When infrequent Magic watchers discuss Orlando’s misfortunes, they often focus on the young players on the team. Is Elfrid Payton the Magic’s answer at point guard? Why aren’t they playing Aaron Gordon at power forward? Should Evan Fournier be more than a third or fourth option, at best?
No doubt, these are among the most important questions the franchise needs to address, but these players don’t fully explain why things went so wrong last season. Sure, Payton, Gordon, and Fournier weren’t exactly superstar-caliber basketball players, but they weren’t awful either. In fact, paired with a solid backup unit, they might have been passable as starters.
That, of course, was not the case last season. Among Jeff Green, C.J. Watson, D.J. Augustin, and Mario Hezonja, the Magic played some of the very worst bench players in the entire league. So many winnable games were thrown away in the second and fourth quarters thanks, when the bench would come in and concede whatever advantage the starters earned.
Take March 6th, for example, when the Orlando Magic hosted the New York Knicks. It was one of the first games of Elfrid’s triple-double tour throughout March. Orlando held control throughout the first, gave back some of their lead in the second, but seemed to be in the driver’s seat heading into the fourth. As Zach recapped at the time, “The fourth quarter quickly spelled disaster for the Magic. New York opened the quarter on a 21-4 run over the first seven minutes to take a seemingly commanding eight point lead.” Every starter was a positive in the box score, and every reserve was a minus.
That’s just one game, but it’s a microcosm of issues the Magic faced all season, especially down the stretch. The new small-ball starting unit with Terrence Ross, featuring Gordon as power forward, played winning basketball, a +1.4 net rating per NBA.com. They were equally as effective with the same group, but subbing in Bismack Biyombo. When they started subbing in the backups? Nightmare.
Let’s put it into perspective this way: The Magic played 24 games post-trade, 1152 minutes of NBA basketball. Those Payton-Ross-Fournier-Gordon lineups played a combined 515 minutes, again at a +1.4 net rating. You know what the Magic’s overall net rating was those 24 games? -7.4 points per 100 possessions.
That’s really hard to do! Think about how astronomically bad the bench had to be to outweigh the starters so heavily. The lowlight was the bench mob, the third-most used lineup behind the two discussed above, a soul-crushing -27.2 when D.J., C.J., Green, Mario, and Biz shared the court.
One more stat to really send home the futility of the bench: Hezonja and Augustin were in the bottom-8 of the league in RPM. Green and Watson were bottom-75. Biyombo barely escaped the bottom-100. It’s very, very difficult to win basketball games when you punt any minutes your starters aren’t playing.
That’s why, if there’s any hope for next season, it’ll come from the multitude of bench upgrades the Magic’s new front office pursued. Across the board, the Magic upgraded every reserve position except center, and even there they diversified their lineup. Shelvin Mack will at least play some defense. The same can be said for Jonathon Simmons. Jonathan Isaac isn’t nearly ready to play NBA offense, but if he’s just a lower-usage version of Green that plays some defense, he’s already an improvement.
Among those three players, the Magic should be able to play some halfway-decent defense with their bench players, especially if Biyombo can put together a bounce-back season. Offense is another story. Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights should provide some much-needed space in both bench and mixed-starter lineups, but there’s only so much they can do surrounded by three non-shooters.
That may not matter. If the bench can hold opposing lineups to a stalemate, they’re leaps and bounds better than the bench from last season, which could neither score nor stop the opposition. This lays the groundwork for a potential “change-up” style for the Magic: run-and-gun with the small-ball starters, perhaps with Afflalo and Simmons mixed in here or there, and grind it out with the bench units.
Even if the Magic can’t make the playoffs next season, there’s one more benefit to having an average bench: being able to answer those major questions we posed at the top. It’s a lot easier to judge the worth of Payton, Gordon, and even Hezonja when they’re surrounded by capable teammates rather than being dragged down by them.
If it turns out the Magic are ready to move on from that core and start over? That’ll be a difficult transition, but it will be made easier thanks to the team-friendly contracts signed across the board, with little guaranteed money past this season. Only Jonathan Simmons has certain money coming to him in 2018-2019, and even his final season is only partially guaranteed.
Make no mistake, the Magic still shouldn’t be favored to make the playoffs, but giving minimal minutes to bad players a common trend among surprisingly good teams. If you choose to be optimistic about next season, the bench is a good place to start.