Mired in the middle of a tough stretch -- both in terms of the schedule and their own play -- the conversation regarding the Magic has started to turn inwards. Specifically, discussion and debate related to the amount of time each player is seeing and what they’re doing with their on-court opportunities has heated up.
What might an exploration of the numbers related to minutes reveal? Let’s dive in and find out.
In any NBA game there are only so many minutes to go around, so how they’re doled out is of significant importance. This is hardly breaking new ground, but teams that give a higher percentage of their minutes to more effective players tend to rack up more wins. As such, the zero-sum game that is minutes distribution needs to be considered carefully.
A look at Orlando’s season figure in this regard reveals four players seeing between 30 and 32 minutes of court time per contest, along with another five playing between 21 and 26. Aaron Gordon is the team leader, with an average of 31.4 minutes per game, good for about 66% of any total encounter. However, when looked at in a broader context this is actually a pretty small figure, with a current ranking of just 59th league-wide.
In fact, when compared to their contemporaries, Orlando’s allocation of minutes to the players at the top of the depth chart is relatively small. Houston, lead by James Harden’s 37.7 minutes per game, have four players averaging more than 33 minutes of action. Utah, Miami and Toronto all have three players that meet this threshold. The Lakers keep both LeBron and AD on the court for almost 35 minutes a night. Plenty of other teams have a pair of players that both top the 33 minute mark. In contrast, AG would have to play the full 48 minutes in each of the next three games to reach that figure.
The focus on Gordon perhaps obfuscates the broader consideration; his minutes specifically aren’t the central point of contention in this debate. Instead, it’s elsewhere on the roster that one might want to turn their attention. By most advanced metrics -- PER, VORP, box plus/minus, win shares -- it’s Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac who consistently rate as the three most effective players for the Magic this season. The trio each play between 30.4 and 31.1 minutes per game, remarkably consistent numbers but some that beg an obvious question: wouldn’t it be in Orlando’s best interests for them to play more?
The gut reaction is to answer with an emphatic yes. If they’re taking a handful of minutes each night from players further down the pecking order, then of course the Magic are going to be impacted favorably on the scoreboard. However, like most things, it’s a more complex proposition than the surface would suggest. There are no guarantees that any player can simply maintain their current level of output when presented with more minutes. How come? Well, fatigue is a real thing. Changes at the top would also impact rotations and lineup fits elsewhere. Particularly for bigs playing close to the hoop, foul trouble becomes a more delicate balancing act to avoid. There’s also the difficult-to-measure science of social chemistry to consider.
Minutes distribution is always going to be tricky. Orlando are not blessed with the upper tier superstar talent that some other teams are, but the numbers do still seem to suggest that there’s a discussion worth having regarding who sees the court.
The Right Mix
So what is the right way to cut up the minutes pie? This is where a closer look at five-man lineup data may help.
The Magic currently have twelve different units that have played at least 30 minutes this season, six of which have posted a positive net rating. Pleasingly, the most frequently played lineup featuring the current starters has a net rating of +3.6 in the 196 minutes they’ve played together. Much like it did last season, this tells us that the first five are largely getting the job done against their direct opposition.
Other heavily played lineups haven’t had the same level of success. Replacing Vooch with Birch drags that figure all the way down to -8.9, production that the lineup has generated across 104 total minutes. Likewise, flipping out Fultz for Augustin has had a detrimental effect, with this particular configuration playing 67 minutes together for a net rating of -2.8. There are also a number of bench-heavy units featuring Mo Bamba and Al-Farouq Aminu that have struggled this season, including a lineup that was played heavily during the early going (49 minutes in 6 games) that posted a whopping net rating of -13.6.
There does seem to be at least one common element afflicting each of these five-man units struggling to post an effective net rating: the absence of Vucevic. Out of these lineups that have played at least 30 minutes over the course of the season there is only a single configuration that both features Vooch and has posted a negative net rating: the previously mentioned one that features Augustin in place of Fultz. Most of these minutes came early in the season when the side was struggling; we’ve already seen Steve Clifford address the issue with the surprisingly quick insertion of Fultz into a starting role.
