The center depth had been a story throughout the Orlando Magic’s offseason and start of the season.
Wendell Carter was seen as a solid starting center option for sure. He was an excellent defender and seemed to be a good anchor to start the season protecting the rim. But he was injury prone never playing more than 62 games in any season of his career.
It felt like the Magic would have to be prepared for an injury at some point.
That point came much sooner than they could have thought. On the final game of the team’s four-game road trip — game five overall — Carter went up for a rebound to secure the win over the Utah Jazz and immediately left the game clutching his hand.
The Magic announced fairly quickly he suffered a fracture of the third metacarpal in his left hand. He had surgery on the injury Monday and is going to be re-evaluated just after Thanksgiving. He likely will be out of action for much of December. He was sporting a heavy wrap and sling on the Magic’s bench Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Losing a starter in a position of seeming need might have been enough to derail the Magic’s season before. It was a big blow to the team as there was already a lack of center depth and with the starter gone, it made it a huge decision for head coach Jamahl Mosley and the coaching staff on what they would do.
But Goga Bitadze and Moe Wagner are really providing some production in the starting lineup and off of the bench in Wendell Carter’s place.
The Orlando Magic faced a critical decision and a critical inflection point in their season when Wendell Carter went out with an injury. But the Magic’s two backup bigs in Goga Bitadze and Moe Wagner have stepped up in his place to keep the ship steady.
The two players are good complements of one another and it creates a good center formula until Carter’s return.
The Magic have slotted Bitadze into the starting lineup in Carter’s place, hoping to maintain the team’s rotation and defensive intensity. He has averaged 22.6 minutes per game with 7.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game since he entered the starting lineup.
During that four-game period, he has been efficient shooting in three of them at a 50-percent-or-better field goal percentage. He has also rebounded very well with five or more rebounds in each of those matchups.
Bitadze has also shown flashes defensively with a staggering five blocks against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Amway Center. He also got active in blocking in the losses against the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks.
Defensive production has been a point of emphasis for the centers Orlando has. The numbers for Bitadze are not overly high, but the flashes are there and he will have time to give the Magic what they need on the interior defensively with Carter out for at least another two weeks.
For the season, the Magic are giving up 57.5 percent shooting at the rim according to data from Second Spectrum. That is the third-best mark in the league. During the last four games, opponents have shot 62.5 percent at the rim, an expected dropoff considering how good Carter was at protecting the rim (opponents shot just 13 for 33 at the rim against Carter). But still among top 10 in the league in that time.
Bitadze has been especially solid at this mark, building off his good defense from last year. Opponents have made only 9 of 20 shots (45 percent) at the rim against him this season.
Wagner, who had the worst defended field goal percentage at the rim last year among centers who played at least 41 games, has greatly improved in this category. Opponents are shooting just 10 for 19 (52.6 percent) at the rim against him.
The Magic’s centers have kept up their strong defense on the interior even with Carter out.
Wagner’s real value is his offense and he has stepped up to replace what the Magic lost offensively with Carter out, especially on the interior.
Wagner has been highly effective off of the bench especially since the Carter injury left the Magic stretched thin. He has been in double figures in scoring every game since the Utah game, averaging 16.0 points per game in 21.6 minutes per game while shooting 63.4 percent overall and 41.7 percent from three. He is averaging a career-high 12.3 points per game and shooting 75.5 percent on 2-point field goals overall this season.
Wagner’s defense is still of some concern as he has yet to have a game beyond two or more blocks and/or steals. But his offensive production has been a huge value off the bench all season for Orlando. He has clearly made strides with his positioning — he is not much of a shot blocker but already leads the team in charges drawn as he did last year.
It is safe to say both have upped their production during this four game homestand (including the game in Mexico City) since Carter’s absence.
The two centers have stepped up in their own right in Carter’s absence and it has paid dividends as the team went 2-2 and has continued its strong start to the season.
Of course interior defense was emphasized over the offseason, but Bitadze is showing he can be tenacious even against some of the NBA’s top post players. And when Bitadze looks slightly underwhelming on offense, the Orlando coaches switch to Wagner who shoots effectively on the limited attempts they have been given.
The minute differential is close as well and this split time could be a formula that Orlando goes with. Both Players are top on the Magic in points in the paint and Orlando sits within the top 10 in the NBA among team points in the paint.
The offensive production is there and if Bitadze can get his defense up to where it can be, it makes for a great combo to work with until Carter returns to the floor.