As the Orlando Magic gear up for the 2016/17 season, many questions surround the new look team. With seven new players, and a new coach, how can they develop chemistry fast? The additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo make them a force defensively, but can they score enough? Will Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja take the steps forward the team desperately needs them to?
While it’ll take time to answer seemingly all of these questions, the team is going to have to figure out some of them very quickly. Included in those is how they balance their lineups to match with an increasingly “small-ball” NBA.
Previously our Cory Hutson looked at some potential lineups the Magic could use this season, including looking at a more “modern” lineup. During the Magic’s recent media day, coach Frank Vogel talked about how his team has great versatility, and that will lead to being able to play in a multitude of ways.
“I think playing tall can be a weakness against small ball teams if you don’t have versatility,” said Vogel. “We have great versatility with our bigs on this roster, so we’re going to, hopefully, have the best of both worlds. Have length at all positions to be a great defensive unit, but to have the athleticism and versatility defensively to counter some of these small ball attacks.”
With a team that will likely have three starters standing 6-foot-9 or taller, the Magic will boast one of the biggest teams in the league. With the league going smaller and faster, thanks in large part to the Golden State Warriors success with their “Death Lineup” the Magic appear to be zigging, while everyone else zags.
Could this work out for the team? Sure, but it could also come back to bite them down the stretch.
To take a deeper look at the questions surrounding the team, the OPP staff shared their respective opinions.
Q: Do you think the Magic can be successful going big, while everyone else goes smaller?
Zach Oliver (@ZachOliverNBA): I think they can be, but in spurts. With the game continuing to change year in and year out, you have to keep up with the times and be able to do what other teams do. At the end of the day, the league is a copycat league.
There’s going to be times when the Magic playing bigger is going to be really advantageous, and there’s going to be times that it isn’t. That’s just how things work, but I think it can be successful, especially if they’re able to hone in and be as good defensively as they have the potential to be. Now, it’s just a matter of who scores when they do go real big…
Will Ogburn (@GeauxSoHard)
I think that the NBA isn’t even necessarily getting smaller, but more athletic. In the modern league, it’s all about creating mismatches as skilled players get taller and taller. Look at the Warriors, you have a 6’7” shooting guard in Klay Thompson, a 6’11” small forward in Kevin Durant (don’t let anyone tell you he’s 6’9”), and a slow, physical big in Zaza Pachulia. Plus Shaun Livingston is among the tallest guards in the league.
That being said, the Magic’s big lineup will totally hinge on defense. They have a couple of guys that can defend multiple positions, and because the talent level is pretty uniform, those guys should be able to rotate in and out given the situation. We saw the Thunder go big in last year’s playoffs, but that was totally matchup based – and it’s worth noting that their big lineup did not include Serge Ibaka.
Garrett Hillyer (facebook.com/garrett.hillyer)
Will makes a great point and raises an important question - is “small ball” really that small? For me, “small ball” means that your lineup prioritizes quickness over height, shooting over defense, and fluid passing over everything. It just so happens that lineups with these features tend to be smaller, simply because the large, lumbering guys are relegated to the bench. When the Warriors went small, Andrew Bogut went to the bench and Draymond Green played the 5.
However, Vogel’s quote up there seems to suggest that the Magic’s “small ball” lineup might be something entirely different. If you read it again, you can see that Vogel doesn’t really conceptualize “small ball” as an offensive scheme, at least for the Magic. If the Magic followed the NBA’s small ball lead, we would probably sport an Augustin-Fournier-Green-Gordon-Ibaka lineup. That gives us shooting at every position -- that is, if Aaron can shoot better this season -- and defensive versatility.
However, given Vogel’s obvious defensive priority in his quote, it sounds like our “small” lineup will be Payton-Fournier-Gordon-Ibaka-Biyombo. Sure, there’s length and defensive stoppers at every position, save for Fournier, but where’s the scoring going to come from? That isn’t really “small ball,” is it Frank? Don’t reach for the “best of both worlds.” Just a pick a world and go with it.
Cory Hutson (@professorcory)
Based on what I’ve seen from Ibaka and Biyombo, I think Vogel is probably right that he can use them against small-ball teams. They’re both capable of handling a guard if they get switched in a pick-and-roll, and as Tristan Thompson demonstrated in the Finals, that’s a very valuable skill to have if you’re trying to shut down 3-pointers. If the goal is to play strong defense, it’s hard for me to see how you go wrong playing those two together.
