Welcome back! In Part One we took a look at Orlando’s minutes breakdown and the five-man lineup data. Today, we’ll be digging into specific decisions and sequences of play. Let’s get started!
Coaching in the NBA is a tough gig. At any moment there are potentially thousands of competing pieces of information rattling around in one’s brain, with both micro and macro decisions of immediate and long term consequence to be made. There’s a reason that teams have a veritable swarm of assistants employed to take care of any number of different areas of the game - it’s too much to ask of a single person! Still, as a matter of routine head coaches have to make calls that will be deconstructed by an almost untold number of armchair experts. Let’s add our voices to that cacophonous chorus!
The combination of Markelle Fultz and DJ Augustin playing alongside each other is one that most probably wouldn’t have expected to see much of coming into the season. There are a number of reasons for this. Fultz is a non-shooter, so any time Augustin spends handling the rock pushes Kelle off ball and into presumed ineffectiveness. The pairing makes for a very small backcourt, one that could be taken advantage of defensively. Initially there was also the question of how much Fultz would even play this season.
Surprisingly, the Magic have performed quite well during the minutes that this duo shares the court. In the 124 minutes the pair have played together, the team has posted an offensive rating of 112.9 and a defensive rating of 103.9, good for a positive net rating a shade over 9 points per-100 possessions. This actually qualifies as the third-best net rating for any Orlando two-man lineup that has played at least 120 minute this season. It’s the team’s strongest duo according to offensive rating, effective field goal percentage (56.2 percent) and true shooting percentage (60.8 percent), while also ranking highly in other areas like assist ratio and player impact estimate. According to the numbers, the combination is working.
While it’s likely that some of this is noise in a relatively small sample size, it could also be that the basketball fit is sound. Fultz has shown a willingness to at least shoot the three, and he’s also a smart reader of off-ball opportunities. When he’s the one handling the ball, Augustin has an outside shot that must be respected and that creates space thanks to his gravity. It also partners the team’s two most dynamic dribblers and playmakers, a fact that’s bound to generate a higher quality of shot for other teammates. Whether the pairing was the result of crazed creativity or invention born of necessity, Clifford has produced an unexpectedly productive pairing. Let’s hope it holds up.
Elsewhere on the roster there’s another pairing that will likely raise familiar questions for Magic fans: Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. There have been legitimate concerns over the duo’s ability to play alongside each other for more than twelve months now, and it’s an issue worth monitoring still today. Are Orlando simply better served splitting their two young forwards up?
There are currently 41 pairs that have played at least 120 minutes together for the Magic this season. As a combination, Gordon and Isaac rank 29th. Their net rating is -3.1 points per 100 possessions; interestingly, the offense apparently chugs along okay (a rating of 104.6, good for the 20th rank among such pairs), but the defense falls all the way to being the 10th worst (giving up 107.6 points per 100 possessions). It would appear that their greatest individual strengths don’t necessarily carry over to the team performance in the minutes they share.
Despite the solid play of the starting unit (a positive net rating of 3.6), both have enjoyed greater team success when in lineups separated from the other. Isaac, when given the chance to solely fill the traditional power forward spot, is a part of two bench-heavy units that have smoked the opposition by net ratings of 27.4 and 17.6 points per 100 possessions. Likewise, Gordon sees an uptick when you replace JI with someone else, whether that’s Al-Farouq Aminu (a net rating of 17.4) or pure wings like Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams (4.3). Such numbers clearly evoke observations already made last season. Does that suggest we now have an irrefutable trend? Is it Clifford’s responsibility to recognize and adjust?
The timing of substitutions is also something worth looking at when unpacking the mix of minutes. These will inevitably crop up across the course of any team’s 82-game season, but a few coaching decisions have left Magic fans collectively scratching their heads at various points. The recent tight loss in Utah saw Orlando desperately need stops down the stretch, a job they seemingly made more difficult for themselves by benching Isaac for the game’s final 2:19. There have been times when Evan Fournier’s reinsertion -- and the offensive capability that he brings -- came with too little time on the clock to make up the deficit (like the most recent tilts against Indiana and Toronto). And what about the moments when the player developing a hot hand is pulled because of the time showing on the clock?
