ORLANDO — Early in the third quarter of the Magic’s season opener against the Heat, Derrick Jones Jr. picked up his fourth foul against Aaron Gordon, and Jones was forced to sit down early after entering the game as a starter. Gordon’s size and strength had been a problem for Miami all night. He was getting anywhere he wanted on the floor and the Heat just couldn’t figure out a way to stop him. Well, they had ways to stop him, but then that let Nikola Vucevic get a mismatch in the post or Jonathan Isaac had a wide open lane to run at the rim.
The Heat’s problem wasn’t that they didn’t have the personnel to counter individual Magic players. Their problem was that it was weird to have them all on the floor at the same time. A frontcourt of Vucevic, Isaac, and Gordon was just too long and quick for the Heat’s starting unit to handle. It put Jones into immediate foul trouble as Gordon was burning the Heat with the mismatch on the wing. They had to do something about it, but what do you do? Try to play him like a four, or maybe as a three? Will that give you the ability to still guard Vucevic and Isaac?
“When I play the small forward it just gives the other small forwards problems.” Gordon told UPROXX. “Cause I’m just bigger and more physical than they are. I draw quick fouls so now they gotta play bigs and that’s something they’re not used to and when I’m at the four they’re not used to guarding perimeter play.”
That problem Gordon causes makes the usually dull Magic one of the more fascinating teams to watch this season. How are teams going to fight these insanely long lineups Orlando is going to be running on a nightly basis? The Magic’s roster construction is bizarre, with so many big men and so few guards, but while it’s possible that will be a problem for them at times, they’re going to make you adjust to them or suffer the consequences.
For the Heat, they decided to go just as big as Orlando. With Jones in foul trouble, they didn’t throw out another wing but instead put big man Bam Adebayo on the floor next to Hassan Whiteside. Adebayo is fast and skilled enough to let Miami do this and it ended up being pretty effective too. In nine minutes of play time together, the two big men sharing the floor together outscored Orlando by one point. However, they only shot 1-for-6 from 3-point range and their spacing regressed to the dinosaur era.
The Heat don’t like to play Adebayo and Whiteside together. They only played 52 minutes total together in the 2017-18 NBA season. There just isn’t enough spacing with those two sharing the court, but it was also the only way they could effectively slow down the giant lineups that Orlando was running. The scary part? They can get even bigger. The Magic still had rookie Mohamed Bamba sitting on the bench waiting for his own opportunities to cause chaos.
Bamba finished the game with 13 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks. One of his makes was a 3-pointer and one of his blocks came in a key stretch that gave Orlando an eventual double-digit lead. Bamba made all 7-feet of him felt and the entire time he had another big next to him. It was usually Gordon, but at one point he briefly played next to Vucevic. That’s a combo that teams shouldn’t want to deal with, but they might have to.
“I think (Bamba and I can play together). It depends who we’re playing of course,” Vucevic said after the game. “I think so far it’s been good. I know both of us are smart players and both of us know the game well. I know the longer he plays and the more practices he gets under his belt he’ll get in even better rhythm….It’ll be really effective for us. Will give us a lot of length on both ends of the floor and definitely gives us an advantage on rebounds as well. It’s something we can use a lot.”
It’s not going to be easy getting Bamba on the floor next to other bigs, but Magic coach Steve Clifford can find a way. This isn’t his first time dealing with a weird lineup that goes against the rest of the league. It wasn’t long ago that what Orlando is going to try and do was the norm. Two big men, a slightly bigger guy on the perimeter, with two traditional guards. For decades that was how the NBA was played. It’s only in recent memory that teams started playing smaller. Clifford was a part of that revolution. Where? In Orlando with Stan Van Gundy.
“One of Stan’s biggest things was you gotta find a way to get your best players on the floor as much as you can,” Clifford said. “That’s what led to Rashard Lewis with Hedo Turkoglu. We did that and people thought we were crazy…To me, Vuc and Mo are two of our best players. We need to find ways to play them together. San Antonio does it. They play Gasol with Aldridge. It’s a work in progress I mean there are things we have to get better at, but we’re gonna do that. You have to have ways to play your best players. ”
It’s a simple concept. Always play your best players and you’re going to win more games than you lose, but when those players go against the norms of the league? It can be tricky. The Magic could be starting a revolution here back in the other direction. They could also just be fighting against the current of the league while they try to figure out which big men are worth keeping around. When it’s clicking, it’s going to create huge matchup problems in a league that’s gotten smaller in recent years. One that has Orlando’s players salivating at the potential lineups they can play with.
“It all depends who we play so it all depends on what kind of matchups we have. ” Vucevic told Uproxx. “I think our size is a huge reason why our defense is gonna be a great defense in this league and hopefully a top defense in this league,” Isaac said. “Our ability to move our feet, our lengthy guys like me, and AG, even Vuc can move his feet so our ability to move our feet and have guys step out of bounds on the baseline and stuff like that (is big.)”
The Magic have spent the last few seasons as one of those NBA League Pass teams to avoid. Watching them was miserable at times. The island of misfit toys didn’t fit together well and even when they played a modern offense it just looked weird. Now, there’s some real interest in watching this team go to work. They’re still going to lose a lot of games because the offense is a mess and the point guard issue is a very real one, but this team has the potential to be a real pain all season long.
“It feels great to have that kind of presence as a defensive team.” Isaac said. “That teams have to change to attack us and that’s gonna be great for us as the season goes on.”
Teams are going to have to get out of their comfort zone against the Magic this season. That could be good or it could be bad, but it’s going to make Orlando a team to keep an eye on every night.