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The Orlando Magic’s starting lineup is a typical blend of NBA player archetypes. Scorers, defenders, veterans, youngsters, and leaders — this is a group that makes utmost basketball sense on paper, especially considering the litany of options Jacque Vaughn has at his disposal coming off the bench.
Any critique of the Magic this season necessitates contextualizing the discussion. Orlando has bigger long-term hopes in mind than an immediate and major uptick in wins, and that merits a discerning eye on all organizational decisions.
For the sake of this argument, though, assume Vaughn and the Magic higher-ups are putting the team’s optimum players on the floor to achieve night-to-night success. For or better or worse, the nature of Orlando’s starting lineup suggests that naive optimism anyway.
The Magic ride their starters more than the league’s majority of teams. The five-man unit of Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless, Jason Maxiell, and Nikola Vucevic has played 138 minutes this season, good for 12th-most among any quintet in the NBA.
What better puts this group’s court-hogging in perspective, though, is how its time on the floor relates to different Orlando units. Other than Vaughn’s starters, no other Magic lineup has played more than 20 minutes this season. Simple math helps articulate that incredibly wide disparity: Nelson-Afflalo-Harkless-Maxiell-Vucevic has been on the floor nearly seven times as often as Orlando’s next most frequently used unit.
Some of that is inevitable. Starters will notch at least some court time every game. Indeed, that group is the only one that’s been utilized in all but one game so far (the lone exception being Wednesday’s game against the Miami Heat).
But that caveat only accounts for a small portion of this lineup’s gross misuse, and this is without considering just how terribly it’s performed in all of that court time.
The Magic have a -2.0 efficiency differential, which ranks 18th overall in the NBA. That data hardly makes them world-beaters, but is a more-than-respectable set of numbers, given the team’s expectations heading into this season. The respective offensive and defensive rankings in the league hierarchy confirm that sentiment: Orlando ranks 21st in offense and 12th in defense. Not too shabby.
What makes the Magic’s mediocrity more impressive than the numbers suggest is how they’ve accomplished it. The aforementioned starting lineup has logged 25.8 percent of the team’s overall minutes. You’d assume such a ratio would come with top effectiveness. Instead, Nelson-Afflalo-Harkless-Maxiell-Vucevic is holding Orlando back.
There’s no sugarcoating that the unit is getting outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s bad no matter how you slice it. Of the 15 league-wide quintets that have played at least 100 minutes this season, Orlando’s ranks dead-last. Vaughn’s preferred lineup is the most ineffective oft-used group in the NBA. Again, though, we need to dig a bit deeper to understand this lineup’s full ineptitude.
A group consisting of individual defenders like Afflalo, Harkless, and Maxiell figures to be this team’s best defensively. In the past, Vaughn has lauded Maxiell’s impact on that end of the floor in particular. Given that assumption and knowing what we do about this lineup’s overall impact, their struggles must be on offense, right? Wrong.
The Magic starters have a lowly 111.8 Defensive Rating, a mark that is the third-worst among Orlando units that have played at least 10 minutes. That number pales in comparison to the Magic’s overall 101.6 Defensive Rating, which makes the defensive impact of the alternate quintets much more impressive. If the starters played just a couple minutes fewer per game, it’s fair to say that Orlando would rank among the league’s top five defensive teams.
Some in the basketball world are still averse to advanced statistics, and would thus balk at this negativity. But worry not, for there’s simple data indicating this lineup’s incompetence, too. Consider: this team has been outscored overall by 14.1 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter this season. And guess which unit has played 68 of a possible 132 first quarter minutes? You guessed it: Nelson-Afflalo-Harkless-Maxiell-Vucevic, the Magic’s starters.
Though this overwhelming negativity regarding Orlando’s most-used lineup leads to head shakes and bad tastes, the big picture is still what remains most important. That this group — one containing potential trade-bait like Nelson and Afflalo and a stop-gap like Maxiell — has performed so poorly only speaks to how well the Magic’s other units have played this season.
The future doesn’t lie with Orlando’s starters, basically. It’s the heterogeneity of lineups featuring the likes of Vucevic, Harkless, Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, and eventually Tobias Harris that matters going forward, and that they’ve enjoyed success already is just more reason for long-term optimism. The same can be said for Vaughn’s ability to coax a solid overall defense from a team so reliant on a lineup so porous.
Bad and good, frustration and delight, losses and wins. This is just par for the course in Orlando right now, setting up sustained success for seasons to come.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.