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Examining potential lineups for the Orlando Magic

The Magic’s starting lineup looks pretty set, but what if Frank Vogel decided to go in a different direction?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

PG: Elfrid Payton
SG: Evan Fournier
SF: Aaron Gordon
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Nikola Vucevic

Barring injury or major training camp shenanigans, this lineup will probably be the first one to see the floor for the Orlando Magic come October 26th against the Miami Heat. Payton started 69 of his 73 games last season, and nobody’s been added to the team that stands as an obviously better option. With Victor Oladipo gone, and as the best shooter on the team, Fournier is the obvious choice to join him in the backcourt.

Frank Vogel’s already indicated he plans to run Aaron Gordon at the 3-spot, largely because Serge Ibaka will slide in as the team’s best power forward. That leaves Vucevic to hold down the starting center position, a place he’s occupied almost exclusively since he joined the team in 2012.

There are a few potential upsides to a lineup like this one. It affords some continuity, given that four of the five players are returning from last year’s team. It’s possibly the best overall balance of offense and defense, featuring Orlando’s best floor-spacers at the two, four, and five positions, while relying on Ibaka to compensate for Vucevic’s defensive deficiencies. Maybe Payton finds some room to work his way into the paint, add a dash of extreme athleticism from Gordon, and there might be something to it.

Still...I can’t help but feel like it’s a little lacking. What’s the strategy there? What does this lineup really excel at? Does it promote an identity, something the Magic have sorely lacked for years now?

No, I feel like there could be something better, an idea that Zach and I explored when we recently visited the Limited Upside podcast. Ben Epstein noted that, if you pitted that starting lineup against the next five guys off the bench (Watson, Meeks, Hezonja, Green, Biyombo), it’d probably be a surprisingly close matchup.

Zach threw out the prediction that before too long, Vucevic would be supplanted by Bismack Biyombo, and that Vucevic could even be traded. We also floated the idea of a “small-ball” lineup that returns Gordon to the PF-position and adds someone like Mario Hezonja, while letting Ibaka play stretch-5. We only had so much time to go over these lineup alternatives, however, so I want to dive deeper and imagine how effective each of these groups could be.

Maximizing the defense with Biyombo

I proposed the defense-first minutes distribution in the frontcourt rotation game, one that might sacrifice a bit of team chemistry in exchange for letting Biyombo contain opposing offenses for as long as possible, even giving him more playing time than Vucevic. The full lineup, then, would look something like...

PG: Payton
SG: Fournier
SF: Gordon
PF: Ibaka
C: Biyombo

The plan here is pretty straightforward: play a conservative defense that only defends with as many players as are involved in the play. With Biyombo and Ibaka on the court together, they can easily handle pick-and-rolls involving either of the opposing big men without needing the other three defenders to help.

The rim-protecting benefits are obvious, but the more important result might be fewer 3-point attempts by the other team. By letting the other three players stay home, you keep those shooters from being open. This is more or less the opposite strategy to what Scott Skiles ran, which was to bring help on basically every drive and use fast rotations to get back out to those perimeter opponents.

If the opposing ball-handler does find room to drive—and let’s be honest, with Payton and Fournier on the court that’s a fairly likely outcome—the other half of the Magic’s defensive duo is there to bring some weakside rim protection. It’s not going to be perfect, but I feel pretty confident that, as long as these two are on the court, Orlando’s pick-and-roll coverage should be significantly improved over last season’s.

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The real mystery lies in the middle of the lineup, whether Gordon can hold his own against the league’s variety of wing players. He’s not going to transform into Andre Iguodala overnight and start locking down LeBron James, but it will be important for him to handle the DeMarre Carrolls and Jae Crowders and Harrison Barneses of the world. Gordon’s shown that he’s athletic enough to contest 3-pointers from farther away than most players, even blocking some of those shots when he’s positioned well enough, but he has to improve his ability to navigate around off-ball screens and not lose track of his man.

The offense, unfortunately, threatens the viability of this arrangement. While Fournier was an excellent 3-point shooter last year at 40%, none of the other players hit above 33%. Even if we generously assumed Payton and Gordon will continue to increase their long-range proficiency, it’s hard to imagine either of them hitting even a league-average number of 3-pointers. We could give Ibaka the benefit of the doubt, too, and suggest his 37.6% accuracy from two seasons ago is closer to his “true” ability than the 32.6% from last year, but I don’t think he’s getting the same looks on this Orlando team as he got playing with his Thunder superstar teammates.

This is why Vucevic has been so important to the Magic. While he’s not stretching out to the arc, he’s the only Orlando player besides Fournier whose shooting ability ranks above-average at his position, barring some kind of second-year renaissance by Hezonja or a flashback to 2013 for Jodie Meeks. Having Vucevic gives Orlando a precious matchup advantage that’s difficult to find elsewhere.

Switching to Biyombo doesn’t just represent trading away an advantage: he actively hurts the offense while he’s on the court. He’s not an elite pick-and-roll threat like DeAndre Jordan, and he’s definitely not the shooter that Vucevic is.

