The Orlando Magic's first regular season game is a week from Tuesday and the team has yet to name a starting lineup. It stands reason to believe that Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless and Nik Vučević have locked up starting spots, which means that only the power forward position is up for grabs. There's no timetable for Glen Davis' return, and until the former LSU big man does so, the team will have a hole at the four.
Lucky for Jacque Vaughn and his coaching staff, Orlando has four options for that final spot: Tobias Harris, Jason Maxiell, Andrew Nicholson, and Kyle O'Quinn. The consensus is that either Harris--fresh off a final quarter of a season in which he looked like a future All-Star--or Maxiell--a savvy veteran with defensive prowess--will fill in there.
But giving the starting spot to Nicholson--Orlando's most efficient scoring option from last year--might be Vaughn's best option. The Magic would suffer on defense--Nicholson isn't an interior threat defensively--but the offensive spacing, thanks to Nicholson's newly added three-point shot, would open up greatly.
The St. Bonaventure product shot 50.9 percent on spot-up situations last season, per MySynergySports, which is a solid percentage for a rookie big man. So far this preseason he is 5-of-12 from three-point range. There are still questions of whether he can keep up that 41.7 percent rate, but that added range will help in the form of floor spacing for a team that struggled, mostly due to injuries to key shooters, in keeping defenses honest out to the perimeter in 2012/13.
Nicholson struggles on the glass, collecting just 11.7 percent of opportunities last season, and that isn't likely to change. But that doesn't matter as much if he's placed next to Vučević. The Montenegrin big man's rebounding prowess is well documented; he's built to be a great rebounder for years to come.
A Nelson-Afflalo-Harkless-Nicholson-Vučević starting five forces teams to guard the perimeter, especially if Nicholson continues to be comfortable shooting from three-point range. That lineup was Orlando's fourth-most-used in 2012/13 and--while still not effective--was over three points better than a lineup with Harris in Nicholson's place, per NBA.com.
But the beauty in starting Nicholson lies in the flexibility of the second-team lineup. Giving Nicholson the starting spot and, in turn, letting Harris run from the bench puts Vaughn in a situation where he's able to pair Harris with Victor Oladipo. Oladipo and Harris each have higher ceilings than Nicholson and are probably viewed in a higher regard within Orlando management. Letting them run with one another creates chemistry between the two.
It also makes substitution patterns a little easier. Starting Nicholson means that Vaughn can substitute Oladipo and Harris in early together with the former spelling Nelson or Afflalo and the latter relieving Nicholson. A potential in-game lineup of Nelson-Oladipo-Harkless-Harris-Vučević is one that should excite Magic fans as each highly valued young core member is on the floor together.
While that fivesome seems exciting as a starting group, it's just not going to happen this early in the season. Oladipo is primed to be the first guard off bench, and pairing him with Harris makes it easy to sub into the "young core" lineup. And even if Vaughn chooses not to go to the "young core" lineup--as Evan Dunlap pointed out, we really need a nickname here--he is at least set up with decent bench options. While sending a Oladipo-E'Twaun Moore-Harris-Maxiell-O'Quinn lineup out there isn't ideal, it isn't terrible, especially if he can wisely pick-and-choose his substitution spots.
Starting Harris is the sexy option. But starting him leaves a three-man frontcourt rotation of Nicholson, Maxiell, and O'Quinn out to dry on the bench. None is capable of sliding down to small forward, thus eliminating Orlando's roster advantage: fluidity. Harris is the most versatile scorer of any of the starting power forward options, but in that lies his greatest advantage as a bench player. He can destroy second-team defenders with his unique offensive skill set. We should note that not starting him doesn't mean he won't play; Harris could still log 28-30 minutes per night, especially considering he's able to fill either forward slot.
Maxiell is the safest choice to start at power forward. His shot-blocking capabilities nicely complement Vučević's still-developing interior defense. Maxiell is a nice veteran role player and starting him doesn't kill Orlando's bench fluidity as Harris can still fill either forward position. But Maxiell doesn't have the skill set to open up Orlando's wildly unpredictable--and often stale--offense. Keeping the nine-year veteran on the bench in Nicholson's favor gives Vaughn the option to play Harris at the four and Maxiell at the five, or Harris at three and Maxiell at the four in substitution lineups. A combination of Harris-Nicholson-O'Quinn off the bench is a recipe for defensive disaster. Maxiell provides a rock for the second crew.
Starting O'Quinn isn't out of the question--the second-year big has started four preseason games--and doing so would load a second five with Oladipo-Moore-Harris-Nicholson-Maxiell, but anyone from that frontcourt is a better option than the former Norfolk State Spartan. I've actually got a bad feeling that we could see a dip in O'Quinn's minutes this year once Davis returns, especially if the Magic sign training-camp invitee Solomon Jones.
Whom Vaughn chooses to pencil in as the starting power forward will say a lot about how he views the team as a whole. It will tell us a lot about how he plans to use the bench; It will tell us how he plans to develop the young guys, while maintaining an eye on winning games to the best of his ability. The good thing is that he has options, which is the best position you can put a coach in.