In order to speculate about who the sixth man for the Magic mighty be, we first must determine who will be starting.
My guess would be that the starting lineup Steve Clifford sends out for the Magic’s season opener on October 17 will be very similar to that of the Magic’s starting lineup on opening night in 2017, minus Elfrid Payton:
PG: D.J. Augustin
SG: Evan Fournier
SF: Terrence Ross
PF: Aaron Gordon
C: Nikola Vucevic
Three of those spots are probably set in stone with Gordon (now the Magic’s highest paid player at $21.6 million this season), Fournier (led the team in scoring the last two seasons), and Augustin (lack of options at the point guard spot).
Open for debate is the inclusion of Ross on the wing over Jonathon Simmons and Jonathan Isaac, and Vooch in the middle over Mo Bamba.
The biggest question mark is at small forward, where Ross opened last season as the starter but is currently projected on the Magic depth chart as being behind Simmons. Somewhat of a forgotten man having played in just 24 games last season, Ross will have to prove himself in training camp and preseason in order to reclaim his starting spot. But if healthy, with his perimeter shooting and defense, Ross may provide the most balance and be the Magic’s best option to start for the time being.
Let’s get it pic.twitter.com/c9ooXRGepw— Terrence Ross (@TFlight31) July 26, 2018
Ross struggled offensively in the starting unit for the first 20 games of the season, shooting just 41.1 percent and taking only 8.2 shot attempts per game, the fewest since his rookie season. He was then relegated to the bench in favor of Simmons, a move Ross said he supported in order for the struggling Magic to switch things up. Shortly after, Ross suffered a fracture in his leg that all but ended his season (he made a brief return at the end of the season).
Simmons went on to start 50 of the 69 games he played last season and statistically enjoyed the best season of his career. With a career-high usage rate of 22.0 percent, up from 18.0 percent the previous season in San Antonio, Simmons averaged a personal-best 13.9 points per game and proved to be the Magic’s best weapon at creating off the dribble and getting to the free throw line. He shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 33.8 percent from three (51.1 percent effective FG%).
Last night, Jonathon Simmons scored a career-high 35 PTS. That's the most in a game by an undrafted player in @OrlandoMagic's franchise history! pic.twitter.com/EB3HN8DR5L— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 15, 2018
The increase in playing time, jumping from 1,392 minutes played with the Spurs in 2016-2017 to 2,029 with the Magic in 2017-2018, seemed to take a toll on Simmons as he hit a mid-season rough patch where he averaged 10.3 points on 44.1 percent shooting during the month of January.
His numbers also weren’t as impressive as expected on the defensive end, though that could be a byproduct of the Magic’s horrid team defense. Simmons was believed to be the Magic’s best perimeter defender entering the season but Orlando’s defensive rating with him on the court was 110.9, which was the third worst of any player on the team.
Now Ross is returning to health and Simmons has emerged as a starting-caliber player. So who starts opening night?
It probably comes down to what Clifford values more and sees as a better fit within the Magic system and rotations: the outside shooting of Ross or the ball-handling ability of Simmons (though Simmons will have to better protect the ball in Clifford’s more disciplined system). I believe Ross, who better spaces the floor and doesn’t need the ball in his hands as much as Simmons to impact the game, will get the starting nod to start the season, if healthy.
That would leave Simmons as the likely sixth man, a role that last season showed he may be better suited for with his versatility, change of pace, and propensity to attack the rim.
However, the members of the Magic’s young frontcourt, if they don’t immediately force their way into the starting lineup, could also be first off the bench, depending on the nightly circumstances.
Jaren Jackson Jr got blocked by *both* Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba pic.twitter.com/m9ELfkKVd7— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 9, 2018
Keeping Vucevic in the starting lineup over Bamba, at least to open the season, won’t be the popular decision but it would be based strictly on the slow and steady development of the Magic’s prized 20-year-old center.
Vucevic has his shortcomings and, as we know, had his issues last season. But in the final year of his contract, Vooch allows the Magic to ease Bamba into the pro game as he bulks up physically (have you seen how thin his legs are?!). If Vucevic gets traded before the deadline, that opens a clear path to the starting lineup for Bamba, who will by then have a few months’ worth of game experience and NBA training regimens.
Isaac, after playing in just 29 games in his rookie season with ankle issues, will also likely see a minutes restriction to start the season. But it will be interesting to see how, and how often, the Magic elect to use Bamba, Isaac and Gordon on the court at the same time in year one of the B.I.G. era. And their development could make the Magic’s starting lineup at the end of the season could look very different from the unit that opens the seasons.
Will Orlando start a frontcourt of Bamba, Gordon and Isaac before season’s end?
Does Jerian Grant challenge Augustin for the starting point guard spot?
Do Vooch and Ross, both on expiring contracts, or even Fournier and Simmons surface in trade rumors before the deadline?
Time will tell. But at least to start the season, the Magic’s starting lineup and sixth man probably won’t look much different from opening night last year.