The 2014/15 NBA season has been an up and down one for the Orlando Magic. They've had stretches of play where they look like a team who could be poised to take that next step and potentially make the playoffs. Other times they look like arguably the worst team in the league, one who has no identity on either end of the floor, no matter how many times they talk about letting their defense be their backbone.
One of the biggest issues has been their rash of injuries, which has cost their players a combined 89 games already this season. With the injuries comes inconsistencies in playing time for guys and, in turn, less time for players to get acclimated to one another.
As I wrote back in December following the team's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, coach Jacque Vaughn was still searching for the right balance between his starting lineup and his bench unit. That night, Vaughn moved both Channing Frye and Evan Fournier to the bench, and inserted Elfrid Payton and Kyle O`Quinn. While Fournier has remained on the bench since that time, Frye has worked his way back into the starting lineup.
During their second West coast road trip of the season, the Magic lost both Fournier and Tobias Harris to injuries suffered against the Los Angeles Lakers. Fournier missed the team's next two games, while Harris was sidelined for the next five. Harris, who had started all 37 games he had played in this season before the injury, came back in the team's loss to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday in a different role. Vaughn brought Harris off the bench for the first time all season but coming off the bench isn't new for Harris.
After missing a chunk of time during the 2013/14 season with a high ankle sprain, Harris split time between the bench and starting unit. While his raw numbers show he had more success in the starting lineup, he also had his fair share of success coming off the bench.
The majority of the time, Harris started, and did well. Being used as a smallball power forward allowed him to use his quickness to score easily on slower-footed opponents. However, he struggled on the defensive end, so the uptick in production also came with the negative of the opposition's potentially scoring more points.
Harris' numbers off the bench aren't that much different from his numbers as a starter either, which brings up the question of: could that be his best role?
In his fourth year, and with restricted free agency and a big payday on the horizon, Harris seems to still be trying to carve out his best role. He feels comfortable as a guy who can go and get a big bucket when needed, and wants the ball in his hands at all times. However, with those positives come some shortcomings, like his unwillingness to pass, and still some weakness on the defensive end of the floor.
Following the team's loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, the third game that Harris came off the bench this season, Coach Vaughn said that he was still searching for good balance between the starting and bench units."I just think overall we’re going to try to find a balance between our first and second group," he said. "I thought overall both groups had pretty good rhythm tonight. We’ll continue to gauge it and see what’s effective for us as a group."
Harris was not available for comment following the game, but said multiple times last season that he didn't care about his role; he just wanted to do whatever was best for the team to allow them to win more games. Now, that was last year when he was still trying to really find his niche with the team and had yet to be a starter full time. Those feelings could well be much different now and could cause some feelings of anger or distress between Harris and the organization.
With the struggles that the team has seen on the defensive end, bringing Harris off the bench, at least in the short term, might be what's best for them. We saw Aaron Gordon, who was known for his defense coming out of Arizona, inserted into the starting lineup before the Pacers game in what Vaughn hoped would give his team a better energy level, especially on the defensive end. With Harris' ability to play the power forward spot, it can open up a lot of things for the reserves, not only offensively, but, potentially, defensively as well.
With the likes of O'Quinn, Devyn Marble and Maurice Harkless on the bench, the team could employ a lineup that consists of O`Quinn, Marble, Harkless, Harris and Fournier, which could give them the balance they so desperately need. They would be able to still play with some pace, and with the O`Quinn, Marble and Harkless, would play enough defense to shut down other team's second units.
It's still early, and with the team still looking for that balance, we could see Harris on the bench for a while. It'll be interesting to see how he and the team react to the change over the next handful of games, should Vaughn continue to go with Harris as his sixth man.