Of course, success comes on both sides of the ball, and the offense is going to be really rough in those situations. Is that trade-off worthwhile? It might be, if Vogel can’t find any super-productive offensive lineups with this roster. I think we’ll see the “big defense” lineup sparingly in the beginning, and it’ll gradually become a bigger part of Vogel’s gameplan moving forward.
Q: With a three headed monster of Bismack Biyombo, Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka in the front court, who starts for the team? How does that change the dynamic between the two units?
Oliver: I think the two starters at the four and five respectively end up being Ibaka and Biyombo. The team went out and gave Biyombo this big deal in the offseason, and I can’t imagine them bringing their highest paid player off the bench. Having Biyombo out there with Ibaka also creates the most terrifying defensive front court I’ve probably ever seen.
Bringing Vucevic off the bench also gives the team that sixth man who can score, and still finish games for you. Players say that it matters who starts, and Vucevic has earned it based on his play previously, but I think closing games and total minutes is, in the end, more important than who laces them up first.
Dynamically it makes things interesting. With Aaron Gordon likely to start at small forward, it gives the Magic more versatility, especially having Jeff Green coming off the bench. Gordon, or Green, could slide down to the four and let Ibaka come out earlier in the first quarter, to then play with Vucevic in the second quarter to help some of his shortcomings on the defensive end. The versatility, especially in the front court, is going to be so important for the team all season.
Ogburn: I think we’ll wind up seeing Vucevic thrive (if the team decides to keep him) in a role similar to Al Jefferson or regular season Enes Kanter. Vooch has a track record of scoring at will on the best centers in the game, and he’d be a matchup nightmare against their backups.
On a Magic team that will probably be offensively challenged, the biggest points per game hole will be Biyombo. Though effective on defense, he has no offensive touch, and will have to be propped up by the best scorers on the team. Biz will start, not because he is the better player, but because the team will have better balance with Vooch on the second unit.
Serge and Aaron Gordon will be the two linchpins of the team, and I expect heavy minutes out of both.
Aaron Goldstone (@AaronGoldstone): Ibaka starting is a given, the only question is who starts at the center position. I would guess (at least initially) that it will be Nik Vucevic. I think that’s the best optic when considering team chemistry and how long Nik has been with the Magic (and started). Biyombo doesn’t seem to me like a guy who will have a huge inflated ego, even after signing his mega deal this offseason. Biyombo started over 100 games combined in his first two NBA seasons, but he’s started less than a quarter of the games he’s played in since.
For me, who’s out there to finish a game is a lot more important in the grand scheme of things than who starts. I know that’s a weak answer, and that ignores the pride and competitiveness professional athletes possess, but the key is winning. Whoever is not chosen to start should be fine with Frank’s decision as long as the team has success and as long as that guy, Vucevic or Biyombo, still gets his minutes By the way, I think all three guys (Serge, Nik, Bismack) will easily be able to get 28-32 minutes on any given night.
Hillyer: I agree with Aaron -- Ibaka has to start. More than that, he should start. He’s 26, an incredible defender, and has the ability to hit threes (though I’m a bit confused, because Ibaka has talked a lot about finally playing the “real power forward” position again, so is he not shooting threes with us? But I digress). That just leaves Vucevic or Biyombo at the starting 5.
It has to be Vucevic, doesn’t it? Despite the franchise’s weird efforts to plaster Victor Oladipo’s face on every marketing item around town, Vucevic has been our franchise player in the post-Dwight era. He’s an efficient scorer and rebounder, and a great team player. Besides, Biyombo is inept on offense. If he isn’t dunking, he’s bricking.
But wait -- what’s the most important quality for a center is today’s NBA? The last time I checked, teams with offense-first centers don’t fare that well -- Memphis is a perennial playoff contender, but they’re never in the real running for a title (and, despite Gasol’s skill on O, he’s a beast on D). Sacramento is a joke. Brooklyn is a joke. I’m fine with Vucevic as the starter - I love Vooch - but I wouldn’t be surprised if our team plays better with Biz in the game. In terms of changing the dynamic between the starting and bench units, rest assured, if we’re better with Biz, Vooch won’t be here too much longer.
Hutson: I don’t have issues with offense-first centers necessarily, but they can’t be straight-up awful defensively. Vucevic’s numbers make him look like a borderline All-Star, and there are certainly nights when he’s carried the Magic in ways nobody else on the roster could, when every jumper is going down and he’s finding ways to get open around the rim or make post-up moves, but on average his offense doesn’t matter that much. In the modern NBA, your team has to be able to shoot 3-pointers, and no matter how good he is at midrange shooting, Vucevic can’t make a bad Magic offense good.
