The point guard and power forward slots have combined to cause major headaches for Orlando this season.
Various injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Chuma Okeke pushed the Magic’s depth at power forward to a breaking point, while the decimation of the point guard slot served to turn the relative dependability of AG at the four into an unenviable experiment at the one. However, it’s the unfortunate mixing of the two issues that has been the most devastating factor, a calamitous cocktail of forced adjustments that thoroughly derailed what was already a tenuously positioned season for the Magic.
Some time has already been spent unpacking the unfortunate reality of Gordon’s time quarterbacking the team, a position for which he was ultimately unqualified despite the best of intentions and solid effort. But the other piece of the nightmarish puzzle is the effect that his absence from the power forward slot has had on the team. With the injury ward overstocked with forwards the Magic have really only explored two avenues to address the issue: giving Gary Clark major minutes and dusting off the ol’ Khem Birch + Nikola Vucevic combo. Neither has panned out.
Let’s start with the twin towers configuration. Vucevic and Birch have shared the court for a decent amount of time this season, including three separate lineups that have played at least twenty minutes of basketball together. Each of these units are offenders. Putting the pair of bigs on the court alongside Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross and Dwayne Bacon has produced the team’s most putrid combination that has seen extended minutes, with the unit combining for a net rating of -65.7 across 50 minutes of basketball. That’s right, the Magic have spent the equivalent of an entire game of basketball (in a shortened season!) trotting out a five-man lineup that has trouble generating one bucket for every two the opposition accumulates.
Switch out Bacon for Evan Fournier and things improve … somewhat. Although demonstrably better this combination still clocks in with a net rating of -18.7, the result of a defense that remains porous (122.0) and an offense that can’t keep up (103.3). In fairness to the pair, they do contribute to one positive lineup — a grouping with Fournier, Anthony and James Ennis that has posted a net rating of 5.8 across 33 minutes — but it’s courtesy of an incredibly stingy defensive rating that likely becomes less tenable the more it’s leaned on. If that regresses the unit’s wonky offense (a below average 101.5) is exposed.
The toxicity of mixing centers is also evident in a grouping with Ross, Bacon and Okeke. This is a unit that has only recently passed the 20-minute plateau together, a result of injuries and limited options. Still, in their 21 minutes of shared court time they’ve arrived at a net rating of -27.3, again primarily on the back of a defensive effort that can only be described as comical (140.9).
Birch is all effort at the defensive end, but asking him to chase fours on the perimeter while Vooch mans the middle is guaranteed to eventually end in calamity. It might not be quite as pronounced as it was at times last year, when some opponents singularly attacked this mismatch until Head coach Steve Clifford was forced to cut bait, but it’s nonetheless a disadvantage the Magic cannot afford. The offensive limitations are perhaps even more obvious, with Birch unable to drag opponents away from the paint and therefore limiting Vucevic’s ability to work closer to the basket. Simply, he’s also another non-shooter on a team filled with them. His best work is in spot minutes as the backup five.
Long story short? Turns out that an All-Star calibre center and his hardworking back up just can’t cut it in the modern NBA when asked to share the court in concert.
… Clark and a hard place
With an out-of-position Birch not the answer, the Magic have been forced to look further down the rotation for a solution. Clark has emerged as a figure of immediate ire since his recent promotion to the starting five, and it’s easy to understand why. On the season he’s averaging just 3.2 points on 28.7% shooting and 25.0% from deep, along with 3.5 rebounds and basically no other meaningful stats in 21 minutes per game. This is already a very low baseline for success but he’s somehow been worse as a starter, putting up an eerily similar looking 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds on 29.1% shooting despite the increased minutes and opportunities.
Lest you think that’s where the rot ends, check these figures out: 2.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, 20.8% from the field, 19.0% from deep. That’s what Clark’s got to show for the last seven contests, a collection of starts in which he’s seen at least 15 minutes of court time each night. He’s a one dimensional player wholly reliant on his outside shooting, but who has presented recently as an inaccurate and at times even unwilling shooter. When the offense-starved Magic are seeing Clark pass up wide-open triples, only to have the possession end with a shot-clock violation, you know things have gotten bad.
