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Orlando finds some hidden lineup magic off the bench

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Do the Magic’s best lineups rely on four bench players?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A common source of offseason discussion concerned how Orlando would balance their rotation and navigate the mishmashed roster they’d composed during their busy summer. How were they going to fit Nikola Vucevic, Serge Ibaka, and Bismack Biyombo on the court at the same time? Where does Aaron Gordon fit into the equation?

It may be the case that the best solution somehow involves just one of those four players, the one that isn’t actually starting. On Saturday’s come-from-behind win against a Wizards team that should have been thoroughly outmatched on the road, on a back-to-back, and without John Wall, Orlando struggled to put together anything close to a functional offense or defense, with one exception.

D.J. Augustin
Mario Hezonja
Jeff Green
Bismack Biyombo

That unlikely crew of mostly-bench players held their own at the end of the first quarter, and exploded for 20 points in just the first seven minutes of the fourth. Some of that came against Washington’s bench, but some of that came against the starters too, and really it doesn’t matter who it came against. This group played with a different energy about them, the ability to turn offense into defense and defense into offense. That flow rescued a game that the Magic absolutely should have won and yet had no business winning for most of the contest.

So, what’s working for this particular group? It comes down to spacing and hustle. On the former, this lineup has four shooters (on Saturday, the fifth man was either C.J. Watson or Evan Fournier, and the Magic were effective with both), and that space makes everyone much more comfortable. The contrast is especially sharp compared to the starting lineup, when opponents have been able to keep all five players around the paint. Not only does that make driving difficult, but it leads to those awkward possessions where Payton is standing at the top of the arc waiting for someone to get open off the ball, and it never happens because there’s not enough threat to distort the defense. Ten seconds later, the Magic have moved some guys from one side of the court to the other, but ultimately they haven’t gone anywhere.

Add a couple extra feet of open space on the inside of the court, though, and things change very quickly. Those driving lanes become open, and those guys running off pindown screens get some airspace to work with. Even when Hezonja’s shot isn’t working, he’s adept at curling off screens to find a catch-and-shoot look in rhythm, and a lineup like this one—particularly with Biyombo there to set the screen—facilitates that goal.

That leads to the second factor: when the Magic look lifeless on the court, a group like this one breathes life back into the game, and that starts and ends with Biyombo. As he’s become more comfortable with his role and communication, his ability to make game-changing plays has only improved. Sometimes those show up on the stat sheet, like with his three blocks or three offensive rebounds versus the Wizards. Sometimes, those contributions come in the form of screens, which are almost certainly the best of anyone’s on the team, or when he dives out of bounds to save a ball.

That energy is contagious, and it’s fueled the Magic twice now in those second and fourth quarters, Saturday and on Thursday’s win against the Kings. You don’t have to take my word for it, though: among all 4-man lineups that have played at least 30 minutes together for the Magic, the Augustin-Hezonja-Green-Biyombo combo is the only one with a positive net rating, +6.1 points per 100 possessions in 52 minutes. By the numbers, they’re not all that special offensively, but defensively they’ve been excellent together, posting a 95.4 defensive rating.

Let’s be perfectly clear, this is a tiny sample size. It’s entirely possible this is all a fluke. 52 minutes is barely more than the length of a single game. There’s virtually no statistical justification for proclaiming this as the Magic’s best lineup right now, and as mathematically-inclined sort of person, I would strongly advocate a “let’s see if they keep this up for, oh, two months” approach. Even then, playing about 10 minutes a game and often against bench players, it’s hard to judge the true effectiveness of these four players together.

The more important takeaway is that there is clearly a version of the Magic which looks very different from the way they play most of the time. We don’t see it every game, and when we do it may not be for more than 10 minutes at a time, but it’s there.

Whether Vogel can find a way to extend that energy to the rest of the roster, to find a way to play like that night-in and night-out, is likely what will define the Magic’s season looking back in April.