Magic Could Expand Regular Rotation When Season Resumes

ORLANDO - Under normal circumstances – remember those? – NBA coaches usually start tightening their regular rotations down to eight or nine players by the final stages of the regular season to set the stage for starters and stars to play big minutes come playoff time.

Depth among teams – a huge factor in success over the course of the NBA’s marathon-like, 82-game regular-season – is often greatly diminished in importance in the postseason.

These times now in the NBA, however, are anything but normal. With the NBA set to restart regular-season games in less than two weeks following a four-plus-month layoff, teams could dramatically expand their playing rotations to 10, 11 and sometimes 12 players as they work their way back into shape and try to avoid injuries. Such a move would be designed to try and keep star players healthy as they conclude a regular season and a postseason unlike any other in NBA history.

If teams’ rotations do indeed expand, that’s one area where the Orlando Magic figure to have a major advantage in the days, weeks and months to come considering how cohesive and well their second unit played late in the season prior to the NBA’s stoppage in play. The Magic’s hope, of course, is that their strong bench play will continue when they start playing ``seeding games’’ on July 31 (vs. Brooklyn, 2:30 p.m.) and potentially into the playoffs. With homecourt advantages killed out while playing at Disney’s neutral-site venue, many with the Magic feel there could be some lower-seeded teams stunning higher-seeded teams once the playoffs roll around in mid-August.

``I think it really works out for some of the lower-seeded teams because those higher-seeded teams won’t have the advantage and it’s going to be anybody’s game, really,’’ said Magic reserve guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was playing some of the best basketball of his NBA career before the NBA was shut down back on March 11. ``The teams that are locked in, focused and stayed in shape during the time off are the ones that are going to run off some wins. I think that there are going to be some upsets. I think people are going to try and jump on others early and really do some damage.’’

One of the primary reasons for Orlando’s promising 8-4 run prior to the stoppage in play – including a three-game winning streak to close – was the shot-in-the-arm type of play provided by a bench corps that greatly strengthened the squad. Led by the shooting of Terrence Ross, the playmaking of D.J. Augustin, the all-around grittiness of Michael Carter-Williams and the improved consistency of Mo Bamba, the Magic’s bench squad became one of the NBA’s most productive units over the final month of play.

From Feb. 10 to March 10 – a stretch of 12 games and eight wins for the Magic – Orlando’s bench ranked first in the NBA in 3-point makes per game (6.8), third in 3-point accuracy (41 percent), sixth in scoring (44.7 points per game) and fourth in blocked shots (2.3 swats per game). To put those numbers into perspective, that production was a big improvement over where the Magic’s bench ranked in the NBA for the season in 3-point makes per game (11th, 4.8), 3-point accuracy (20th, 33.7 percent), scoring (16th, 36.8 points per game) and blocked shots (fourth, 2.4 swats per game).

In Orlando’s final game before the stoppage in play – a stirring 120-115 win in Memphis – the Magic got 65 points off their bench with most of it coming from Ross (24 points), Carter-Williams (20 points) and Augustin (16 points). That effort helped the Magic become the first team in the NBA since the league started keeping statistics for bench players in 1970-71 to have three reserves score at least 15 points in three straight games, per Elias Sports.

Ross, for one, sees no reason why the Magic can’t pick right up where they left off as a bench unit despite being off for more than four months. For the season, Ross ranks eighth in the NBA in scoring among reserves at 14.7 points per game.

During the Magic’s final 12 games before the stoppage in play, Ross boosted his scoring output to 20.7 points per game while making 46.4 percent of his total shots and a whopping 47.2 percent of his tries from beyond the 3-point line. Similarly, Augustin (9.4 points and 3.9 assists) and Carter-Williams (8.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 steals) greatly upped their production over Orlando’s final 12 games prior to the stoppage in play.

``Personally, I think we look good,’’ Ross said following a recent practice. ``Guys are in a lot better condition than I thought we would be. A lot of guys, including me, are starting to get the rhythm back and are shooting the ball really well. As long as we stay with what we’re doing, I think we will be fine.’’

Carter-Williams, a driving force on the Magic squad that reached the playoffs last spring after he was signed late in the season, appeared to be on his way for another finishing flurry. He had 17 points, five assists and a steal against Minnesota; and 16 points, three assists, two rebounds and a steal against Houston – both Magic wins in early March. Then, in the come-from-behind win over Memphis in Orlando’s final game before the stoppage, Carter-Williams did a little bit of everything with a season-best 20 points, three rebounds, two steals and two made 3-point shots.

``Obviously, I think back to how we were all in rhythm and how I was in rhythm myself and I wish we could have kept it going, but obviously there were bigger things on the table,’’ Carter-Williams said of the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the NBA to stop play. ``I wasn’t too frustrated because it is what it is. I was of the mindset of, `What can I do to stay in shape?’ I hope to get back to that level again.’’

Bamba, Orlando’s second-year center who has spent the season backing up starting center Nikola Vucevic, just might have taken his game to another level by working to bulk up his body during the time off from basketball. With little else to do other than work out and work on his diet, Bamba took advantage of the weights in his apartment, and he also hired a chef to clean up his nutrition. The result was the formerly spindly Bamba adding 21 pounds of mostly lean muscle and bulking up from 231 pounds to 252 pounds. His hope is that his added bulk will make him an even bigger presence inside while battling other 7-footers.

``I feel as mobile as before, but it definitely took some extra work,’’ stressed Bamba, who averaged 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 14.5 minutes per night this season. ``Gaining 20-something pounds is no joke and you really feel it on your joints, but I had to get into the mentality of, `I’m going to have to run at this weight, I’m going to have to jump at this weight and I’m going to have to move laterally at this weight’ to feel good about it. So, I truly feel good at this weight now.’’

Magic coach Steve Clifford is hopeful that he will be able to get as much production from his bench as he did in the games just prior to the stoppage in play. He also thinks that the reserves will become more important than ever because of the unusual circumstances surrounding this NBA restart following such a long layoff.

In the past, Clifford has always preferred to use eight or nine players in games because those numbers allow playing units to find a rhythm together. Now, he’s willing to admit that he will likely have to expand his rotations to as many as 10, 11 or possibly even 12 players as teams try to avoid injuries and work their way into shape. That means, Clifford stressed, that others on the Magic’s roster, such as Wes Iwundu, Khem Birch, Gary Clark, Vic Law and B.J. Johnson, could see playing time from game to game off the Magic’s bench.

Also, the Magic’s depth and defense might get another boost if forward Jonathan Isaac is able to return to action. The nearly 7-foot Isaac, who is one of just two players in the NBA to rank in the league’s top 15 in blocked shots per game (2.44) and steals per game (1.56), is trying to come back after missing time since Jan. 1 with a sprained left knee. Isaac, 22 years old and a key building block for the future, has played well thus far in workouts, but the team has said that the talented forward won’t return unless he is fully cleared by the medical staff.

``I think (losing a player to the COVID-19 virus) is a part of it, and with the chance of injury, obviously, you have to be cognitive of that,’’ Clifford said of some of the factors that might cause the Magic to expand their regular rotation for the eight ``seeding games’’ and potentially the playoffs. ``I like playing nine guys because I think it makes a big difference, playing nine or 10. When you play nine, they can all get enough minutes to play well.

``But I don’t see us, by July 31st being able to play just nine guys, especially when you are going to play eight games in 15 nights,’’ Clifford said of the schedule ahead. ``I think there will be nights when you play 10 guys or 11 guys and everybody has to be ready. That might make it difficult to get to playing groups, which is always an important factor in our league. It will be as unique of a situation as anything that any of us have ever been involved with.’’

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