The Orlando Magic (16-28) have had an up-and-down start to 2023 result-wise, going 3-4 which includes 2-3 on a West Coast trip that ended Sunday.
But their first seven games of the year entering Friday’s home game vs. the New Orleans Pelicans (26-19) have brought some notable positives, including a starting lineup that’s been one the league’s best lineups and improvements with running a play set.
The Vitals (6 games):
Lineup: Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr.
77 minutes played; 2-4 record; 123.5 offensive rating; 99.4 defensive rating; plus-24.1 net rating; 66.2% true shooting accuracy (a formula that incorporates free throws and higher-value 3-point shots); 105.39 possessions per 48 minutes.
The lineup of Fultz, Harris, Wagner, Banchero and Carter has blitzed opponents in their limited time on the floor since their first start in the Jan. 5 home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The quintet’s net rating is the league’s best mark among all lineups that’ve played at least 70 minutes, according to the league’s official data. It’s also the Magic’s lone lineup that’s played at least 40 minutes and has a positive net rating.
They have the second-best rating (plus-23.2) of all five-man lineups that’s played at least 150 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. They’re only behind the Denver Nuggets lineup of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokić.
Cleaning The Glass’ stats exclude “garbage time” and end-of-quarter possessions that are likely to end in a heave.
“Our starting group has a great mixture of everything you need,” Carter said. “We’ve got great scoring, rebounding, defense, passing, playmaking — we’ve got a little bit of everything. We gel together really well. We’ve all got the same goal in mind.”
High-level defensive play leads the Magic’s starting lineup to success. Their defense rating ranks sixth among all lineups that’ve played at least 70 minutes.
With Fultz and Harris typically taking on the top opposing guards, the Magic keep opponents outside the paint with this lineup. The quintet also is versatile enough to switch nearly across the board to keep prevent gaps from opening in the defense.
Only 28.6% of opponents’ shots come at the rim (4 feet within the basket) when the Magic’s starters play together. This ranks in the 92nd percentile among lineups throughout the league, according to Cleaning The Glass.
They grab defensive rebounds at a league-average rate (72%) but force a lot of turnovers (19.5% takeaway rate), led by Fultz. This helps them get easier chances in transition.
Even in the halfcourt they’ve been lethal, scoring 114.6 points per 100 possessions — an elite mark.
“We just try to strive on defense,” Fultz said. “We try to allow our defense to start our offense and get us going. We got guys who are trying to move the ball. We understand each other well. It’s really on defense — being able to switch, communicate and follow our game plans every night, execute that and getting out in transition and have quick, early layups.”
Carter said closing out games better is the next step for the starters. They’re already improving with executing one of the team’s staple play sets.
The Magic run a Veer action set (“Wiper”) where the center/big man (typically Carter) sets a ball screen (typically for Fultz) followed by an off-ball screen for a shooter outside the 3-point arc with shooters spaced on the weak side.
The play isn’t new and they ran it earlier in the season.
But the starting lineup — or a lineup consisting of four starters and one reserve — has been running it to near perfection recently.
“That’s one of our plays late game, late quarter to get our best shooter a shot,” Carter told the Sentinel. “If not give him a shot, we got a lot of great playmakers on this team. Whether he’s open or not, I feel like it keeps bodies moving to create a way for the next guy to drive to the basket or whatever the case may be.”
The Magic ran this set at least three times during their comeback attempt against the Grizzlies, scoring on all three possessions.
They ran it late in the Jan. 13 road loss to the Utah Jazz, creating a 3-point look for Wagner as he was coming off Carter’s off-ball screen.
The Magic ran it late in Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets, creating an open 3 for Wagner after Banchero set a hammer screen for him on the weakside.
“The spreading of the floor,” Fultz responded to the Sentinel when asked what makes the play so effective. “We have the floor spaced well. We all understand our jobs no matter what position we’re in. Whether that’s me coming off the screen trying to engage the big to get a guy open or whether it’s a guy setting the screen to slip, we all have a good understanding of what to do when a guy’s playing a certain way.”
What also makes the play difficult to guard is the variety of options it creates. Every player can become a scoring threat depending on how the defense responds.
“If a team takes one thing away, you have another option,” coach Jamahl Mosley told the Sentinel. “Guys are learning to read and play off each other with it. It gives you options of a guy who can get downhill and get to the rim. You have a guy who can come off shooting. You have a guy who can come off the backside. There are different options.”
Most teams already run the same play or similar variations, but they have had a difficult time slowing it down because of the Magic’s improved tempo. Playing with pace makes it difficult for a defense to organize and identify the action.
Carter’s confident that even recognizing the play call won’t help.
“They can know it,” he said, “they still ain’t going to be able to stop it.”
Wagner will be a game-time decision against the Pelicans after spraining his left ankle during Thursday’s practice, Mosley said. He’s officially listed on the injury report as questionable.
Jonathan Isaac, Caleb Houstan and Kevon Harris were on assignment with the organization’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, for Thursday’s road game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Chuma Okeke remains out after having left knee surgery last month.
Mosley clarified after Thursday’s practice that Okeke has been taking part in conditioning and non-contact-related drills after saying Wednesday “Chuma’s still working his way back. No real court sessions right now.”
Okeke was seen doing dribbling and shooting drills Thursday.
“We talked about it a little bit [Wednesday] that he hadn’t been doing much court time,” Mosley said. “What he has been doing is doing more conditioning than it is contact. That’s the context of how we’ve focused on him more non-contact-related things.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.