Orlando Magic’s starting lineup has potential but has lost its spark

Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic think they have a strong lineup and rotation. But the group has struggled of late. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic think they have a strong lineup and rotation. But the group has struggled of late. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /

After the Orlando Magic defeated the Detroit Pistons 128-102 on Sunday night, the team to a man said the same thing was a big factor in the Magic’s biggest margin of victory in the season.

While it is easy to point to clutch play as critical for any team’s growth and potential for wins and losses, a lot of coaches know that the start of the game is just as important as the end of the game.

And lately, the Magic have not gotten off to great starts. This has actually been an area where the team has struggled, often leaving the team needing to rally to get back into games. Fortunately, they have enough scoring punch off the bench to do so.

So every player and coach Jamahl Mosley noted Sunday night the team’s hot start was necessary to set the table for the team’s eventual victory. Just like a strong start to the third quarter helped build a strong lead into a 30-point lead and eventually a 26-point victory.

Why the team has felt like it has struggled is still unclear. But the answer can be quite simple though.

The Orlando Magic are still looking to build consistency and find the right starting group to move forward with. Of late, the previously strong starting lineup has not ben delivering the same dominance.

These problems boil down to a starting lineup that has shown plenty of promise this year. But in the last stretch of games has left a lot of questions about the viability of the Magic’s starting lineup.

As the team has struggled to stay in the postseason chase — and likely now has run out of time trailing the Chicago Bulls by four games with four games remaining for each team — the struggles from the starting lineup are front and center.

It just goes to show how critical it is to start halves off the right way and how the Magic are not always giving themselves the best start.

Still, the numbers would say the Magic have a solid starting lineup even if the team is struggling to get off to good first quarters.

Orlando this season has the 24th-best net rating in the first quarter this year at -3.4 points per 100 possessions (107.9/111.3 offensive/defensive rating split).

Since Dec. 7, when the Magic ended their nine-game losing streak and were finally healthier and in rhythm, the Magic have the 20th-best net rating in the first quarter (-3.1 points per 100 possessions with a 107.2/110.3 split).

It has been pretty consistent that way throughout the season. The why is the thing that has changed.

Early on, the Magic’s starting group of Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter was one of the best in the entire league that had played significant minutes. The bench struggled to find its footing with the still shuffling of injured players.

At a certain point that flipped, and it has been the starters struggling while the bench lineup — especially with the emergence of Cole Anthony as one of the best bench scorers in the league since the All-Star Break at least — that has rescued the Magic.

For the entire season, the Magic’s starting group of Fultz, Harris, Wagner, Banchero and Carter has a net rating of +2.8 points per 100 possessions in 555 minutes together according to NBA.com. The group has a strong 110.2 defensive rating with a 113.0 offensive rating.

The Magic are not in a position to give up on their starting group at all or at whole cloth. There are enough minutes and enough data to suggest that something works there. The Magic have stuck with this group for that reason.

In the first quarter, that group has a net rating of +3.4 points per 100 possessions with a paltry 106.9 offensive rating. That at least means the group gets off to a strong defensive start more often than not at 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions in 202 first-quarter minutes.

Things have changed slightly since the All-Star Break. The group has a net rating of +2.6 points per 100 possessions with a split of 109.0/106.3. In the first quarter that drops to +1.4 points per 100 possessions with a split of 102.3/100.9.

The Magic have been able to maintain themselves for sure. They are able to compete and rarely get blown out save for a few tough matchups and some fatigue-filled games that happen during the course of the season.

But the numbers also show the team struggles to score a lot and the offensive struggles have gotten worse.

Figuring out why is something that is not clear from the numbers and takes watching.

It has something to do with the fatigue of a young roster throughout the season. It has something to do with Paolo Banchero as a rookie still learning the league and going through his own growing pains. It has something to do with the inconsistency that a young team goes through.

It has something to do with the Magic boosting its bench lineups too by going with the group a bit shorter early in the game so they can align Wagner more with the bench groups or play Banchero the entire first quarter. Tightening the rotation also leads to the starting group playing less together.

The Magic know they have a ton of talent. They also know the potential this group has.

In the first 14 games the group played together starting with their first start together on Jan. 5, the Magic had a net rating of +7.5 points per 100 possessions in 209 minutes with an offensive/defensive rating split of 120.2/112.7.

This is a lineup that was playing at a purely elite level and playing well on both ends of the floor.

So if there is a whiplash or a feeling that the group is currently not playing well, it is because it is coming off this high that ended on Feb. 1. There were always hints though that things were not perfect with this group.

In the first quarter, the group posted a net rating of +0.0 with a 103.6/103.6 split in 77 minutes. They were not getting off to great starts but putting the hammer down in the second half to win games.

That was what was different enough in Sunday’s win over the Pistons. The Magic’s starters carried the team at the start of the game with each one posting a positive net rating.

The starting lineup in Sunday’s game had an overall net rating of +55.6 points per 100 possessions (134.8/79.2) and a net rating of +90.9 (163.6/72.7) in the first quarter. That kind of domination is why the Magic were able to win the game so easily. The starters, the team’s most-used lineup, just thoroughly outworked the Pistons when they were on the floor.

Obviously, the Pistons are one of the worst teams in the league and in the midst of a stretch of losing 20 of their past 21 games. That is not exactly the game to judge success or failure. But it still showed how powerful a dominant starting lineup and a strong start can be toward the end result.

The truth is the Magic know they will need upgrades this offseason. Whether that is adding better players or more complementary players or seeing internal improvement, the Magic will have to get better. And their starting group has shown enough promise the team could stick with it in some fashion.

With this roster, at least, this is the best group the Magic have. It is consistently their best five-man lineup among heavy usage lineups — only two lineups that played at least 48 minutes together have a better net rating with one of them being replacing Gary Harris with Jalen Suggs.

But something is still off with them. They are not as dominant as they need to be for the Magic to be sustainably winning. At least to do nothing more than be slightly above .500. That is progress for the Magic. But will not be next season.

Orlando Magic are testing their guard rotations. dark. Next

It is at least a sign the Magic will need to shore up their depth and their lineup as a whole. There is still work to do. And that starting lineup is not enough to sustain the team on its own.