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The Orlando Magic’s best and worst lineup combinations

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What’s working and what isn’t ten games into the season

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to early-season plus-minus data, take conclusions with a shaker of salt. A player or lineup that looks good today may be bad tomorrow. A lineup that failed against four or five teams might actually be pretty good against the others.

The goal, then, shouldn’t necessarily be to assess who the Magic should be playing going forward. Instead, it may be better to to ask, “Are these players performing as well as I think they are?” We’ll look at several groups, but for example, consider the “buddy-ball” combo of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, decried among fans for hijacking the offense and siphoning touches from the likes of Aaron Gordon. Do those two actually work well together? What about when they split up?

As it turns out, while the overall results haven’t been good, there are signs that the Magic have some easy opportunities for improvement. As we’ll see by the end, the Magic have tried a lot of different combinations, and they may be honing in on some of what works and what doesn’t.

We’ll mainly examine plus/minus and WOWY data (with-or-without-you), looking at offensive/defensive rating, net rating, and other miscellaneous stats. Many thanks to pbpstats.com and NBA.com. Let’s start with the basic individual plus/minus ratings, omitting a few players with minimal playing time (but including Jarell Martin, given his increased participation in recent games).

(A statistical note: pbpstats.com and nba.com have different offensive and defensive ratings, as is often the case for different websites tracking possessions, probably due to different methods for counting/estimating possessions. The general conclusions should be the same, but just be advised that things might look weird if you’re comparing a few different sources.)

Unsurprisingly, the Magic are in the red across the board. Also unsurprisingly, Gordon leads the way, mostly by virtue of maintaining a respectable defensive rating.

(Mini-rant: Almost across the board, Magic watchers have concluded that Nikola Vucevic has been the Magic’s best player, including my cohorts on the Do You Believe In Magic podcast. I think it’s fair to say he’s been the Magic’s best offensive player, and on a team so desperate for scoring that can stand out, but his defense is at its worst level of his entire career, by defensive rating. Gordon would be my pick, and by comparison, he’s sitting at about his career average defensive rating. This jives with what I’m personally seeing on the court, in terms of teams getting into the paint and scoring on Vuc at will. Remember, Orlando claims it wants to be a defensive grinding team, and I’m not sure he can be part of that identity.)

I’m most surprised by Mo Bamba’s rating, in terms of how it differs from my subjective opinion of his play, which I’ve thought was pretty solid. Objectively it’s not all that crazy, since rookies are almost always awful, but at a minimum I figured his defensive rating would be solid. Notably, his last three games have been about 3-4 points better on both sides of ball per 100 possessions, but that still places him well behind most of the other rotation players. Rookies gonna rook.

Let’s check in on our dynamic duo:

First thing that jumped out at me was how little the two play without each other. There’s only about 5 or 6 minutes each game when only one of them sees the court, and those minutes are pretty dreadful. That makes sense the more I think about it: they rely so much on each other for offense right now that they suffer when they have to create on their own.

Of course, what’s really going to jump off the page is the team’s success without either player. This is going to sound like a broken record, but Vucevic and Fournier are among the team’s worst defensive players, and it turns out that playing without them makes their defense better. Sometimes that trade-off can be worthwhile, but right now the Magic are on the losing end of the deal.

Other starter two-man combos lineup similarly, which makes sense. The starting lineup (including Jonathan Isaac before his injury) is a -5.0, so most of the pairings fall just on either side of that.

What do some of the Magic’s best pairs look like?

Notice a theme? Most of the Magic’s best combos involve Terrence Ross. That’s super weird! Ross is above-average relative to most of the team, but his -7.7 individual net rating isn’t anywhere close to these numbers. You’d think that Gordon’s team-best rating would make him pop up in all these combos, but this is a good example of how two-man lineups can be wonky sometimes. There’s a deeper truth to these lineups that’s easier to see if we look at full 5-man combinations involving Ross (minimum 5 minutes):

There are three important lessons here. The first, and most boring, is that lineup stats are frequently very dumb with these small sample sizes. Is there really a reason why Ross’s most common lineup (93 minutes with Simmons, Grant, Gordon, and Bamba) is so good, but the same lineup with Augustin instead of Grant is among his very worst? Again, there’s a very good chance that this entire article will be rendered moot in a month and that I’ll deeply regret wasting 1500 words of analysis on this.

If we’re going to try to read the tea leaves, however, our second conclusion is that Ross has a lot of very polarized combinations. When he plays with four starters, the results are great. When he gets stuck in some wonky lineups with Vuc/Bamba frontcourts or Wesley Iwundu backcourts, it’s a dumpster fire.

This hints at a broader trend with the Magic, one that may be a sign for optimism. Our third lesson is that Orlando gives a lot of time to dozens of incredibly unsuccessful lineups. Filtering out lineups that NBA.com lists as having “0” minutes of playing time, I count a total of 122 minutes allotted to 27 different 5-man lineups with, each playing no more than 16 minutes. The only other negative lineup, as previously established, is the Magic’s starting unit (with Isaac).

By comparison, summing all the super-small-sample positive lineups (highest being 18 minutes of playing time) totals 79 minutes of winning basketball. There are a couple lineups between 30-40 total minutes that are also positive, so if you choose to bundle those in you have 147 minutes.

Finishing our accounting, that leaves the 107 minutes with the Isaac-starters (-5.0 per 100 possessions) and 93 minutes of the aforementioned Ross group (+8.8 per 100 possessions). That works out to 469 minutes, close enough to the true total of 480 minutes factoring in rounding errors and those sub-1 minute lineups.

In other words, there may be some low-hanging fruit available to optimize the rotation. We have one “high-minute” combination that seems unsuccessful, one high-minute combination that works, and about 40 other groups with very little time on the court, roughly balanced between good and bad.

Just to compare whether other bad teams had similar rotations, I did the same sort of accounting for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, teams with net ratings close to Orlando’s. For the Bulls, they had 57 minutes given to small-minutes negative lineups, plus three lineups with 40, 46, and 84 minutes of playing time. Also notable: no lineup was worse than -20 (the 40-minute group as it turns out). The vast majority of Orlando’s small-minutes lines are worse than -20.

The Wizards are somewhere in between, playing 8 different 5-man squads between 13-25 minutes. Like the Magic, they have many lineups with extremely poor net ratings, but unlike the Magic, they’re more concentrated (though not as concentrated as Chicago).

To me, this suggests that Orlando has both more flexibility and opportunity for improvement compared to these other teams. Those myriad terrible lineups should gradually filter out, while those 30-40 minute lineups with good ratings merit some further experimentation. If the Orlando Magic can hone in on four or five reasonable lineups, they may stabilize the rotation, and we should hopefully see less of those second-half collapses during those awkward minutes at the start of each fourth quarter.

As far as the starters are concerned, it wouldn’t surprise me if the organization looks at the evidence during Isaac’s absence and concludes he should come off the bench. He and Iwundu are in similar situations right now, in that they each have a couple lineups that are working in short bursts, but on the whole are struggling. I’m loathe to say Isaac should be minimized in the rotation, because burying a young player for veterans is exactly what a bad organization does, but evidence so far suggests the Magic are more successful without him.

One more time: Small. Sample. Sizes. A lot of variables are in flux, especially for a team with yet another new coaching staff. Still, I expected to come out of this feeling more pessimistic, and instead I think there’s signs that not all is as hopeless as it seems. Would I give the Magic a good chance of staging a massive turnaround? Hardly, but the chance is a little bit better than it looks on the surface.