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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Battle of the bigs

The Magic are on the clock when it comes to the long-term future of their fourth-year centers

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

With opening night just around the corner, the time has come to start unpacking some of the stories that figure to emerge over the course of the next 82 games. Even with a team ceiling that figures to be tremendously short of the playoff picture, there are still a number of things that Magic fans should be keeping a close eye on as the rebuild gets underway in earnest. Let’s continue that process today with a look at the battle of the bigs in the middle of Orlando’s rotation and rebuild.

Twin towers

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Taken with back-to-back picks in the 2018 draft and now competing with each other on a nightly basis for playing time, the respective career trajectories of Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. are becoming further entwined as the years roll on. Neither has yet established themselves as a bonafide starter-level talent in the league, a fact of particular significance to the Magic because both are now in the final year of their rookie deals and therefore on the cusp of their second major payday. Considering the cumulative cost it’s unlikely that the team could or would even want to keep both, but who is the right pick? And what does that mean for this coming season?

At this stage of their careers the box score figures seem to suggest a relatively one-sided contest. Carter Jr. has the superior per-game averages, with 11.0 points on 50.6% shooting from the field to go along with 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists and a combined 1.7 stocks (steals and blocks). He’s a 74.9% free-throw shooter on a handful of attempts each night, and he does a decent job of both protecting the ball (1.5 turnover) and staying on the court (3.3 fouls).

By comparison, Bamba’s resume is a significantly leaner one. The Magic’s lottery pick has racked up just 6.4 points on 47.1% shooting for his career, with 5.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 1.6 stocks rounding out his contributions. He doesn’t really get to the line (1.1 attempts per night) because of his increased work rate on the perimeter (a .355 three-point attempt rate), although his turnover and foul frequencies have been relatively similar to his counterpart’s.

Of course, the raw per-game averages don’t tell enough of the story. WCJ has started in almost every game of his professional career, while Bamba has been entrenched further down the rotation playing behind All-Star teammates and dependable veterans. Opportunity has more consistently been there for Carter Jr, specifically to the tune of 11.2 extra minutes each contest (26.5 against 15.3).

What if that opportunity were more balanced? Well, turning the battle into one played out in batches of 100 possessions reveals an interesting dynamic. Looking just at their pinstriped 2020/21 campaigns, all of a sudden it’s Bamba who emerges as the more productive big man.

Bamba 24.6 17.8 2.3 3.9 0.9 2.4 5.8 111 109
Carter Jr. 21.5 16.1 2.9 1.5 1.4 2.4 4.2 112 112

Although the numbers aren’t vastly superior, it’s difficult to argue against Big Mo being the more impressive contributor by this measure. The points and rebounds are obviously a nice advantage, but it’s the added defensive disruption that really stands out; Bamba has always had a prodigious block rate, and it’s something that clearly separates him here from Carter Jr. The totality of these possession-based figures, along with the slight nudge in net rating, also goes a long way towards explaining why basically all of the advanced metrics — PER, VORP, win shares per-48 and box plus/minus — all uniformly favor Bamba. WCJ may have the more impressive statistical totals, but Bamba has arrived at his more rapidly.

Again, however, further context is probably needed. It would be remiss to not point out that as a consistent starter Carter Jr. has frequently been going against a higher quality of direct opponent. In contrast, Bamba has played almost exclusively with bench units, matching up largely against reserves in the minutes he’s seen. This is simply another variable that makes a direct comparison of the numbers more complex than it may appear at first blush.

What do they offer on offense?

Houston Rockets v Orlando Magic Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

On offense, the pair of young centers play pretty contrasting styles of basketball. Carter Jr. is much more of a traditional big man, significantly more comfortable setting screens and rolling to the rim or receiving the ball on a back-to-the-basket post-up. Bamba, by comparison, loves to trail into three point opportunities or pop after setting a pick to open up the deep ball. There’s value in having a big man who can stretch all the way to the perimeter, as there is a dominant inside presence who can bend an opposing defense by commanding a double team. Orlando’s twin towers offer a glimpse into both worlds.

The quickest point of comparison comes in relation to the three ball, simply because it isn’t a meaningful part of Carter Jr.’s arsenal. Bamba was certainly below league average efficiency with his 32.2% from deep last season, as he has been for all of his career (32.5%). However, the fact that almost 2 out of every 5 attempts launched across 2020/21 were from beyond the arc shows how big a part of his basketball DNA the shot is; he’s a confident shooter with a smooth action who is deliberately seeking out such attempts. Carter Jr’s 24.1% on a .096 attempt rate is negligible by comparison.

If the three ball is Bamba’s edge, what about other shot types central to a center’s diet? A closer look at possessions of both the pick-and-roll and post-up variety — long the bread and butter of big man offense — reveals further grounds for debate when comparing the duo. Both play the role of the screener with relative frequency, with 29.9% of WCJ’s and 27.0% of Bamba’s possessions ending in this manner. Interestingly they also shoot with similar accuracy out of such situations, converting at 43.8% and 41.1%, respectively.

The difference, however, can be seen in the point value extracted from these opportunities. Because of Bamba’s penchant for popping to the perimeter, in 2020/21 his expected points per possession in these circumstances rose to 1.08, well above the 0.91 posted by Carter Jr. With a lower frequency of turnovers (2.0% against 3.8%) and a slightly higher free throw rate — 9.1% compared to WCJ’s 8.9%, despite the love of the contact-adverse three-ball — the Magic lottery pick finished the season as a more fruitful screening option, encapsulated by the effective field goal percentage advantage he enjoyed of almost 8 percentage points (52.8% to 45.2%).