Clark also features on a couple of Orlando’s worst lineups that have seen heavy play. Alongside Vucevic, Anthony, Ennis and Bacon he’s limped to a -38.5 net rating, totaling 28 minutes of ineffective and glacially paced basketball. He hasn’t been quite as bad when deployed alongside Gordon, Ross, Birch and Jordan Bone — that unit has a net rating of -21.7 — but the worry is that they’ve been entrusted with 47 minutes of court time. The Magic have had to necessarily lean on a handful of lineups featuring Clark at the four, a decision that has seen them get regularly smoked.
There’s also this configuration to consider: when you put Clark in alongside who are currently the Magic’s four most trusted — Vucevic, Gordon, Fournier and Ross — you arrive at a lineup that has combined for an unfathomable net rating of -112.6 points per-100 possessions, with a disastrous defensive rating of 148.3 and a ghastly offensive rating of 35.7. Blessedly it’s a unit that has existed for just 12 minutes, but that’s still a cumulative quarter of basketball that served as an affront to the Gods of Basketball. One might call it a basketball sinjury - offensive behaviour caused by suboptimal roster construction exposed by circumstances of bad health.
Clark is not solely to blame for the current state of Magic basketball. Injuries have gutted the roster, forcing a staggering number of depth players to take on roles for which they’re ill-equipped. Circumstances have also conspired to place players in unfamiliar positions that make for an awkward marriage of responsibility and skill set. The unfortunate reality for Clark, however, is that he’s really only being asked to live up to his reputation as an outside shooter, which is why his abject failure in this singular task is so striking. He’s a walking demonstration of the basketball equivalent of what was a timeless thought experiment: if a player clanks almost every shot they take, does the floor stretch at all? In Orlando, the answer has been proven to be a definitive no.
Still somehow just two-and-a-half games out of the eighth playoff slot (and only two games out of a play-in opportunity), the Magic will need to find a more effective adjustment at these two slots. They’re hardly the only problems plaguing the team at present, but the below replacement level production from the two positions is impossible to ignore. Despite the distant rumblings of artillery coming to life, the team still obviously plans on chasing wins as best they can for the time being.
Health is the first thing that will help. Gordon and Anthony project as shorter-term injuries, and so should be back in the weeks to come. Michael Carter-Williams has also returned, and as long as he’s able to stay on the court he is likely to steady the point guard ship. Getting two dependable guards back will allow the Magic to revert AG to the forward slot, where his playmaking is a handy bonus as opposed to a glaring deficiency. There’s also the specter of Aminu lingering, who figures to finally get back into the rotation (and stay there!) at some point soon, further reducing the need to give Clark minutes or deploy Birch out of position.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, is Okeke. The rookie is another of Orlando’s corps who has missed significant time, but in the glimpses provided already he’s looked like a genuine NBA contributor. There’s a smoothness to his offensive game that could theoretically be a boon for a team like the Magic, even accounting for the rawness evident at this early stage of his career. At just 6’6 there are some defensive concerns in certain matchups at the four (emphasised by the fits Carmelo Anthony gave the rookie recently), but he’s almost certainly already a more effective contributor to winning basketball than Clark and a more logical fit at the power forward slot than Birch.
To be clear: even if all of these players return to Orlando’s lineup and immediately start contributing at a rate in line with even their most optimistic projections, they don’t figure to vault the Magic into a state of genuine contention. There are too many limitations across the roster, general weaknesses of the modern game that shrinks the collective ceiling of the team.
However, there is a path leading to a less offensive level of play — perhaps even average! — that’s apparent should one squint hard enough. It requires the good graces of injury luck, which the team clearly hasn’t enjoyed to this point, but also a willingness to trust in the youth of Okeke and Anthony (when he returns). Clifford knows this, obviously; Clark and Birch were deployments of necessity, not preference. Still, it’s a look the team must avoid if they’re going to improve moving forward.
The point guard and power forward slots have both been major headaches for the Magic this season. That these individual pains coalesced in such a debilitating way is what was truly nightmarish about the circumstances, though. The hope is that the worst of it is now firmly in the rear view mirror.