If he can’t carry the offense, and he’s holding back the defense, where does that leave him? I don’t want to make him sound like an awful player, because he can do things that most NBA centers can’t...they’re just not things the Magic need right now.
That’s why I’ll follow Zach’s lead and suggest that Vuc will be coming off the bench by the end of the season, if not outright traded off the team. He’s very talented, but the Magic just make more sense as a team if you swap him for a solid point guard and let Biyombo start, or if he takes on that Kanter-type role and gets to play against weaker offenses that may not abuse his defense as much..
Q: Coach Vogel mentioned he thinks they have the versatility to play small. What would be your “ideal” small lineup?
Oliver: I mentioned this previously in the Limited Upside podcast, but I think a lineup featuring Elfrid Payton-Evan Fournier-Mario Hezonja-Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka would end everything. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the small lineup the Warriors run so well, with Ibaka being the do-it-all big man, with versatile forwards who can shoot, distribute and slash at will. It also brings forth a nice balance of defense with Payton, Gordon and Ibaka, and potential offensive punch with Fournier and Hezonja.
Oh, and they’d run. All. Night. Long. Please, coach, give this to us at some point.
Ogburn: I like Augustin/Fournier/Hezonja/Gordon/Ibaka. In my ideal small lineup, everyone can shoot, which spreads out the defense. If you have a small, fast lineup where your center can sink threes but your point guard can’t, that’s hustling backwards. The best part would be that they’d still have solid rim protection, as both Gordon and Ibaka have proved tough enough to bang with the bigs in the league.
Goldstone: I think this question all depends on what Orlando’s purpose of going “small” would be? Are they forcing the issue or matching up against an opponent’s small-ball lineup? Are they going small to gain an advantage on offense or defense? Also, would the team be going “small” in the backcourt like Phoenix (a lineup adjustment to get Bledsoe and Knight on the floor at the same time, basically a two-PG system), or small in the frontcourt like Golden State does (sliding Draymond to the hybrid “5”)? Orlando’s depth at the guard position(s) is adequate, but I just don’t see enough quality there to warrant lineups with three guards out on the court too frequently.
I’m a believer in ultimately trying to get your best basketball guys on the floor as much as possible, regardless of the other team’s lineups. I think it’s probably not a stretch to say that four of the top five players on Orlando’s roster are 6-9 or taller, so Frank Vogel can preach versatility all he wants, but I still don’t see the Magic going “small” too often. If I had to come up with one small lineup, I’d go Augustin/Fournier/Hezonja/Gordon/Biyombo. With three quality perimeter shooters yet questionable defenders in this lineup, I like Biyombo’s rim presence to balance the lineup a little more than Ibaka’s.
Hillyer: Augustin-Fournier-Green-Gordon-Ibaka. We get shooting at nearly every position, except for maybe Gordon -- time will tell there -- and we still get some solid rim protection with Aaron and Ibaka taking turns jumping-out-the-gym to block shots. I really hated the Augustin deal, but the guy can flat out shoot. Fournier needs to average 20 points per game if we’re going anywhere this season, and in this lineup he would have a constant greenlight. I’m a little worried about perimeter defense with these five, but that isn’t what small ball is about. Small ball is about shooting, shooting, shooting, passing, passing, passing, and frontcourt guys being able to switch on defense and guard opposing backcourt guys. This lineup ticks those boxes.
Hutson: If you want the small lineup that, right now, will do the best job of the whole “shoot a lot from every position,” you’ll be running something like Augustine-Fournier-Hezonja-Gordon-Ibaka. If you want a version that’s more experienced and maybe a little better defensively, you’re swapping Hezonja for Green. If you want even more defense that that while still retaining that flexibility from 1-4, you can bring in Biyombo at center.
As the team is constructed right now, though, I want to see the group Zach suggested, with Payton-Fournier-Hezonja-Gordon-Ibaka. I’m not even sure it’s the best possible small-ball lineup, but it’s the one that needs to see the most time on the court. For maximum offense, you could bring in Vucevic, but to give this group a chance to succeed I want the additional 3-point shooting and defense that Ibaka offers.
Those first four guys are the current young core of the Magic (with Vuc as the fifth, though I’ve already expressed my thoughts on him). If we expect to keep them around and for them to continue to grow, they have to find a way to play together and build their chemistry. The potential of this group is pretty frightening, if you imagine the best versions of themselves whirling around the court, so I want to see them at least try to unlock that potential.
Q: What’s the one lineup that we may never see, that we should see this season for the Magic?