There is undoubtedly a rigidity to Clifford’s substitution patterns. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because it’s true of every team. But in games in which the difference is often a small handful of possessions, the ability to read and react is incredibly important. What does the side need at a given moment? What potential mismatches might be exploited? Who’s feeling it? Clifford has shown that his system can produce a certain level of results. But are there times when an adherence to this system is actually hurting the Magic’s chances?
A Mile High Moment
The recent contest against Denver provided a particularly interesting takeaway regarding the Magic rotation. The ability to shoot, particularly from the outside, is an integral part of the modern game and essentially the tenet around which current-day offenses are built. Orlando would seem to be at a disadvantage in this regard because of their relative lack of long range marksmen at certain positions; it’s undoubtedly one of the factors contributing to current lineup decisions and the staggering of minutes as Clifford searches for combinations that minimize this disadvantage. But could the same type of on-court outcome -- the generation of space and high-quality scoring chances -- be achieved in other ways?
With 7:06 to play in the quarter, Fultz and Carter-Williams checked in, joining Augustin, Isaac and Nikola Vucevic with the score sitting at 40-36 in Orlando’s favor. They spent most of the next five minutes matched up against Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig and either Paul Millsap or Jerami Grant. In the end, it was a stretch they thoroughly dominated.
The first couple of minutes didn’t really rise to any great heights, with both teams trading baskets and looking a little discombobulated at points. However, what was evident was the vigor with which Orlando were now defending, with switchability and ever-present help defense abundantly clear. It also provided the team with an offensive setup featuring multiple ball handlers and fast break initiators, despite the lack of outside shooting. It was at the 4:43 mark when Millsap took a seat and Grant entered the game that these elements then manifested as a distinct advantage.
Augustin -- who had already hit a pair of threes in the preceding minutes when shown daylight -- kicked the spurt off by driving into space and drawing contact. On the next possession Fultz dribble penetrated almost all the way to the hoop before finding Vucevic for a wide open three on the kickout after the defense collapsed. Only seconds later it was some nifty passing and screen setting involving Augustin, Fultz and Vucevic that freed the big man up for a rolling hook. Carter-Williams then made an excellent read on a cutting Murray to steal a Jokic entry pass, pushing the pace and allowing Augustin and Fultz to again combine in a beautiful passing sequence that culminated in Vooch cutting and drawing a pair of free throws. Time out Denver, advantage Orlando.
When Augustin and Carter-Williams checked back out at the 2:31 mark the Magic were in possession of a 16 point lead, up 57-41. The point guard triumvirate had spearheaded a 17-5 run, using aggressive defense to fuel transition opportunities and committing to crisp ball movement and incisive dribble penetration to generate space in the halfcourt. During the stretch they combined for 10 points, 4 assists and 2 steals, with just 1 turnover and 1 missed shot between them.
Interestingly, this lineup configuration didn’t see any extended run for the rest of the game (less than 90 seconds together). However, if it weren’t for the unconscionable 24-0 run Orlando gave up during the third quarter collapse, this sequence would be the one we’re talking about today as the game-changer. It was a smart audible by Clifford based on both the immediate matchup and individual energy and effort levels. It was also indicative of the malleability and depth of the Magic roster, demonstrating what’s possible outside of the regular rotations. On a roster with legitimate NBA depth shouldn’t this type of in-game adjustment be a little more commonplace?
Minutes, combinations, and play calling will always occupy a large part of sports-fandom discussion. The numbers and observations related to Orlando’s performance in these areas certainly generates such conversation. Steve Clifford is undoubtedly getting a lot right with this roster, but like anyone working in a professional capacity, there exists room for improvement. For the sake of the Magic’s season, let’s hope he perfects the recipe.