It’s no secret that in 2018/19, the Magic were hampered early by the poor performance of their bench.
There were a number of contributors to this bad bunch, and by season’s end they had managed to play their way either out of the rotation (Jerian Grant), out of town (Jonathon Simmons), or out of the hearts of impatient Magic fans (Mo Bamba). When the starters sat, Orlando floundered.
The team rode this reserve ignominy all the way to 11 games below .500 in late January, before a revamped rotation for players 7 through 10 on the roster contributed to a successful postseason push. By giving minutes to more effective contributors the team were able to -- surprise, surprise -- perform better and ultimately turn things around. What was once a weakness became, if not a strength, at least a situational stalemate for the opposition. With the bench holding their own and the starters generally outpacing their direct opponents, the end result was a greater number of Ws than Ls.
So the question heading into this coming season is whether or not the Magic are now better positioned in this regard than they were at the same time last season. Should we expect more from the bench-heavy units? Did the front office make moves to consolidate the late gains of last season? Let’s unpack the end of the rotation.
The Pine of the Past
In 2018/19 the Magic had 15 five-man units play more than 50 minutes together. Of those, nine recorded a positive plus/minus differential per-100 possessions, including 8 of the 10 most frequently played. That’s obviously a good thing! However, the depths that some of the other line-ups plumbed were sufficiently defective to undo a lot of that good work.
Egregiously, the combo of Aaron Gordon alongside Terrence Ross, Simmons, Grant and Bamba played an unconscionable 161 minutes together for a per-100 possessions plus/minus figure of -4.8 points. That’s almost four full games worth of playing time that they spent choking the Magic out of contests with inefficient offensive play and swiss cheese defense. Poor spacing, poor play-making and poor positioning should have sounded the death-knell for this unit much earlier.
This unholy trinity of Simmons, Grant and Bamba also reared its ugly head elsewhere, racking up an astonishingly abominable figure of -37.5 when combined with Ross and Jonathan Isaac. That’s not a typo: -37.5! And this line-up was somehow entrusted with 63 minutes of total court time. Simmons and Bamba also turned up in some of the other heavily-played five-man units that posted a negative differential, a testament to the team’s early-season struggles and the amount of leash they were given during this ugly early sledding.
The Magic were able to turn this around, first by jettisoning Simmons and Grant from the rotation and then by unintentionally benefitting from a Bamba injury. For a multitude of reasons, Khem Birch, Isaiah Briscoe and Michael Carter-Williams were simply more effective contributors. When you add this to Isaac catching fire, Evan Fournier turning his early-season shooting figures around, and Wes Iwundu displaying steady improvement you can see the foundation for the late surge. A previously barren bench actually became a boon.
How are things stacking up in the reserve regard as we hurtle towards the season opener? Well, the easy evaluation is that by returning all of the contributors from late last season the Magic should be in good shape when it comes to bench output. There’s some depth at each position, with two or three contributors at every spot on the floor:
PG: Augustin / Carter-Williams / Fultz
Wings: Fournier / Isaac / Gordon / Ross / Aminu / Iwundu
C: Vucevic / Bamba / Birch
All good, right? Well, there are still some reasons to hesitate before we celebrate. You’ll notice that Bamba is entrenched ahead of Birch on the depth chart, a fact which isn’t speculation - Head Coach Steve Clifford has already confirmed as much. Bamba should be better in his sophomore season, particularly because a lot of his rookie year problems were a result of poor positioning and decision-making, factors that tend to naturally improve with experience. Still, it’s a tough sell after the strong contributions Birch made when given the opportunity last season, not to mention his play for Canada at the recent World Championships.
Point guard also is a cause for some legitimate concern. Carter-Williams was solid in his 17 games in pinstripes when called on late last season, but his longer track record reflects a player just barely hanging on at the fringes. Regression wouldn’t be a surprise. There’s also the ultimate question mark that is Markelle Fultz. It would take a brave soul to gamble on him making meaningful contributions. The fingers are crossed but valid scepticism remains.