Biyombo, 2015-2016 regular season

He can’t shoot free throws (62.8% last season was his career high), and he barely has any post moves to speak of. Per, Biyombo hit a pretty-good 53.8% of his hook shots...on only 26 attempts. Put it all together, and Biyombo threatens to tank an already-struggling Orlando offense. Several advanced stats agree on this point: for example, by the offensive half of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (oRPM), Biyombo was among the bottom-10 centers in the league in offensive effectiveness. Other numbers like oBPM (-2.4) or even vanilla on-off stats (Toronto scored an extra 4.6pts/100 poss. without him on the court) tell the same story.

The question, then, is whether this is a sacrifice the Magic are willing to make. I can’t speak for Vogel, but if he thinks that Orlando’s offense is unsalvageable in the first place, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him switch to this defensive focus. Besides being his specialty, emphasizing defense above all else could give Orlando a much-needed identity.

Crafting a modern lineup

PG: Payton
SG: Fournier
SF: Hezonja
PF: Gordon
C: Ibaka

If the last squad was fueled by defense, this one might be powered by sheer excitement. This is the collection of the Magic’s most interesting players, and the one with the highest upside if every player lived up to their potential. It’s the closest the Magic can come to a small-ball “death lineup”, and while it doesn’t nearly match the shooting of the Warriors’ version, it fits the theme of putting the team’s most dynamic players on the court and trying to make magic happen.

In a pipedream universe, a typical play looks something like this: as Payton brings the ball up the court, Fournier and Hezonja spot up on the sides, two deadly shooters that demand the attention of the opposing wings. Ibaka might start the play in the corner, dragging the other team’s center away from the paint and giving Payton the room he needs to operate. Payton, ideally, has developed his 3-pointer just enough that his defender needs to respect him, maybe not standing right in his grill, but not ten feet back either.

Gordon comes up to set the initial screen, using his monstrous athleticism the same way Blake Griffin does to threaten monstrous dunks every time he catches the ball in the paint. As they begin the 1-4 pick-and-roll, the other three Magic players are already in motion themselves, shifting around the perimeter and finding innovative ways of getting open and breaking down the defense.

No matter how the defense reacts, Payton fulfills his potential a pure distributor to find the open man, regardless where he stands. He kicks the ball out to Fournier, who pump fakes and passes to Hezonja, who’s cutting sharply toward the basket with the help of an Ibaka offscreen. The defense, scrambling to stay on these shooters and work around screens, tries to collapse on him, but at the last moment he floats the ball high above the rim, right to an open Gordon for yet another highlight-reel alley-oop.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

...and then you wake up, and realize it was all a dream, and remember that the Magic lost their game last night against the Grizzlies by a score of 77-81, hitting just 1-16 shots from downtown and taking a mere 13 free throws, hitting nine of them. Despite looking hot coming out of halftime, they scored just 10 points in the fourth quarter as the Grizzlies rallied from an 8-point deficit. Jeff Green shot 28% on the night.

Here’s the reality check: we’re probably at least a year away from this being a realistic scenario. Hezonja is just a second-year player, and Gordon is still very raw himself. Payton increased his shooting ability marginally from his first to second seasons, but there’s not enough there to project he’ll be enough of a threat at any appreciable distance next season.

The kind of intricate offense I’m describing takes time to develop, and it’s probably too much to expect that a young lineup like this one would be able to master it quickly. Vogel has described how he wants to try a small-ball, modern offense that takes advantage of the 3-pointer, but it’s not clear that he has the skills to make that happen. For all his success in Indiana, little of it was predicated on a genius offensive scheme.

Defense is also an issue. Ibaka would have to carry a heavy load, constantly plugging holes caused by the lapses of Fournier and Hezonja. Slotting Gordon into the 4-spot probably works better than having him at SF for defensive purposes, but that duo definitely lacks the intimidation factor of the Ibaka-Biyombo combo.

Still, despite all these problems, I want to see this lineup more than any other. I want Vogel to give it a chance, even if it crashes and burns for months at a time, because I think this represents the future of the team. Of course, Ibaka is the big man on a one-year deal, while Vucevic and Biyombo are going to be around for a while, but it’s really all about the first four players. If Payton, Fournier, Hezonja, and Gordon develop their chemistry together, they have the potential to be special.

Sampling and experimenting

I framed this exercise as an attempt to change the starting lineup, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the only way to put these players on the court together. More likely than not, Vogel is going to experiment with his new team, and the best way to make that happen is probably by keeping the starting lineup consistent and manipulating the bench rotations.

In some ways, deciding who starts and does not start is both an overrated and underrated exercise. The starting lineup doesn’t always feature the team’s best players, and may not even play the most minutes. If a team designates an important 6th-man, it’s common to see that player close out games, even if he didn’t start in them.

At the same time, being a starter is clearly meaningful to the players themselves, and a team’s stability is often defined by its ability to consistently field the same starters and the same rotations each and every night. Choosing a group of five starters is tough, but knowing when to stick with it through tough times and knowing when to change things up is much harder.

Skiles’ regime was in some ways marked by a failure to manage these problems and meet the expectations of both players and fans alike. If Vogel can quickly make something of the Magic’s messy roster, it bodes well for his tenure as Orlando’s latest coach.