They brought back virtually the same roster losing only a few players on the fringes of their rotation. There were new players to integrate in rookies Anthony Black and Jett Howard and veteran forward Joe Ingles, but there was not a lot of anticipated changes to the larger rotation and roles.
The team felt like it had a successful season last year and doubled down on internal development and growth to take the next step. That was a decision plenty disagreed with.
That is the thing though with internal development, that does not mean everything stays the same. Orlando was betting that its improvement and change to the roster was already present in young players who will naturally get better.
Despite seemingly having a lot of things settled or at least a rotation the team could carbon copy into the new season as a baseline for the team to work from, the Magic still seemed ready to tinker. They are spending this season trying to figure out what they need.
It was both a surprising move from coach Jamahl Mosley and one everyone expected would happen eventually. There was no delay. And so far, the move has worked.
The Orlando Magic moved Jalen Suggs into the starting lineup to start the preseason. And the early returns — in preseason — seem to suggest the move has worked well.
This move was both expected because of Suggs’ youth and expected improvement. But it was unexpected because of how much the Magic pushed their continuity. The team seemed eager to stick with what worked last year.
This decision though seemed inevitable if Suggs improved the way the team hoped. And there was at least some proof that this could be a lineup that works for the team.
Last year, the Magic put Suggs with the starting lineup for 58 minutes in 15 games last year. It was the third-most used lineup with Suggs last year. And it was successful. The Magic had a +11.3 net rating on the floor together, with a stellar 102.4 defensive rating and solid 113.7 offensive rating.
That is a small sample size. Far too small to make too many conclusions. And the Magic’s lineup with Gary Harris was still a net positive for the entire season. Still, it was enough to make the team think.
And with Suggs healthy and able to make a big difference defensively, the team has leaned fully into this identity and this potential.
So far, it has looked like it made a difference. Surprisingly too on offense, confirming what the group showed last year with Suggs playing alongside the starters.
In the preseason so far, the Magic’s starting group has a 117.9 offensive rating and an 88.5 defensive rating (+29.4 net rating) in nearly 34 minutes on the floor together and 78 possessions. Those are some elite numbers even if you have to take the preseason with all kinds of grains of salt.
The team won 42-33 in 37 possessions (+24.3 net rating) and a little more than 15 minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans. But it should be noted the starters trailed in their first quarter stint and did not play starters in the third quarter stint and then won.
Against Cleveland, Orlando’s starters won its minutes 50-36 in 41 possessions (+34.2 net rating) in a little more than 18.5 minutes on the floor. This effort was much more balanced with the team steadily winning in each of its stints largely against Cleveland’s starters.
That is certainly encouraging. The Magic’s starting group has done some very good things. There is no denying that at this point.
The question the team likely wants to know more than anything is: Why?
Last year’s starting group did play well together. With Harris in that group, Orlando had a net rating of +1.4 net rating (113.0 offensive rating and 111.6 defensive rating).
That was good but not spectacular. Not spectacular in the way that adding Suggs appeared to be in his limited minutes last year and as good as the group looks together in two preseason games.
This does seem to go against the grain then. Everyone believes the Magic’s biggest need is shooting and Harris is objectively a better shooter than Suggs.
But Orlando has declared defense is its identity. And while Harris is a solid defender, Suggs is a disruptive defender and a special defender. His energy has seemed to help boost the Magic already, as coach Jamahl Mosley told Jason Beede of the Orlando Sentinel after practice Monday:
Perhaps the answer really is that simple. Suggs is a potentially elite defender and the Magic have leaned fully into this to build their lineup. While the Magic have been strong offensively, they will have to wait and see how things translate as other teams catch up to whatever advantage the Magic have for their continuity.
The real question it is asking is who are the best players to put around the Magic’s best young players in Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero. That is all that really matters this season.
The Magic had only 11 different lineups with both Banchero and Wagner that played at least 24 minutes together last year. This again speaks to how much the Magic settled on a rotation and stuck with it and how much the Magic had to mix and match lineups and groups.
The starting group with Suggs had the fifth-best net rating among those lineups. The best lineup was full of shooting with Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba with a +67.2 net rating (148.0/80.8 split) in just 25 minutes together. The starting group with Suggs was the best lineup that played at least 50 minutes together.
Some of the Magic’s issues in finding the best lineup come from not experimenting much. And so far, Orlando has not really experimented with lineups in the preseason. The starters have largely played together and the reserves have largely played together.
That will change some in the regular season when there is more mixing and blending of lineups to make sure one of Banchero, Wagner, Carter or Fultz is on the floor at all times.
Through two preseason games, the move to Suggs in the starting lineup does appear to be doing something. Like the short burst when the lineup played together last year, there is something to continue exploring.
It sure seems like that is enough confirmation to say the Magic will start Suggs in the starting lineup and stick with what has worked so far in the preseason — the sample sizes are small so a poor performance Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans could make this all moot.
There is still plenty to learn. Even though so much on this roster remains the same, the Magic are clearly seeing some changes to stick with this group.
Completing this lineup and settling on a core group is something that has helped young Magic teams in the past grow into contenders. And if the Magic hit this spot right, they could be in for a big season.