Mo Bamba spent years playing backup center as Nikola Vucevic unexpectedly emerged into an All-Star.
When Vooch was somewhat unexpectedly traded, the Magic acquired another young center who Bamba will now have to compete with for playing time.
It was the newly-acquired Wendell Carter Jr. who was on the court during crunch time during the Magic’s 96-93 loss to the Lakers on Sunday, despite what had been a decent-enough performance from Bamba, at least in the eyes of some and also in the box score. Steve Clifford evaluates and prioritizes it differently, as he should, and that clearly will continue during what Bamba himself described as “more of a learning environment” within the organization following the trades.
“I’m not gonna come up here and make stuff up,” Clifford told reporters about the Magic’s performance after Sunday’s game. “We played hard, we didn’t play smart. We made a ton of mistakes and it’s hard to win on the road doing that. One thing we’re gonna do all the way through this now, we’re not going to make stuff up, that’s what bad franchises do, especially at the end of the year. We’re not doing that. Guys played good, I’ll say they played good. Guys are learning, it wasn’t that great.”
Tough love can be a good thing for a young, developing team like the Magic. Clifford is going to have a challenging juggling act over the final 26 games of the season, and of all the balls in the air, the most intriguing one will be how he balances the playing time of Carter, Bamba, and to a lesser degree, Khem Birch (a free-agent-to-be currently holding down a starting job that will probably soon belong to Carter).
The 21-year-old Carter is the more polished player than the 22-year-old Bamba at this stage, perhaps in all areas other than three-point shooting and shot blocking. Bamba has struggled with team defense, and Clifford doesn’t tolerate players being out of position or committing unnecessary fouls. That’s probably the reason that Clifford elected to play Carter down the stretch (and more minutes overall) than Bamba in what was Carter’s first game with the team (unless Bamba is still on a minutes restriction of some kind).
“Cliff doesn’t play mistake guys,” Bamba told reporters after practice on Monday. “He’s going to hold you accountable for being in the right spots, being in the right spot at the right time. We’re not really using this trade or this new look that we’re going with as an excuse to not win. We want to go out there and be competitive to the very end while also getting better.”
Bamba was asked what kind of opportunity the trades have created for him.
“There’s the elephant in the room,” Bamba said. “Playing behind an All-Star in Vooch, your minutes are limited. Now I think I get an opportunity to go out there, and not necessarily improve, but just go out there and just grow and get well acclimated with just how the game goes.”
That was my issues with Bamba not closing the game on Sunday, a night when he played well enough to earn the opportunity, and when Carter had little to no time to even glance at the playbook. The best way for Bamba to “grow and get well acclimated” is to be on the court, even if that means learning the hard way while making mistakes and being pushed around a little and playing through the challenges of development in the NBA.
Bamba sitting on the bench watching the new guy play over him on Day 1 seems more counterproductive to Bamba’s development than him potentially making a poor rotation or costly foul late in the fourth would have been. The watch-and-learn strategy with Bamba on the bench hasn’t worked out so well to this point. It’s time for some hands-on experience, particularly during meaningful stretches of the game.
There was no better time to do that than on Sunday night. It’s now on Clifford to find those minutes for both Carter and Bamba as the Magic find out which will be the center to invest in down the line. Doing so could include some big lineups with Carter at the four and Bamba at the five as experimentation begins with this young Magic team.
“We have a lot of guys who are younger than me,” Bamba said. “I’m not the youngest dude in the locker room anymore, I’m probably in like the middle of the pack now at 22, which is crazy. But gaining a guy like Otto and gaining a guy like Wendell, we still have that size at the 4, 3 and 5. And it should be really interesting to see. I’m eager to get out there and play alongside of Wendell.”
Bamba said he first met Carter when the two were teammates at a Jim Couch basketball event as kids.
“Wendell was the same exact size he is now,” Bamba said with a laugh. “At age 14. But that was the first time I played with him, I think we were on the same team. And then we’ve just been with each other throughout the whole entire high school process. We both had Duke in our final two or three schools. Decided to go to Texas but we’ve known each other for a very long time. We’ve played against and with each other. And I think this is going to be a very good thing for our organization.”
It certainly will be if one of them emerges as the Orlando Magic’s starting center of the future. Because even after trading their franchise center, the Magic somehow still have a logjam at the position, one that will be easier to sort out next season when Birch has presumably moved on. So we’ll see how Clifford manages their playing time on Tuesday against the Clippers and balances development while remaining committed to giving the team their best chance to win.
“We want to win and we want to get better,” Bamba said. “Its a different kind of environment because it’s more of a learning environment. But Cliff is big on, he’s still big on what he’s always been preaching, and I think that’s going to help us elevate to get to where we all want to go.”