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Managing the depth and development of the Orlando Magic

A close examination of the crowded roster highlights the significance of player development for the Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

With only 240 total up for grabs on any given night, the allocation of minutes is a process of the utmost importance for every NBA franchise. Whatever a team’s end goal happens to be, the path to achieving it is one that is ultimately determined by the players that they put on the court. With Orlando continuing to build towards their season opener, it’s worth taking a moment to explore the circumstances of the side’s depth chart and the observations regarding development that it raises. Let’s dive in!

Minutes management

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Although somewhat rudimentary in the current day, using basketball’s traditional positional designations to map out the roster reveals just how crowded the Magic’s depth chart currently is.

Fultz Suggs F. Wagner Banchero Carter Jr.
Anthony Harris Ross Isaac Bamba
Hampton Okeke Bol M. Wagner

This collection of talent features – outside of the two rookies, of course – a whopping twelve players who accumulated at least 20 minutes of court time each night across last season (or 2019/20 in Jonathan Isaac’s case). Nine of that dozen actually landed between 25 and 32 per contest, while eight of the names started at least half (rounding up) of the games in their most recently completed campaign. Now inject into that mix a couple of new elements – the highly touted Paolo Banchero and the training camp optimism of Bol Bol – and suddenly Orlando is up to fourteen players who might reasonably expect to be rotation regulars in 2022/23. That’s … a lot.

Rotation management in the NBA is (largely) determined via meritocracy, with those whose play is most deserving eating up a justifiably larger share of the available minutes pool. That will certainly be the case in Orlando this season, particularly as the team slowly starts to meander away from the interminable rebuild and prioritize the actual winning of games. There are also other factors like injury and day-to-day unavailability to account for, circumstances which will require the team on certain occasions to dole out meaningful chunks of playing time to those who normally reside further down the depth chart. This natural attrition will, at times, effectively reduce the log jam evident in the Magic’s minutes puzzle.

Still, the distribution of playing time during any contest is ultimately a zero-sum game, with only a fixed total to be allocated across the active 15-man roster on any given night. What this means is that Orlando will be going into this coming season with a roster stuffed full of largely young-but-still-unproven talents, players who will be seeking the opportunities they need to establish themselves and secure their next pay day. It’s inevitably going to leave some expecting more in the way of minutes than can actually be carved out.

This sort of squeeze isn’t inherently a bad thing. Competition is healthy and can help to forge both meaningful development for individual players while also allowing a team’s front office to gather the knowledge needed to effectively maneuver through the travails of roster building. It’s also good to know that there is a level of experience evident at the end of the bench in anticipation of those moments when it will be called into duty.

LA Clippers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

But what happens when someone feels like they’re being forced to cede time at a preferred position to allow for the inherent clunkiness of certain lineups? What happens to the guy still on a rookie-level contract who sees their future market shrinking with every additional minute spent on the pine? What happens when the need to balance potential trade value collides with the finite opportunities of in-game development reps? Can the Magic’s coaching staff navigate these potential obstructions in a way that will keep everyone happy and humming the same tune?

Orlando’s primary problem when it comes to determining a rotation is not one of depth but instead one of aptitude. The classic conundrum of quality and quantity is at play in any evaluation of this roster, with basically all of the players falling into the category of ‘clear NBA player’ yet very few ascending to the designation of ‘clear NBA starter’. More worryingly, only a select couple appear to clearly have a best-case ceiling of ‘top 40 NBA talent’. As currently constituted, the Magic have a bunch of guys who belong somewhere on a roster, but precious few around whom a roster should revolve.

The key decision-makers in Orlando’s front office lent into this to some degree over the offseason, choosing to return still indeterminate quantities like Mo Bamba and Bol Bol and therefore deciding against adding the type of stabilizing veteran presences that teams facing similar circumstances so often do. The end result is a certain level of uncertainty, perhaps best exemplified by the preseason chatter about super-sized lineups running anywhere from two to three players out of position.