Now, it’s worth noting that neither Bamba nor Carter Jr. were the type of roll men worth writing home about. Both racked up performance results that were disappointing relative to their peers, with Bamba placing in the 43rd percentile and WCJ just the 18th. Both were more efficient in this regard as rookies, but last year’s figures form part of what is now a two-year trend. Both have physical traits suited to pick setting, but neither has distinguished themselves as a particularly adept finisher in this set up.

A less significant part of the offense, but something worth considering nonetheless, is the respective post-up performances of the pair. Both were legitimately terrible last season in these back-to-the-basket moments, finishing lower than the 15th percentile relative to their peers. Surprisingly, however, it was Bamba who again posted the slightly more efficient numbers, outpacing his teammate in points per post-up possession by a margin of 0.70 to 0.59, a result of his superior field goal percentage in such circumstances (38.9% compared to 23.8%). Carter Jr. was more likely to draw a shooting foul from the post (18.8% to 13.0%), but he was also almost twice as likely to cough up possession (15.6% against 8.7%). Therein lies the difference.

It’s a tough look for WCJ considering he shows some proclivity for this shot type. He’s twice as likely as Bamba to set up shop down low, a problem considering that he simply wasn’t any good when doing so in Orlando. Admittedly, the final part of that statement is a factor also worth considering: Carter Jr. certainly flashed more in the same role at his previous stop, so how much is the construction of his current team hindering his chances in the post? Even as an increasingly small part of play from the center position in the modern NBA, it’s an area where the Magic don’t figure to extract much value.

All that’s been outlined here is still only a small part of the jigsaw puzzle that demonstrates offensive contributions. We haven’t really dug into the data of screen assists or secondary playmaking, let alone different five-man units or even the (admittedly wild) possibility of the pair playing alongside each other. That being said, there’s enough to draw some conclusions about the value of putting the ball in their respective hands, and it appears to be a ledger tilting decidedly in Bamba’s favor despite his limited opportunities.

What can they do on defense?

Orlando Magic v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Defensive contributions are always a tougher beast to take stock of, simply because of the difficulty in untangling the individual from the collective. Still, there are some ways that we can assess the relative impact of the duo.

Bamba is a much more disruptive figure on defense, the result of his long limbs and the escalated block rate that go along with them. He’s never swatted less than 7.0% of all shot attempts conceded since he arrived in the league, settling in at a rate of 7.3% last season. Carter Jr., by comparison, landed at just 2.8% in his time in pinstripes. The pair share similar steal rates with both hovering around the 1.0% mark, although WCJ’s hands do slightly more work down at waist height. They’re also comparable defensive rebounders to this point of their careers, with Bamba’s extra length helping him to clean up a stronger 28.0% of all missed shots at that end in 2020/21 (compared to Carter Jr’s Orlando mark of 24.1%). Neither even come close to approaching Vooch level, but it’s undoubtedly another area in which Bamba is beginning to establish a clear edge.

The advanced metrics also tilt in big Mo’s favor, with a noticeable advantage in defensive box plus/minus and the rate at which he notches defensive win shares; Bamba has accumulated 4.2 defensive win shares since entering the league, just 0.3 behind Carter Jr.’s total despite playing over 1000 fewer minutes. In their short shared time as members of the Magic the defensive rating numbers also leaned Bamba’s way by the equivalent of about a bucket per game.

However, there were some measures by which Carter Jr. appeared to be the more impactful deterrent. When defending the pick and roll he surrendered just 1.0 points per possession, a mark that placed him marginally on the good side of league average. Bamba, by comparison, allowed 1.10 points to his direct opponent in such matchups. The difference when guarding the post was even more pronounced, with Bamba ceding a very ordinary 1.09 points per opportunity compared to WCJ’s significantly sturdier 0.85.

The discrepancy in the stoutness of the individual figures also extends to the general field goal percentage given up by each player. Within five feet of the rim Bamba’s direct opponent shot 63.0% from the field, a markedly higher rate than the 58.2% that Carter Jr. conceded. They’re numbers that can sometimes be noisy, but the overall difference in expected percentage points also skewed WCJ’s way; his matchup was -4.3% worse from the field than expected, compared to the 0.4% positive nudge that Bamba’s man converted at. Of the pair, it was Carter Jr. that enjoyed more success in 2020/21 in forcing a miss.

The wingspan to spare and aesthetically impressive blocks would seem to paint Bamba as the more impressive defensive presence. However, a chunk of the underlying data — not to mention the ability to stay in the good graces of the coaching staff and the floor — suggest that it’s actually Carter Jr. with more to offer at this end.

What does it all mean?

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the Magic, the mixed bag nature of these numbers means that there isn’t yet a clear answer for their center spot conundrum. There’s a way to make the case for both bigs, but the team will be hoping that one establishes themselves as the inarguably better choice, lest the salary cap become clogged with a pair of chunky extensions and no guaranteed difference maker.

In comparatively limited minutes Bamba has shown the capacity to rack up the more impressive offensive numbers, along with heightened individual defensive stats. However, what he hasn’t yet demonstrated is the ability to earn the trust of the coaching staff, a fact seemingly the result of a tendency to drift from the game plan on D and the persistent questions about his possession-to-possession motor.

Carter Jr. came to the Magic and immediately made a positive impression, albeit in games that featured little in way of meaningful basketball. It’s also worth noting that he had basically played his way out of his previous team’s future, who saw enough despite the individual numbers to feel confident that he wasn’t their long-term answer. Still, there are some underlying elements to his game that bode well when compared to Bamba, particularly if he could be secured at a reasonable dollar value moving forward.

It will be interesting to see how the battle of the fourth year bigs plays out in Orlando this season. The Magic will desperately be hoping that one of the pair really takes off, proving themselves an impactful fit alongside the perceived pillars of Isaac and Suggs.

Whether Bamba or Carter Jr. fits the bill as a legitimate franchise cornerstone, however, currently remains a mystery.