A short-term injury has presented a short-term opportunity, and it’s one that has been seized with the force of a thunderous put-back.
A sore left foot has kept rookie Mo Bamba out of the Magic’s last three contests, freeing up backup minutes behind the incumbent starter at the five (and All-Star hopeful), Nikola Vucevic. Enter second-year big man, Khem Birch, a deep cut favorite with the Orlando faithful based on his energetic performances and propensity for monster blocks.
Prior to this stretch, Birch had only played more than a quarter’s worth of basketball in a game on two occasions this season, without much in way of statistical output to show for it. It makes sense; the team is heavily invested in the development of Bamba after nabbing him with the sixth pick in last year’s draft, while Vucevic has clearly established himself as the centerpiece of Orlando’s offensive system under Steve Clifford. In a league trending small, there aren’t many minutes for a third-string center.
Birch originally went undrafted in 2014, didn’t stick with any team after a summer league stint, before heading overseas to ply his trade. He was eventually able to parlay this play into an NBA contract, signing a two-year, $2.2 million deal with the Magic in July of 2017.
After playing only sparingly across the opening half of the 2017-2018 season, he found more minutes on offer as the team slipped out of the playoff race and injuries hit. He kicked off a stretch of regular playing time with a 12 point, 10 rebound, 4 block performance against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves, a game in which he was an equal-best +13 in his 19 minutes of court time. Less than two weeks later he dropped 11 and 5 (with 3 steals) against the Pacers, a stat line which would have looked even better if it weren’t for his 3-for-8 performance from the line. The glimpses were adding up into something tangible.
His best run came across the final six games of the season. During this stretch he saw 24 minutes of action a night and averaged 11 points and almost 9 rebounds, along with 2 stocks (combined blocks/steals). Outside of a nasty blowout against the Hornets, the team was routinely better off with him on the court, and it looked like the Magic had snagged a strong rotational piece on a great contract.
The drafting of Bamba has muddied the current equation for Birch. The opportunities so far this season have been few and far between, although his performances over the weekend have again raised the question: how much should he be playing? It’s a small sample size, but his contributions to the wins over the Celtics and Rockets suggest that the answer should probably be ‘more’.
Against Boston he racked up 4 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks, all while providing staunch defense and seemingly unlimited energy. He finished a team-best +23 in his 17 minutes of action, a mind-boggling number that shows just how heavily the game swung in the favor of the Magic once Birch started patrolling the interior. He followed this performance up with a solid first half against the Rockets, before fading out a little thanks to match-ups and extra minutes for Vucevic.
In limited action, Birch has already unquestionably established himself as the team’s best pick-and-roll defender. He’s a voracious rebounder, particularly at the defensive end, and a solid rim-deterrent despite standing just 6’9. He’s also shown himself to be perfectly adequate offensively; he sets solid picks, rolls to the rim effectively, and can sniff out opportunities for second-chance points. In basically every way he’s proven to be a competent big man, perfectly suited right now to second duty and both the minutes allocation and matchups that come with such a role.
The problem, of course, is that such a role in Orlando already has an incumbent.
Vucevic is the team’s most important player at the moment and a legitimate All-Star candidate. Despite his status as an expiring contract it seems likely that he’s going to be sticking around in Florida beyond the trade deadline, if only because of the difficulty of returning equal value. Behind him, the team is committed to the raw youthfulness of Bamba, a long-term project in need of regular minutes if he’s ever to realize his potential. Clifford has already reiterated that he’ll immediately claim back his spot in the rotation when he returns from injury.
Birch seemingly knows and understands this fact. All he can do is stay ready and show what he’s capable of when the opportunity presents itself. Even though it might be in the best interests of winning to find him more minutes, that’s an outcome that doesn’t necessarily align with either the team’s immediate or long-term plans. It’s a tricky situation for everyone.
So what happens when you’re neither your team’s present or their future?
Can the team justify playing him knowing the impact it will likely have on Bamba’s development curve? Can the team justify not playing him knowing the impact Birch himself is likely to have on today’s on-court product?
There are a million ways yet that this could play out. All it would take is one injury for more minutes to become available. The Magic might find themselves a major player at the trade deadline, which could result in an overhaul of the rotation. Looking further ahead, what happens if Vucevic is actually traded or finds the grass to be greener in someone else’s paddock this coming offseason? There are undoubtedly some unknown twists to come.
What is known and indisputable, though, is the fact that as long as the status quo remains in Orlando, Birch doesn’t have a current role that is appropriate for his talents. It’s a difficult set of circumstances for a player who has already shown that they’ve got at least some of what it takes to succeed at this level.
For an Orlando team with a relatively talent-poor roster, maybe it’s not such a bad problem to have.