NBA Position Battles: A Magic Mess

We try to make sense of the Orlando Magic, their positional redundancies, and their ever-evolving rotation.

The Orlando Magic have been a staple of this column since it's inception, and I had planned to move away from them a bit, but their rotations have changed so much over this last week that I just can't help myself.

The problem used to be just that the frontcourt was crowded, but now there are three positions that seem to be in flux (with shooting guard Evan Fournier and power forward Serge Ibaka being the only two players to start every game for the team so far this season).

They have had three different starting lineups, none of which were forced by some kind of injury. Instead, it just looks like head coach Frank Vogel isn't really sure what he wants to do with his team.

Let's try to help him.

Comparing the Starting Lineups

Here are the three starting lineups that the Magic have used so far this season:

Games 1-8Elfrid PaytonEvan FournierAaron GordonSerge IbakaNikola Vucevic
Games 9-16Elfrid PaytonEvan FournierJeff GreenSerge IbakaNikola Vucevic
Games 17-18D.J. AugustinEvan FournierAaron GordonSerge IbakaBismack Biyombo

Obviously the newest lineup doesn't have a very big sample size to draw from, but here are some numbers for all three lineups:

LineupMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgAST/TOREB%eFG%
Payton, Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka, Vucevic158103.4110.0-6.62.1550.2%48.8%
Payton, Fournier, Green, Ibaka, Vucevic14289.685.83.81.1253.8%43.9%
Augustin, Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka, Biyombo33102.997.85.23.4042.1%50.0%

The original starting lineup would have been passable if it weren't for the horrific 110.0 defensive rating. The second iteration was working as a great defensive unit, but the offense was downright horrible (as evidenced by the 89.6 offensive rating, 1.12 assist-to-turnover ration, and 43.9% effective field goal percentage).

The third lineup -- with only 33 minutes played together -- doesn't have a big enough sample size for us to sink our teeth into yet, but the early returns suggest it's decent enough, albeit terrible at rebounding (grabbing only 42.1% of available rebounds). Regardless, it still seems like an odd choice to bench guys like Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic, and there's a decent enough chance that doing so was a temporary motivational move, rather than a permanent one.

Of the seven Magic lineups that have played at least 25 minutes together this season, the best iteration has easily been a bench-heavy unit of D.J. Augustin, C.J. Watson, Damjan Rudez, Aaron Gordon, and Bismack Biyombo, who have registered a 13.6 net rating, 57.1% rebound rate, and 56.4% effective field goal percentage in 42 minutes of action together. That lineup obviously won't become a starting unit and can still get plenty of burn regardless of how the starting lineup is constructed, so we won't really consider it here.

Put simply, there's not a clear enough answer emerging from the lineup data to determine the team's best starting five just yet. Instead, let's look at this thing position by position, and pick the most deserving player for each job.

Point Guard - Elfrid Payton vs. D.J. Augustin

Here's a look at how Elfrid Payton has played compared to D.J. Augustin this season. For each of our comparisons, raw numbers would be skewed by minutes played, so we'll compare them using their per-36 stats and some advanced metrics.

PlayerPTS/36REB/36AST/36STL/36BLK/36FG%3P%FT%Off RtgDef RtgPERnERD
Elfrid Payton13.
D.J. Augustin17.

Payton is a fairly inefficient player on the offensive end, but he makes up for it on the defensive side of the ball. D.J. Augustin is not exactly a lights out shooter himself, but for what he makes up on Payton on offense, he gives up on defense.

When you look at their marks in player efficiency rating (PER) and nERD (our proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency), it basically becomes a coin-flip between the two. We'll give Payton the edge because he's 22 and Augustin is 29, and one would think that his development on a 7-11 team would be important.

Small Forward - Aaron Gordon vs. Jeff Green

Next up, the small forward battle between Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green.

PlayerPTS/36REB/36AST/36STL/36BLK/36FG%3P%FT%Off RtgDef RtgPERnERD
Aaron Gordon12.
Jeff Green11.

Gordon has struggled mightily to start his third NBA season, shooting only 38.5% from the field, 28.8% from three-point range, and 58.8% from the free throw line through 18 games (down from a split of 47.3%, 29.6%, and 66.8% last year). That said, even with his struggles, Gordon has still been more efficient than Jeff Green and outpaces him in every single statistical category listed above with the exception of free throw percentage.

We can always toss in the age caveat that we did for the point guards here as well. Gordon's only 21 and Green's 30, so it seems pointless for a team that's not exactly going to be competing for a championship anytime soon to value "veteran presence" over the development of arguably their most talented young player in Gordon. Throw in the fact that Gordon's simply been better (even when he hasn't been that good) and this shouldn't really be a debate.

Center - Nikola Vucevic vs. Bismack Biyombo

Finally, let's take a look at the center position battle between Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo.

PlayerPTS/36REB/36AST/36STL/36BLK/36FG%3P%FT%Off RtgDef RtgPERnERD
Nikola Vucevic15.715.
Bismack Biyombo7.811.

This battle represents the most rigid dichotomy of the three. Vucevic is a talented scorer, but a known liability on defense, while Biyombo is a defensive specialist who struggles mightily on offense. By choosing one or the other, you are basically deciding between whether you want your center to be a good source of scoring or a reliable rim protector (and, in both cases, essentially a black hole on the other end).

The Magic are 29th in offensive rating and 7th in defensive rating this season, and that's with Vucevic starting 16 of the 18 contests. In fact, so far this season, Vucevic has had a better defensive rating than Biyombo. That's not to say that he's suddenly a better defender, just that his team has been defending just fine with him on the floor this year.

The Magic clearly need to improve their 29th-ranked offense, so removing one of their most talented scorers from the starting lineup just seems counterproductive, plain and simple.

It shouldn't be long before Vucevic gets his starting job back.


So where does that get us?

Well, right back to the first starting lineup that the Magic used this year: Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka, and Nikola Vucevic. The -6.6 net rating is not overly encouraging, but the combination contains a fair bit of youth and they should probably be given more of a chance to figure each other out. All told, they probably represent the Magic's five best players overall as well, so it gives them the best chance at success during a season when they should be taking a shot at a playoff berth.

Granted, playing Gordon out of his natural position at the four has been suboptimal, but they've had little choice with their logjam in the frontcourt. A trade is still always a possibility to resolve some of these positional redundancies, but who knows when or if that will materialize.

For now, Frank Vogel will just have to find something that works with what he has. You can bet that we'll continue to monitor this situation as it develops. It isn't the first time this mess in Orlando has been the focus of this column and it almost certainly won't be the last.