Oliver: Time to get weird. Playing off that small lineup I mentioned previously, something with Aaron Gordon sliding down to the five spot would be a lot of fun. Maybe even going like Elfrid Payton-Evan Fournier-Mario Hezonja-Jeff Green and Gordon. It’d be terrifying, especially in the open court. They’d switch everything defensively --which I imagine the Magic will already do-- and just be a ball of fun.
Alternatively, you could throw a D.J. Augustin in there and just make it all kinds of weird. Fun, but weird. Probably the definition of the Magic when the season comes to an end.
Ogburn: I’m going to go completely opposite of Zach and go with the huge lineup of Payton/Fournier/Ibaka/Vucevic/Biyombo. The Magic currently have two players that are only comfortable playing center: Vucevic and Biz. For the three-headed rotation to be effective, Vucevic is going to have to re-learn to play the four at some point. Since this is upside down world, might as well throw in Ibaka at the 3 and make the other team try to fights some Ents on the way to the rim.
A French Revolution lineup of Payton (New Orleans), Augustin (New Orleans), Fournier (France), Ibaka (Congo), and Biyombo (Congo) would be pretty cool too.
Goldstone: I would be really interested to see somewhat of a new NBA “position-less” lineup of guys all around 6-5/6-6 to 6-8/6-9. Something like Fournier/Wilcox/Hezonja/Green/Gordon. Fournier would have to slide down and play out of position in this lineup, but he’s probably the most suited to do so as one of the stronger secondary ball-handlers on the roster.This lineup would be pretty weird, Jeff Green doesn’t really seem to fit in it (does Jeff Green really fit in any lineup?). But I had to include him if I was going to stick to the position-less theme, I had no other options. Still, I like the shooting upside in this lineup w/ Evan, Mario, and CJ.
Hillyer: Can I make trades here? I mean, it’s hypothetical isn’t it? Okay, here goes…
Scenario one: Sacramento busts to start the season….again. Boogie gets irate and sends out multiple “snakes-in-the-grass” tweets about...wait, who’s the Kings’ coach now?? It doesn’t matter, Boogie will hate him. Their world is blowing up, and we swoop in….We trade Vucevic, Elfrid, Jeff Green, and CJ Watson to Sacramento for DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Darren Collison. They get Elfrid, who they wish they would have taken in 2014, Vucevic, who gives them a skilled center without the head issues, Green and Gay are basically the same player with the same contract, and CJ’s contract makes the deal work. In that world, our lineup after the All-Star break is Collison, Fournier, Gay, Ibaka, Boogie with Augustin, Meeks (hopefully healthy), Mario, AG, Biz off the bench. I like it. Let Boogie eat the East. So what if he kicks Frank Vogel in the nuts a couple times?
Scenario two: The Clippers can’t make it work. Chris Paul is yelling at DeAndre Jordan during timeouts, Doc Rivers is saying passive-aggressive things in his post-game interviews, and nobody can forgive Blake Griffin for what he did to the equipment manager. Their world is blowing up, and we swoop in….We trade Elfrid, AG, and Fournier for Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Diamond Stone. The Clippers do it because they need a real backup point guard, and Elfrid gives them that, and because the CP3-Blake-DJ thing just isn’t working. We do it because Fournier hasn’t lived up to his contract, Elfrid can’t shoot, and, oh by the way, we get Blake Griffin! Bring JJ back and lay flowers at his feet as he walks from the parking garage to the locker room....every game. That gives us an Augustin, JJ, Green, Blake, Ibaka starting 5, with Watson, Meeks (if healthy), Mario, Blake (just keep him in there, always), and Biz as a bench lineup, along with the new coolest-name-in-the-game in Diamond Stone. I like it. Will we win many games? Nah, but we’re not going to anyway, so let’s watch Blake jump over Kia’s.
Hutson: That deal for Boogie looks pretty tasty to me...but if I’m gonna keep it in-house, I’m definitely experimenting with Gordon at the 5, and surrounding him with the best shooters the Magic have available. That probably means we’re looking at something like Augustin-X-Fournier-Hezonja-Gordon, with ‘X’ being whichever random Magic backcourt player breaks out as the best shooter. In an ideal world, that ends up being Payton somehow, but my bet is on Jodie Meeks to regain some of his shooting form from a few years ago.
Bonus crazy lineup: Augustin-Fournier-Hezonja-Ibaka-Zimmerman, with three players above 6’9 that somehow still has 3-point shooters at every position. That, of course, depends on Zimmerman shooting from the NBA arc after only hitting 29% at the college line...but hey, we’re thinking crazy, right?