On Nov. 25, in the 15th game of the 15-16 season, the Orlando Magic were 6-8 and on the outside looking in at the Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
At that point, Scott Skiles made a permanent (at least to this point) lineup change, shifting Victor Oladipo to the bench and Channing Frye in to the starting lineup. Frye had previously started two games while Oladipo was out with an injury.
Including the two injury replacement games and the most recent 17 games with Frye in the starting five, the Magic are 13-6. That equates to a 56 win pace for the full season.
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So, what changed? Advanced stats tell us the Magic are slightly worse defensively with Frye as a starter. But the offensive transformation has been remarkable. While the Magic are scoring the exact same amount of points with Frye as a starter (101 PPG), that is mostly due to a decreased pace (down almost a full point).
The slower pace is being offset by a large increase in Offensive Efficiency. Offensive Rating has gone up 5.7 points (102.6 to 108.3), Effective FG% is up almost half a point (47.7 to 52.1), and overall traditional FG% is up almost half a point as well (42.9 to 47.6).
Channing Frye is clearly not a better all-around player than Victor Oladipo, nor is he likely a better offensive player. Instead, what Frye gives the lineup is balance and shooting. Prior to the lineup switch, the Magic regularly rolled out a starting lineup of Nik Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. In that lineup, only Harris and Fournier can be considered threats from deep.
Vucevic has a nice shot out to about 18 feet. Oladipo is an inconsistent shooter at best. And Payton is decidedly a non-shooter.
When Orlando played this grouping, opponents would pack the paint. This closed off driving and passing lanes for Payton and Oladipo, who are both above average going to the hoop and finding open teammates.
Harris was forced to shoot more long jumpers in an attempt to draw the opposing PF out of the lane, instead of playing his terrific midrange and paint game. Fournier was the only player reliably hitting from the outside.
During this time, Frye was barely playing. He registered five DNP-CDs and played less than 10 minutes in four other games. Frye was essentially a non-factor. On a team desperate for shooting, their best overall outside shooter was riding the pine night in and night out.
Then Oladipo got hurt and Skiles moved Frye into the lineup and the results were okay; a home win against Utah and a road loss to Washington. Oladipo returned, and Orlando went back to their original lineup for the next three games, a home win in OT over the Timberwolves, a home loss to Sacramento that wasn’t as close as the final score shows and a blowout road loss to the Cavs.
Skiles had seen enough, and with the season slipping in to mediocrity once again, he went to Frye and sent Oladipo to the bench.
The Magic took off from this point. The starting five now had the balance it needed offensively. While Frye’s numbers aren’t amazing (although better than last year) he is a legit threat opposing defenses need to account for. Starting him has also allowed Harris and Fournier to move to their more natural positions of SF and SG respectively. Payton now has room to maneuver and get in to the lane.
He’s either making plays himself or setting up his teammates. Vucevic has more space to work in the post. He’s getting more looks closer to the basket and not having to settle for so many 15-18 foot looks.
And, finally, Harris is back to working the midrange and pinch post areas where he is most effective. Fournier has largely remained playing the same way, but has benefitted from the same things has his teammates as far as spacing.
Equally as important, Oladipo has added punch to a bench group that was largely uninspiring. Oladipo is regularly playing minutes as the backup SG, SF, and seeing spot minutes at PG.
He’s hit a rough patch recently, but his overall play has been just as solid as a reserve as it was as a starter. The level he is playing at, assuming he continues to come off the bench and his production continues, will have him in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year. This is huge for Orlando, as they were getting very little from their bench.
Only Jason Smith has been a consistent positive performer for the Magic all year, and his production is limited to the small amount of minutes he plays. Coinciding with the lineup changes, Skiles also began playing Andrew Nicholson regular minutes as the backup PF. Nicholson is having the best stretch of his career and showing he could be a productive backup for a quality team.
The biggest quarrel with Jacque Vaughn was the inconsistent direction he set the team on. He would change the rotation constantly and also change the style on a regular basis. Scott Skiles, from day one, has set his tone for the organization.
First off, if you don’t defend and play with effort, you won’t play. And beyond that, he has established a team first culture. He’ll take the knocks if lineup decisions don’t work, but the players have to give maximum effort when called upon.
Victor Oladipo has been open about his dislike of coming off the bench. But he’s also said that as long as the team is winning, he’s open to it. That comes direct from the coaching staff and it doesn’t seem like we would have seen that over the prior seasons.
In an improved Eastern Conference where several teams are winning, as opposed to prior years, Orlando seemed like they would miss the postseason once again.
After making a daring lineup change that benched the team’s most popular player and brought the team’s most maligned player into the starting five, the Magic look like they will hang around the playoff race all season long.
Wins coming with Skiles’ clear direction for the team is a welcome bonus and it is due to him taking a risk out of the Steve Kerr playbook and making a controversial lineup adjustment before the season got away from him.