Frank Vogel Planning to Explore New Rotations

By John Denton
Jan. 13, 2017

PORTLAND – With nine new players and a new coaching staff, Frank Vogel knew full well that it might take the Orlando Magic time to come together and function at a high level.

Never, however, did Vogel imagine that the Magic would still be searching for their stride by the midpoint of the season, a milestone that came on Friday night when Orlando played its 41st game of the 82-game season.

The Magic went into Friday’s game at 16-24 and four games back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Vogel was hired last May to get the Magic back into the playoff chase and that’s exactly where he figured the team would be right now after adding veterans Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks in the offseason.

However, the Magic have been consistently inconsistent thus far. They have won consecutive games just six times thus far and have yet to push a winning streak beyond three games. Conversely, Orlando has dropped four games in a row twice and has lost three in a row three other times.

``Displeased with our record and pleased with our togetherness and our belief in what we can still do this season,’’ Vogel said. ``There are just a lot of areas that we can improve upon.’’

Vogel knew coming in that the Magic might have stretches where they struggle to produce enough offense, but he fully expected the team’s defense to be solid. Vogel and many of the players came into the season expecting Orlando to have a defense that ranked in the NBA’s top five. However, the Magic went into Friday ranked 17th in the NBA in defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) at 105.8. They are 18th in points allowed per game (103.8) and 15th in defensive field goal percentage allowed (46 percent).

Orlando soared to as high as No. 3 in the league in the defensive rankings in early December, but it has been in a freefall on that end of the floor over the past six weeks.

``It takes time, hard work and guys being able to learn each other and the communication that comes with pick-and-roll coverages. That stuff takes time, so I’m not completely baffled there,’’ Vogel said. ``I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle (of the NBA’s defensive rankings). We probably weren’t as good as the third-best defensive team in the league at the time and the schedule probably had something to do with it. And with us performing toward the bottom half the last six weeks, it probably hasn’t been as bad as that’s looked, too. It’s an 82-game season and you’re going to have some ups and downs as far as your schedule, your personnel, teams getting hot against you and what not.’’

ROTATION CHANGES: Looking for a way to spark his struggling team and to combat the many small-ball lineups around the NBA, Vogel plans to dramatically alter the way he uses big men Nikola Vucevic, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo going forward.

Vucevic returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday in Los Angeles and he was back in that same spot in Friday in Portland, replacing Biyombo. Ibaka, the starter at power forward, was back in action on Friday after missing one game because of a sprained right shoulder.

Going forward, Vogel wants to use Vucevic exclusively at center, while Ibaka could serve as the back-up center – something that will mean more minutes for veteran Jeff Green at power forward. And with Green playing there, second-year Mario Hezonja is back in the rotation as the backup small forward to Aaron Gordon.

What that means for Biyombo’s minutes going forward is uncertain. Vogel’s mission is to make the Magic better able to defend dribble penetration and 3-point shooting when foes put as many as four 3-point shooters on the floor. On reflection, Vogel thinks it might have been counterproductive trying to play two big men together so many minutes.

``We looked at the other lineup, with Biz and Serge playing together and Vooch bringing us a spark off the bench, and there were some good things,’’ Vogel said. ``But we’re still not playing at a high-enough level. So we’re going to flip it back with Vooch in the starting lineup and Biz coming off the bench.

``We’ll probably play less big/big lineups than we had been playing,’’ the coach continued. ``Part of the reason, I think, that we haven’t been able to get over the hump is trying to force that maybe a little too much. So we’ll play more spread lineups with Jeff Green at (power forward).’’

The lineup from Friday – Vucevic, Ibaka, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton – is 11-15 this season with a solid offensive rating (103.9 points per 100 possessions), but a shaky defensive rating (110.9). The lineup with Biyombo starting at center alongside of Fournier, Payton, Gordon and Ibaka is just 7-13, but the ratings offensively (102.9) and defensively (100.0) are encouraging.

HAPPY HEZONJA: No one was happier about the adjustments in the rotation than Hezonja, the No. 5 pick from the 2015 NBA Draft who has struggled to find his footing this season.

Prior to Wednesday’s insertion back into the regular rotation, Hezonja had failed completely to get into games 13 times this season. In 27 games, he’s playing just 8.4 minutes a night and averaging just 3.1 points on 34 percent shooting and 23.8 percent accuracy from 3-point range.

Hezonja, 21, showed a couple of encouraging signs on Wednesday in Los Angeles by dishing out two nifty assists for Magic baskets. On one play, he deftly found Gordon for a cutting layup and on another he lobbed the ball perfectly to Biyombo when he noticed that the defender had turned his head.

``We’ve had many games this year that we were struggling with passing and definitely I’m looking forward to do all of the stuff that we are lacking, like passing, energy and defense,’’ Hezonja said. ``I’m trying to do all of the stuff that can help to give us what we’ve been lacking.’’

Hezonja said he was happy that he kept himself in tip-top shape while not playing so that he would be ready when called upon by Vogel to rejoin the rotation. Hezonja stayed after Thursday’s light practice to play a spirited game of three-on-three – one of the ways he’s kept his skills sharp while not playing in the games.

``I was talking to (Strength and Conditioning coach) Bill (Burgos) about how I felt great and on a (scale of) 1-to-10, I wasn’t even a one as far as being tired,’’ Hezonja said. ``So I’m definitely in super shape since I came to training camp and now I’m 300 percent. I’ve talked to Frank about finding smart ways to use all the energy and hype to play and manage it in right ways. If I go crazy out there, it might look good for me, but bad for the team. That’s not what we want, so I’ve just got to manage that energy.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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