Keeping Goga Bitadze hints at what Orlando Magic want at center

Goga Bitadze joined the Orlando Magic with hopes of building his playing record. But he has jumped right in and made his mark. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Goga Bitadze joined the Orlando Magic with hopes of building his playing record. But he has jumped right in and made his mark. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic have a decision to make this offseason about the future of their roster.

They have a choice to make about the kind of team they want to be and to begin to see what it will take to make the playoffs.

A good chunk of the Magic’s starting group appears to be in place already. They have Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner locked in as the potential stars of the team with Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter filling in key roles as starters.

The Magic have their starting lineup virtually set and it is expected the team will spend a good chunk of its free agency energy trying to build depth on the roster. With the Magic spending their two draft picks on guards, the focus has turned to the center position.

And now, more specifically, what the Magic want from the center position.

The Orlando Magic decided to pick up the team option on Goga Bitadze’s contract, retaining a promising center who shined at the end of the season with his defense and rebounding.

They essentially had a choice this offseason just like they had a choice at center for much of the final quarter of the season. Do they go with the offensive-minded energy from Moe Wagner or stick with the traditional low-post and paint protection from Goga Bitadze?

It seems they are going with the same decision they made for much of the end of last season. Or at least, that is the signal they are sending.

Orlando is clearly valuing its rim protection potential and physicality down low.

In a somewhat surprising move that eats up a little bit of the Magic’s offseason cap room, the Magic announced they were picking up the team option for the second year on Bitadze’s contract. They declined team options for Michael Carter-Williams and Admiral Schofield, turning them loose to free agency.

The move to keep Bitadze is significant because it fills up one of the two project roster spots the Magic had remaining with the two rookies taking up the spots left by Carter-Williams and Schofield’s departures.

The Magic have only one roster spot remaining assuming they do not waive Gary Harris, Markelle Fultz or Bol Bol before Friday’s guarantee deadline and assuming they do not re-sign Moe Wagner in free agency.

Orlando is certainly in need of injecting some new blood into the roster and the Magic have a projected $21.8 million in cap room remaining. Orlando will have to spend at least a little bit of that to hit the league’s payroll minimum.

With theoretically just one more roster spot to spend it on, the Magic could make one last splurge or a trade could be in the offing in the early days of free agency. Orlando is one of the few teams that could be in line to increase its payroll this summer.

There is still some work to do for the Magic. But they appear to have taken care of one of their potential needs this offseason already.

Keeping Bitadze represents one of the bigger decisions the Magic had. It was at least on its surface a decision on the style of center the team wants in the fold — not that Orlando was making a direct decision between Bitadze and Wagner. Orlando could still look to retain Wagner this offseason.

The Magic originally signed Goga Bitadze to a two-year minimum deal on Feb. 13, shortly after the trade deadline that saw the Magic ship out Mo Bamba and deplete its center reserves.

He clearly shined in his short stint to end the season, averaging 5.8 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game in 15.0 minutes per game. That is a double-double pace.

In that much-needed opportunity for the former first-round pick, Bitadze showed a willingness to set good screens and work around the basket offensively. But more than that for this Magic team, he had a willingness to defend the paint and became a strong option for the Magic.

Opponents shot 52.5 percent at the rim against Bitadze in his time with the Magic according to data from Second Spectrum. That mark was only bettered by Jonathan Isaac. The Magic had a 104.8 defensive rating with Bitadze on the floor with a +2.9 net rating.

Further, opponents shot 9.60 percentage points worse at the rim than expected against Bitadze for the entire season, according to Basketball-Index. He ranked in the 99th percentile in the league with 1.08 rim points saved per 75 possessions.

That should give some kind of idea of his defensive impact.

And it was important for the Magic, who as a team finished 27th in the league giving up 68.4 percent shooting at the rim. Orlando defended the paint well, but was not known for its rim protection.

Bitadze’s rebounding stats did leave something to be desired although he was a beast on the offensive glass for putbacks. He had a 12-point, 15-rebound effort in a loss at Brooklyn and he had three games with the Magic with five offensive rebounds.

He quickly took over much of the backup center minutes with the second unit, leaving the Magic with a decision between his defensive focus and the offensive ability from someone like Wagner.

Bitadze’s minutes were sporadic early on in his tenure with the Magic. But he played at least 15 minutes in nine of the Magic’s final 17 games. He only did not play in three of those final 17 games.

The Magic clearly liked what they saw. And Orlando has made defense its biggest focus and part of its identity.

Bitadze fits that well and the Magic felt compelled to remain invested in that.

The question then becomes whether this is where the Magic have put their free agency focus and are prepared to have Bitadze fill that backup center role or whether the Magic still fill the need to attack the center position in free agency.

Perhaps this is a clue the team could look to versatile big men like Trey Lyles or Paul Reed in free agency. The Magic still have that money to spend. Maybe with so few roster spots remaining, Orlando is looking to swing a deal.

Bitadze though fits what the Magic are trying to build. He is a defensive-minded big who attacks the glass well. That is as central to the Magic’s identity as anything else.

If Orlando is spending this offseason sticking to its principles and re-enforcing the skills the team is built on and knows it will need for the playoffs, then keeping Bitadze makes a lot of sense.

The Orlando Magic gave Bitadze a real chance after he struggled to find his place with the Indiana Pacers. And Bitadze took that chance and found a role he could thrive in. The Magic clearly are still willing to invest in that growth.

Next. Offseason Needs: Forward depth is a must. dark

They have found the kind of center they are missing and the kind of center they need to complete their roster. Now Orlando will see if it can last through the ups and downs of an entire season.