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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Depth chart difficulties

Dissecting the Magic’s positional depth reveals some potential headaches for the season to come

Orlando Magic v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ethan Miller/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 keep that process rolling today with a look at the surprisingly crowded nature of Orlando’s depth chart.

A roster rundown

Houston Rockets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

A common joke about the Magic’s roster in recent seasons has been to liken it to a Rubik’s Cube, a series of interlocking components that seem like they could fit together but that ultimately frustrate when attempting to do just so. This was more a result of competing timelines than any sort of major roster imbalance, as the team actually boasted relatively traditional positional depth from year to year. This coming season, however … well, it’s fair to say that things look a little more out of whack.

Fultz Harris F. Wagner Isaac Carter Jr.
Suggs Ross Okeke Bamba
Anthony Hampton Lopez
Carter-Williams Moore M. Wagner

As you can see, going just by positions of preference the Magic are overloaded in the backcourt and at the five. Almost every slot in the lineup features multiple players jostling for major minutes, except of course at small forward which is almost entirely bereft of reliable talent. Obviously, it’s safe to say that Orlando won’t be asking Franz Wagner to play every minute of every game in his rookie season, nor will they be carving up just 48 total minutes for the point guard quartet. Instead, what should be readily apparent is that the Magic have some positional adjustments to make, which could result in a deployment that looks a little more like the following.

Fultz Suggs Harris Isaac Carter Jr.
Anthony Hampton Ross Okeke Bamba
Carter-Williams Moore F. Wagner M. Wagner Lopez

There’s plenty about this arrangement that isn’t perfect, but it feels like a guess that captures the spirit of what the franchise will want to achieve this coming season (acknowledging, of course, that full health so rarely manifests — but let’s dream). Isaac and Fultz will eventually be asked to step into a role commensurate with their respective contract statuses, with the hope being that Suggs can establish a harmonious fit early-on as a backcourt partner. Harris and Ross will both undoubtedly play, firstly as a means of providing a veteran presence for the youth and secondly in a bid to improve their potential trade value; you have to imagine that at least one of them starts as well, which is where the hole at the three could be addressed. WCJ and Bamba will share opportunities at center, while Anthony, Hampton and Okeke all figure to receive regular minutes in primarily reserve roles. Elsewhere, Lopez, the elder Wagner, Moore and likely MCW round out proceedings as ‘break in case of emergency’ players.

Despite seemingly being able to justify each selection, arriving at these traditional positional designations does require some hoops to be jumped through. It’s depth at the cost of optimal deployment, with some players being shuffled to new locations to accommodate the limitations of others. Basketball positions have become a type of shorthand to explain typical on-court roles, and in this regard the Magic’s chart is an initially jarring one to consider. However, in light of the ever-changing NBA landscape, what if we applied some altered titles to the envisioned rotation?

Ball handler Combo guard Shoot 3PTs from
above the break,
occasionally dribble,
defend wings
Shoot 3PTs from
below the break,
cut, defend bigger
wings and forwards
Fultz Suggs Harris Isaac Carter Jr.
Anthony Hampton Ross Okeke Bamba
Carter-Williams Moore F. Wagner M. Wagner Lopez

The places and faces remain the same, but it begins to feel a little easier to understand how they might coalesce. Orlando will obviously and necessarily be leaning into some three-guard lineups over the next 82 games, a virtue of the back-court heavy roster but one that also has the potential to maximize shooting and playmaking to some degree. Going small with this crew brings with it the potential to be shredded on defense, but considering how pronounced the offensive struggles figure to be (more on that later!) it might be a necessary evil.

There’s also flexibility to the whole endeavor. With decent shooting from above the break and some juice working off the bounce, Okeke has demonstrated a capacity to toggle between the two forward slots; as such, it’s reasonable to expect he’ll see stretches next to JI that push him exclusively to the wing. Offseason reports have Hampton adding multiple inches to his frame, a development that has the potential to see him emerge as more of a 2/3 hybrid than his current combo guard designation. The rookie Wagner was pegged exclusively as a wing before a growth spurt of his own brought the power forward slot into play. And if we’re dreaming big, it’s not a stretch to eventually envision a world in which Isaac, fully healthy and firing on all cylinders, mans the five for bursts in hyper-quick, adaptable lineups.

These proposed answers obviously aren’t infallible — but neither is the Magic’s roster construction. Even accounting for the fact that this is an extremely young rebuilding team — third youngest in the league! — there’s some unenviable positional overlap and redundancy that threatens to knot the side’s rotation. Whether it can be successfully untied remains to be seen.

Returns of the returning

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

In projecting the coming season it makes sense to look to the elements of continuity that can be found in Orlando. Of the fifteen players the Magic have on the main roster coming into training camp, nine of them played together for at least some stretch of time last year post-trade deadline. One would think that this means some meaningful data exists regarding the effectiveness of specific lineups, but it’s the lack of clear evidence that is perhaps the most immediately striking takeaway.

There are a number of reasons for this. It was a stretch of just 28 games, a relatively small sample size invariably subject to the noise of statistical variance. Injuries were a constant source of interruption throughout the season, a fact which continued in the back half. It was also a period of time during which the team was more interested in lottery positioning than actually winning basketball games, a circumstance that brought with it all manner of lineup interruptions.

