Orlando Magic shuffle point guards again

The Orlando Magic continue to seek some lineup stability and some success. They are shuffling the point guards position again, settling on C.J. Watson.

Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel had a shiny object for the media before Thursday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, announcing he would start second-year player Mario Hezonja for the first time. The fan-favorite player was finally getting a chance in the starting lineup.

It was not the only change.

Shortly after his media availability, the Magic announced C.J. Watson would start in Elfrid Payton‘s place at point guard, signaling another change for the team at the position. It is the fourth time the Magic have changed starters at the point guard position going from Elfrid Payton to D.J. Augustin back to Payton and finally now to Watson.

“C.J. Watson has played the best at that position of late,” Vogel said. “So he’s getting the nod.”

Watson is in line to get his second consecutive start Saturday when the Magic take on the Dallas Mavericks. Vogel said for several weeks Watson has been one of the team’s most consistent performers. His shooting too has come around in addition to his defensive efficiency. The decision makes, at least, some sense using that rationale.

Watson indeed has picked up his play of late, averaging 10.5 points per game and shooting 51.5 percent from the floor in his last 10 games. His early season shooting slump seems a thing of the past and Watson is consistent hitting open jumpers and even getting to the line.

Watson’s defense remains his biggest strength and something that has kept him on the floor through his offensive struggles. With his defensive metrics also in his favor, Watson provides something intangible to the team. Even if it is just spacing.

“Just trying to make open shots, especially when they double Vuc or when they double team Evan,” Watson said. “I just want to be that other presence on the floor that can make shots on the floor.”

His skill set allows him to play off the ball too. Thursday that meant Evan Fournier took on more playmaking responsibility.

That strategy proved to be something of a mixed bag. The two struggled with turnovers in the loss as they took on new playmaking roles.

Evan Fournier recorded eight assists but also had six turnovers. Watson too had five turnovers in a rough night for the Magic’s backcourt. Vogel said he thought Fournier over penetrated too much at times and both he and Watson struggled to handle the pressure on the perimeter from the 76ers’ guards.

Without some improvement Saturday against Dallas, Vogel might have to reconsider this latest lineup change.

Even though Watson provides better spacing, the Magic have to get into their offense more consistently. And there certainly were some struggles generating good shots late in the game as the 76ers made their comeback from a seven-point deficit late.

Those are things Payton does better.

Even in Thursday’s loss to the 76ers, Payton scored 15 points, helping the Magic get back into the game in the late third and early fourth quarters. Of any player on the team, Payton still has the best ability to get to the basket and break players off the dribble.

That made the move Thursday even more of a surprise.

Payton has provided the Magic with a lot more potential energy and aggression off the dribble. When he has played well or played at a high level, he can take the team to a new height.

Vogel said he has been challenging Payton to improve in some areas, but would not elaborate on what he is pushing him to do.

“I’m not surprised. There are no surprises anymore,” Elfrid Payton said of the lineup change. “I’m comfortable in any role. I work hard. Whatever is thrown at me, I’m ready.”

Payton has had some issues playing at a high level consistently. And undoubtedly the Magic are  different team when Payton reaches that level. It still felt like if anyone’s position in the lineup was secure, it was Payton.

Playing in this move’s favor, Payton has thrived off the bench this year. He is averaging roughly the same amount of points per game — 12.1 per game — and has seen an increase in assists against second units (6.1 assists per game as a reserve and 5.7 per game as a starter).

Vogel said there is certainly some pride involved and Payton is disappointed he is not starting. But there is also a chance for success if Payton keeps working through these changes.

With the Magic struggling to keep to their lofty Playoff goals, it was clear the team needed to make a change. Orlando certainly needed to add more spacing to the floor to try to kickstart a porous offense. It is not as if the defense was doing much better.

Watson said he hopes, in his time as a starter, he can provide some stability and a calm, controlled pace. He wants to do the things he was doing off the bench — namely defense and knocking down shots.

The stability aspect though is one that perhaps may be out of his control. Watson is a calming influence on the floor. But inevitably when there is a lineup change there is an adjustment period and some roles and players are thrown for a loop.

“[Stability is] important, but every position is important to me,” Vogel said. “Point guard is important. Stability with all your positions is important. Stability within your rotation is important. You can’t get stability with your rotation until you find success.”

The team’s frustration levels are definitely at a high due to all the losing.

The team’s lack of stability and inability to settle on a clear starting lineup shows both the flaws in the roster’s makeup and the disappointing play from key players throughout the season. Nothing has been consistent.

The games keep coming and the Magic appear to be settling in on a new direction, at least at point guard, for the time being.

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