The Orlando Magic have been riding high for much of the season. Their nine-game win streak brought the Magic to the top of the Eastern Conference and the precipice of something special. The Magic feel like they have a lot to work with.
They also felt incomplete. Since their Nov. 2 game againt the Utah Jazz, Markelle Fultz has played in only one game as he dealt with knee tendinitis. He is still doing non-contact work with coaches and his return does not feel super imminent.
Wendell Carter left the lineup that evening too. He fractured a bone the third metacarpal of his left hand going up for a rebound to secure that game in the fourth quarter. He needed surgery to repair the injury and had his cast removed about a week ago. He is still progressing through his rehab.
The Magic have been successful this season despite being down two starters.
But things are starting to turn south. With the luster of the nine-game win streak in the rearview mirror and two straight bad losses on the road, the Magic are starting to feel the absence of their two missing starters.
It may seem easy just to say: Plug in Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter and the lineup will be instantly better. But seeing how well Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner seemed to begin to play with both those starters out, the Orlando Magic need to find a way to add their two starters without disrupting the rhythm the team has found.
Banchero has averaged 22.6 points per game on 46.9 percent from three and 51.7 percent shooting from the field since Fultz exited the lineup compared to 15.5 points per game on 42.0 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from three.
The Magic have a -1.3 net rating with Fultz and Banchero on the floor together this season in 137 minutes (the most of any pairing with Fultz). The team has only a 103.1 offensive rating in those minutes. Of course, that was early in the season when the team's offense was really struggling.
There is a similar effect with Wagner too.
Wagner jumped from 18.0 points per game to 21.3 per game since Fultz exited the lineup. Wagner, in particular, has just been asked to do more with Fultz out of the lineup as a ball handler with no real point guard in the starting unit. The Magic had a +6.3 net rating in minutes where Wagner and Fultz were paired together although just a 103.9 offensive rating.
But the games played with Fultz are a small sample size so they must be taken with a grain of salt. This is a very different team than it was from early in the season as the offense has come alive (at least at home) while the team has -- largely -- maintained its defense.
There is an argument Banchero was going to eventually increase his efficiency regardless of who was in the lineup. He had a busy summer and needed some time to get back into the swing of things.
This argument may bear ground considering the Magic replaced Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter with Anthony Black and Goga Bitadze in the starting lineup. Neither are better offensively in any way shape or form and arguably around the same level defensively.
Orlando had a net rating of +10.4 points per 100 possessions with the starting group with Fultz and Carter in albeit with a 105.4 offensive rating (and a 95.1 defensive rating). It was not like this group was a pushover in their 78 minutes together.
The starting lineup with Black and Bitadze has clocked in at +1.1 points per 100 possessions. The offense has found a groove at 111.5 points per 100 possessions. But the team has started to see some slipping on defense, a major concern with that group specifically considering how defensive-minded they are.
In the last five games, that starting group has a -2.3 net rating with a 121.2 defensive rating. That only increases the urgency to see Fultz and Carter return to the lineup. Orlando is starting to run on some fumes as their depth gets stretched thinner.
Plainly, the team should get better on both ends of the court adding Fultz and Carter.
For Fultz, the ability to control pace and play make is something the team needs in stretches and is something Black has not developed and will take time. This should also make the Magic's offense less predictable and lower the burden on Banchero and Wagner on the offensive end.
The question is the shooting for Fultz.
First of all, it should be pointed out that Black has not exactly lit up the court from three shooting only 29.2 percent from three despite a hot start. Last season, Fultz improved as a shooter as the season went on finishing the season shooting 31.0 percent from three.
It is a fair question to ask how much of his left knee tendinitis has affected his shooting. It could have affected his lift and power in his shooting which could explain his early struggles.
For Carter, the shooting addition could be the same as for Fultz.
Carter was a 35.6-percent three-point shooter last year. The small sample size to start the season at 31.3 percent is too small to give a verdict on his shooting. Bitadze is not a shooter by any means either and the added shooting from the center spot with the addition of Carter's passing ability should spread the floor and give the Magic's offense further depth.
Defensively, both players are strong on defending in the paint, but Carter is the better defender in the pick and roll with the ability to switch on two the perimeter as a mobile defender.
That is all to say that the primary option should still be Banchero, but Fultz and Carter still give offensive upgrades to the starting lineup that in theory should run it smoother.
The team needs its best player to play its best. And despite their success, the Magic can be a whole lot better.
The added passing, playmaking, and shooting should make the lineup more dangerous and make the team more versatile on the defensive end.
The Magic's biggest strength is their versatility on both ends of the court. Fultz and Carter are big parts of that equation. The Magic need reinforcements and Orlando seems to have two weapons coming back soon.