The minutes crunch in Orlando will ultimately sort itself out, not least because it simply has to – the team can’t have a sixth player on the floor or institute a fifth quarter to open up more opportunities! More realistically, once the real games tip off we’ll see players who earn a bigger role with their performance, a coaching staff incentivized to find and stick with the correct combinations, and even the unfortunate circumstance of injury take some unlucky individuals out of the equation for a stretch. Over the course of 82 games it should shed some light on exactly who will be sticking around long-term.

The Magic just need to ensure that regardless of how it all plays out, that come season’s end they’ve managed to get the mix right.

Dissecting development

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There’s another related component to this discussion, that specifically being development. The crowded nature of the Magic’s roster heading into opening night is evidence of the fact that the team has been able to stockpile plenty of intriguing pieces, even if the cream isn’t as thick as one might like. However, is Orlando a place where basketball talents achieve their full potential? Does the current minutes crunch speak more to an impressive accumulation of assets or a potential deficit in developing those same assets?

It would be pretty difficult to argue that the Magic are a franchise with a recent track record for turning young players into the absolute best versions of themselves. Sure Nikola Vucevic blossomed into an All-Star in Central Florida, and the growth of Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. over the past twelve months provides cause for optimism. But there’s a pretty long list of early-career guys who either weren’t or haven’t yet been able to align potential with performance while in pinstripes.

Victor Oladipo. Aaron Gordon. Elfrid Payton. Mario Hezonja. Jonathan Isaac. Mo Bamba. Even last year’s campaign featured a couple of development clunkers, with both Jalen Suggs and Chuma Okeke failing to meet expectations. Various reasons can be given for each of these projections coming up short, be it the derailing impact of injury or an unfortunate miscalculation in the draft process. However, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Magic contributed to these outcomes once the player was in uniform by not providing the optimum conditions for development.

Detroit Pistons v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Some of those who have moved on from the team in recent years – most notably Oladipo, who expressed a sentiment that was later supported by Channing Frye – have spoken about the fact that circumstances conspired against their growth while in Orlando. A lack of purposeful vision and direction for the team, an ill-defined role, or the absence of a culture that genuinely valued winning are views that have been shared by various players as reasons why they felt they weren’t set up to succeed as members of the Magic. Likewise, media evaluations of the franchise across the same stretch have invariably identified the Rubik’s cube-like construction of the roster — a polite way of saying that the players didn’t complement each other’s talents. It feels safe to say that a combination of ill-fitting pieces and glaring skill deficits have contributed to a playing environment that was rarely optimized for individual growth.

Talent development in the NBA is a complicated and nuanced process even at the best of times, and it’s worth noting that, outside of Oladipo, none of the players mentioned above went on to greater heights elsewhere. It’s also certainly not fair to hang the sins of past regimes on the heads of today’s pinstriped faithful. However, that a level of consternation related to both the capacity and growth of individual players on this team still exists focuses any current analysis firmly on the stewardship of the Weltman and Hammond crew. Which means it is reasonable to start wondering why a clear hierarchy hasn’t yet emerged or been established regarding the allocation of playing time.

At first blush, the crowded awkwardness of the Magic’s current roster would seem to be the type of problem that any team should welcome. How can you have too much talent?! But if one broadens the lens of evaluation it seemingly raises some concerns about either the quality of the talent being acquired or the manner in which it develops in Orlando. To ensure sustainable success a team must first do what is needed to get the right guys in the door. Once that’s achieved, they must then ensure that any potential is realized.

Only once the Magic are able to achieve both of those outcomes will the tangle of minutes unknot itself.

Some tough decisions will need to be made in Central Florida over the next twelve months. On the surface level this will play out in the allocation of on-court minutes, opportunities and responsibilities, circumstances which the front office must use to figure out which empty calories can be erased from the depth chart. In doing so, it’s essential that the process also establish some level of hierarchy across the remaining roster; the Magic need to figure out who fits the mold as a foundational piece, and then ensure that in every instance their decision-making supports and accentuates the continued growth of this identified talent.

The team simply has to get this next developmental step right, otherwise the current difficulties of the depth chart will continue unabated as the rebuild rolls ever on.