Surprisingly, the most shared court time of any five-man configuration from the nine returning players was just 16 minutes, a total logged by the combination of Anthony, Hampton, Ross, Okeke and Bamba. Unfortunately, in that time together they established a net rating of -40.8, a result born of a 152.9 defensive rating that was the single worst mark of any five-man unit that racked up at least 10 minutes across the season’s final months.

Other lineups didn’t fare much better. Replace Okeke with Harris and you had a small ball quintet that couldn’t score (87.1 offensive rating) and settled at a net rating of -39.6 in 14 shared minutes. Going bigger with Moe Wagner and Carter Jr. alongside Anthony, Hampton and Harris generated a side that was a cumulative -26.0 in their 15 collective minutes of court time. Amongst all returning players, that’s the complete list of five-man units that played at least 7 minutes together down the stretch in 2020/21.

It’s a pretty mind-boggling collection of numbers for a team that is actually returning 60% of the roster that was active towards the end of the last campaign. More than anything, however, it’s testament to how bad the Magic were to close last season, as well as just how much court time Dwayne Bacon and Chasson Randle saw.

Admittedly, the five-man units aren’t the greatest data set to be poring over. There’s honestly just not that much to go on because of the limited interactions, with the only real conclusion to be drawn being that the Magic got their butts kicked often and forcefully at the end of last season. Drilling down instead into three-man lineups offers a little more.

Using 96 minutes as the cut-off figure — two complete games or, more accurately, data drawn from a more significant number of contests and regular rotations — reveals nine trios that will again be donning the pinstripes.

Anthony, Hampton, Bamba 110 121.4 125.1 -3.7 59.9 102.58
Harris, Okeke, Carter Jr. 135 97.9 107.2 -9.3 53.2 100.06
Anthony, Harris, Okeke 140 98.3 108.1 -9.8 51.0 101.39
Anthony, Okeke, Carter Jr. 113 95.8 107.9 -12.2 51.2 101.10
Anthony, Harris, Carter Jr. 249 97.7 114.1 -16.5 51.0 98.58
Anthony, Harris, Bamba 139 98.0 120.5 -22.5 47.9 104.65
Anthony, M. Wagner, Carter Jr. 117 94.2 118.9 -24.6 48.8 99.68
Anthony, Harris, M. Wagner 159 95.3 124.6 -29.3 49.7 101.62
Harris, M. Wagner, Carter Jr. 100 92.3 122.3 -30.1 47.8 98.77

When laid out like this the numbers make for some pretty sobering reading. The returning core of the post-deadline Magic didn’t enjoy much success regardless of the configuration of trios, with Anthony, Hampton and Bamba sporting the closest thing to a winning combination with their -3.7 net rating. After that the drop-off is rapid and alarming all the way to the bottom, ultimately sinking to the putrid triumvirate of Harris, Wagner and one of either Anthony or WCJ.

What stands out is how dire the offense was in basically every situation. The defense was usually pretty good when the team trotted out either Carter Jr, Okeke, or both, but the scoring capability of the team was just so far off the pace that it didn’t really make a lick of difference. In fact, outside of the 121.4 offensive rating put up by the combination of Anthony, Hampton and Bamba — a figure that was some magnitude above even the absurd 117.3 that the otherworldly Nets posted on the season — every other three-man unit contributed to a pace that was more than 4 points worse than OKC’s last-placed offensive futility (an offensive rating of 102.8 on the season). Down the stretch the Magic were significantly worse even than a team that had basically given up trying to win games as far back as February.

What does it all mean?

Chicago Bulls v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Honestly, the answer to the question of what all this means for the Magic in 2021/22 might simply be ‘not much’. Orlando was a bad team last season for a number of different reasons: inexperience, injury, disruption, uncertainty, and the fact that post-deadline there was a significant disincentive to win. It’s almost certain that the side will continue to be similarly ineffective this coming year, particularly with the future of the franchise now lying in the hands of a very young ball handler.

It’s a tough mix of circumstances, and certainly not a situation that any specific combination of players promises to ascend beyond. Some lineups will invariably do better than others, of course; such is the nature of professional sports. The returns of Isaac and Fultz promise to help, and some improvement is to be expected of the second-year players, in particular. But the Magic are going to be outgunned in all manner of ways almost every night, with measures of success determined less by winning games and more by the identification of line ups that can go close to at least treading water.

The intention here isn’t to be overly grim in an assessment of the roster, but instead realistic. Once the Magic pivoted hard into their latest rebuild, the team’s play expectedly plummeted, and this offseason delivered little to suggest that the team will turn the corner into winning basketball any time soon. That’s simply not the expectation for a young team that will take it’s time over the next couple of seasons as the decision makers continue to refine the current roster via development, evaluation, and the addition of more high-level lottery talent to come.

Still, the relative continuity of the side that finished last season and that is now starting this one does provide some insight into Orlando’s 2021/22 on-court product. Unfortunately, the numbers suggest a rough outlook. For fans of the Magic, they’ll be hoping that the team’s lineups and rotations begin to come together in a way that provides at least slightly more promise than pain.