The fact that the units posting a negative net rating generally don’t feature Vucevic also pushes our analysis further in the direction of the bench, simply because Vooch tends to spend the largest chunk of his time surrounded primarily by other starters. Reserve concerns have been common with recent Orlando teams, particularly during the early going last season. When that problem was seemingly solved during the run to the playoffs the hope was that it would no longer be an issue in 2019/20. The underlying numbers suggest that hasn’t really been the case.
Looking at the current data reveals some pretty obviously deficient bench units. The quartet of Augustin, Aminu, Bamba and Terrence Ross have struggled mightily, posting the previously mentioned net rating of -13.6 when played alongside Fournier, as well as a figure of -8.3 when Gordon is switched in (34 total minutes across 8 games). When Aminu went down with injury, some of his minutes were absorbed by Wes Iwundu, and that collection of players posted a net rating of -6.5 in the almost 8 minutes they averaged together across 5 games. These are all tough figures for a team to overcome.
To lay all of the problems on the minutes being played by the bench would be somewhat disingenuous. It also wouldn’t align perfectly with what the eye test suggests. Augustin has been great recently, Ross’ shooting has started to climb back up towards last season’s figures, and Bamba has demonstrated some meaningful development. Aminu might be a clunky fit at times in Orlando, but he’s a veteran with a track record of contributing to success; you’d bet on him to turn it around. The starters also haven’t been flawless; both Vucevic and Gordon have been noticeably down on last season’s contributions.
So why do the numbers look the way they do?
Remember, Orlando’s starters were really good last season, while also enjoying a superbly clean bill of health. Even though it doesn’t yet seem that they’re firing on all cylinders -- with only Fournier and Fultz really meeting or exceeding expectations -- they’re still an effective and proven unit when healthy. By comparison, the bench was cataclysmically bad for a large stretch of 2018/19, so even though it seems apparent that they’re doing better, there’s still some ground to make up. There are also a number of other influencing factors one might identify: a general lack of respected shooters; injuries; Augustin not vibing with Bamba like he does Vooch; a tough schedule (eighth hardest to date); positional glut. The Magic’s roster has long felt like a Rubik’s Cube, and it’s Clifford’s job to puzzle out the minutes solution.
Before moving on it’s also worth considering one other factor that impacted Orlando’s minutes distribution at the top-end: the decision to run a 10-man rotation in the season’s early going. This was a pretty consistent feature of the first ten games, and something that only really changed once the injury bug hit. With the team getting healthier recently, a more definitive nine-man rotation has emerged, and each of the major players have seen a slight uptick in their court time. However, this has also coincided with a tougher stretch of the schedule, which means it hasn’t immediately resulted in more wins. Still, although the final result might often be eluding the team, there have definitely been some positives: games that were tight late against conference powerhouses in LA and Milwaukee, along with tough decisions in Utah and Denver.
Let’s bring things back to the question we initially asked: could the Magic be allocating minutes in a more advantageous manner? Probably. Players like Isaac (30.4 minutes) and Fultz (26.0 minutes) definitely feel like they should be seeing more playing time, while Fournier has already proven that he can maintain a high level of output when the team leans on him more heavily. Conversely Aminu, Ross and Bamba all seem to have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt in terms of the production to playing time ratio.
However, it’s easier to look at a set of numbers and make definitive calls about what should happen than it is to have to implement them in a real game situation. Clifford might be slow to make changes to his rotations and lineups, but he’s also already proven that he’s not totally unwilling to do so should the circumstances necessitate it. He made the call on Fultz earlier than anyone could have predicted. He sat Aminu in an unfriendly matchup. He had Khem Birch leapfrog Bamba when Vucevic went down. He carved out a consistent role for Michael Carter-Williams. He’s occasionally found successful lineups that seem like they’re the product of a fever dream (more on this in Part II). Despite his reputation of inflexibility he’s shown the capacity to at least bend a little.
This is where we’ll be bringing Part One to a close, but be sure to come back for the second and final installment. With the minutes breakdown and five-man lineup data crunched, we’ll be turning our attention to some specific combinations and decisions, as well as a close reading of a recent sequence of play. We’ll see you back here for it then.