Interestingly, that scepticism is being whittled at by awfully positive preseason prognostications. A few days before training camp officially opened video emerged of Fultz working out, seemingly without restrictions and with a revamped jump shot. Magic Twitter immediately went into a feverish frenzy, a state which grew to full-blown delirium when both coaches and teammates rolled out the compliments after the first practice. At this stage it’s still far too hard to talk precisely about what the team have on their hands with Fultz, but there’s a growing chance that the answer is a positive one.
Before going any further it’s probably also worth considering the immensely good fortune that the Magic experienced last season in terms of health. In 2018/19 the starters combined to miss just 14 games, easily one of the best marks in the league. Sixth-man extraordinaire Ross was also out of the lineup on only one occasion, providing remarkable consistency for the club across the length of the season. So although by the end of the campaign the bench looked good, how would an unexpected injury disrupt the equilibrium this coming season? All of a sudden the depth chart starts to look a little shakier, with the trickle-down effect undoubtedly being felt more strongly at the end of the rotation.
And yet, it’s hard not to think that Orlando got better this offseason. With the first six remaining the same it’s further down the bench that such improvement can be forecast, with the addition of Al-Farouq Aminu and the (potential) addition of a healthy Fultz providing that hope. It’s an increase in talent, which will in turn lead to an increase in competition, which will theoretically result in more consistent and effective play when the starters sit.
Casualties of the Crunch?
No two ways about it: there’s going to be some players out court time this coming season. There’s a crunch behind the incumbent starters, particularly in the frontcourt. Finding consistent minutes for three centers is an impossible equation, while there are at least three and possibly even four players who are best suited to the position of power forward/stretch four.
As previously mentioned, Birch figures to be the odd man out in the middle. Despite last season’s positive contributions the Magic simply have too much invested in Vucevic and Bamba, which means that the big Canadian will be forced to once again bide his time and hope for an opportunity. He’s a luxurious insurance policy, and hopefully an element of the roster that serves to motivate the player immediately ahead of him on the depth chart.
Elsewhere, the arrival of Aminu complicates the matter of playing time at both the 3 and the 4. Gordon, Isaac and Ross will all expect to play between 26 and 34 minutes a game, while Iwundu would be hoping his strong finish to last season -- in which he improved his general decision making and effectiveness on the floor -- would result in an uptick in minutes. However, it’s likely that Aminu will absorb all 18 of the minutes Iwundu averaged per contest (with Gordon and Isaac sliding to the 3 during such stretches), while also pilfering a handful from elsewhere. With his background as an entrenched starter playing almost 30 minutes a night on a playoff team he wouldn’t be expecting to see that figure shrink significantly.
What this seeming logjam hopefully results in is game-to-game flexibility and the opportunity for Clifford to play to matchups and ride the hot hand. There were times last season when the Magic’s rotation was basically fixed in stone, which meant that an off night somewhere down the rotation was tough to recover from. Options are always a good thing, and Orlando have more to choose from this coming season. The best guess is that most of the starters on the wing see just a little less of the floor as well as slightly different lineup combinations to facilitate the new arrival.
The third potential victim of the Magic’s offseason is Carter-Williams, although forecasting his future is a difficult proposition. Fultz could be nothing as easily as something (anything?); not even the tea leaves of an exercised option give us much in the way of solid information. Still, if Fultz gives Orlando even half of what you would normally expect from a number one pick look for MCW to be basically out of the rotation entirely.
Despite the presence of a legitimate Sixth-Man of the Year candidate it took quite a while least season for Orlando to iron the kinks out of their bench rotation. Once they did, however, the reserve unit was actually a significant contributor to the successful playoff push.
With the majority of those same faces back in the fold and the injection of some extra talent the hope will be that the Magic can roll out a rotation with nary a weak link. We’ll soon find out just how strong that chain is.