multiple positions and then bend what was required of their position too — big forwards who could act like point guards and the like.

The Magic took this to its logical conclusions with some experimental lineups earlier in this season. Somewhat born out of necessity, the Magic turned to playing Bol Bol in lineups alongside Wendell Carter, Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero. These “jum-Bol” lineups were quirky and gave defenses problems even if it had some serious flaw.

More than that, it showed the Magic’s willingness to experiment with their roster. It previewed what the team hoped it might be able to unleash with more polished and experienced players. The idea that you can play your five best players all at once and not care about positions.

As the season has come to a close, the Magic are still in this pursuit. They are still looking to press advantages in any way they can. The Magic are not afraid of experimenting. And little lineup trial balloons are getting set out all the time.

This team now seems to be going in the opposite direction. Orlando has been playing seemingly smaller lineups to try to press for advantages and, ultimately, put their best five players on the floor in the biggest moments.

The Orlando Magic are still experimenting with what their young roster is capable of. After going big early, the team is going small to see how their players can evolve.

That got highlighted at the end of the Orlando Magic’s 131-124 loss to the Utah Jazz on Thursday. With Wendell Carter out and the team hunting the lead, trailing by six points, coach Jamahl Mosley turned to a lineup of Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero.

The controversial move still ended up in a loss — on one critical play, Paolo Banchero had to switch off Walker Kessler leaving Markelle Fultz to jostle with the big man for an offensive rebound that ended in and-one putback for a four-point lead — but there was still enough to intrigue as the Magic fought desperately to get back into that game.

Mosley explained he went with the lineup because he felt with the way the Jazz were defending Fultz with Kessler as something of a free safety, the Magic could use their speed to counteract it and put Kessler in uncomfortable defensive positions.

That is at least part of what happened offensively as in those final 2:58 with that lineup in the game, the Magic got a pair of layups fairly quickly and another pair of free throws (which Banchero split that would have cut the deficit to two with about 30 seconds remaining, this was another part of the story for this game). Orlando burned off a 5-0 run to get back into the game with that lineup, cutting the deficit to one before that Kessler putback.

It was hardly a smashing success overall. In 4:32 together total in Thursday’s game, the lineup with Banchero at center went a -6. But the sample size is too small to draw conclusions even with it making a high-profile miscue in this game.

This is an experiment worth pursuing.

"“Just being able to create different type of mismatch for different guys,” Mosley said of his reasoning for going to the lineup. “Depending on where they put their center and how they want to line it up. [Banchero] creates a problem. Now you have an inverted pick and roll where he is handling and a center is guarding him and now you have a guard setting it. Just different variations for us to manipulate what the defense is doing.”"

Certainly, the Magic know how vital Carter is to their team. And in all likelihood, the team would have Carter to finish close games when he is back in the lineup.

But with Moe Wagner struggling to protect the interior all night and Goga Bitadze playing well but being a liability at the foul line (he was 1 for 4 in Thursday’s game) and having played nearly 12 straight minutes in the third and fourth quarters before the Magic went to the smaller lineup, the Magic seemed to believe this was their best chance to get a win.

The Magic are trying to unlock mismatches and use all of Banchero’s skills. While certainly they want to keep things simple for their rookie, especially with his defensive responsibilities where he still struggles some on the win, playing him at center does put a real bind on opposing defenses.

By having the center match up with him, they put opposing centers in a tricky spot by inverting their pick and rolls. In having guards set screens, they often force a switch which allowed Banchero to take a smaller player into the post or give Banchero a running start to attack a slower-moving big recovering from navigating an unfamiliar screen.

"“I think it’s been good,” Banchero said after Thursday’s game. “I actually kind of like it because a lot of times I get a mismatch and a guy I can usually beat. It’s just giving us different looks. We have a couple of guys out. We’re just trying to find the right lineup, especially down the stretch. We’ve got players out. For me, it’s new, but I’m adjusting. It doesn’t really change much for me. It’s a different matchup in terms of who is guarding me. The way I’m playing stays the same.”"

For sure, most of this is biding time and experimenting out of desperation (not that this formation was not planned, certainly going to it late in the game while holding some logic was a big risk that did not pay off) while one of the Magic’s key offensive players is out of the lineup.

This is a new experiment for the Magic.

The lineup Orlando used to close the game Thursday has played only

A lineup with Cole Anthony in for Jalen Suggs has played six minutes together at a -4 plus/minus, scoring 22 points on 6-for-8 shooting in two games playing together. A lineup with Caleb Houstan in for Jalen Suggs played six minutes together in one game scoring 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting for a +1 plus/minus.

A lineup featuring Terrence Ross, Cole Anthony and Caleb Houstan as the guards next to Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero scored 12 points in five minutes on 4-for-9 shooting with a +2 plus/minus.

Those are the only lineups in addition to Thursday’s game that saw Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero on the floor together without Wendell Carter, Moe Wagner, Mo Bamba, Goga Bitadze or Bol Bol on the floor.

The early conclusion should be that it has clear defensive holes. That is not surprising considering Banchero’s struggles defensively and learning to defend at the highest level. But its offensive potential is also clear at least from early numbers.

Save for the late-game nature of giving away points at the end, the Magic made up some ground with that lineup to give them a chance to win the game. Orlando should not abandon trying this lineup out — depending on the matchup and perhaps some on how players are playing and gelling together.

That is what the team has started to do some with three-guard lineups. The Magic have played Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony together for 45 minutes across 10 games, scoring 105 points and shooting 47.7 percent from the floor (although just 8 for 27 from three). The Magic have a -4 plus/minus with that group.

Again, this seems like enough to keep testing it out with different big combinations although it is still an experiment. In the end, it is still about playing the team’s game.

"“It’s hoop,” Jalen Suggs said after Thursday’s game. “When you have great relationships with everyone on the team, you can play with whoever. It’s a bit of an adjustment. At the end of the day, everyone knows each other’s game. Nobody doesn’t like playing with anybody. We just go hoop. I think that’s beneficial because we can match a certain lineup or create mismatches whether it’s going small or going big because everyone can play with everyone.”"

It is all about what the potential of this team can be. The Magic are still testing what their lineups are capable of doing and just how much they can warp defenses with their versatile forwards.

Orlando obviously still has a lot of work to do to put a consistent winning team on the floor and a lot of internal growth to come too.

But some of that will come with this experimentation and figuring out what is possible with the versatility the team has on its roster.

Orlando Magic need Jalen Suggs' shooting improvement to continue. dark. Next

It did not work out Thursday. Not fully at least. The Magic still lost the game and their inability to rebound due to a lack of size and willingness to switch without it was a big part of that equation. But Orlando is still working to warp defenses and challenge them. And these are the kinds of lineups that can do that.