Currently, there are 85 players in the NBA who are averaging more than 30 minutes per game, or a little more than three players per team. Scott Skiles’s Orlando Magic are one of a handful of NBA teams who are playing four players more than 30 minutes per game: Elfrid Payton (31.4 MPG), Victor Oladipo (32.3), Tobias Harris (32.6) and team leader Evan Fournier (37.1).
With just 3.5 games currently separating the East’s second seed (Miami Heat) from the 12th (Magic and Milwaukee Bucks are tied), it’s perfectly understandable why Skiles would want to lean more on his better-established players, especially with the Magic being involved in so many close games at the start of the season.
However, playing with a balanced rotation is more of a necessity than ever in today’s NBA. The season is simply too long and demanding for even these premier athletes to play at a championship level for much more than 30 minutes a night. Recent NBA champions have shown an incredible discipline in keeping their best players rested. Last year’s Golden State Warriors featured three players earning over 30 MPG, and all were below 33 MPG. The year before that, the San Antonio Spurs cemented this trend by having no players at over 30 MPG. While LeBron James’s Big Three in Miami all played considerably over 30 MPG in both their 2012 and 2013 championship seasons, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were liberally given nights off, and James’s ability to efficiently “conserve” energy in the early quarters of games isn’t the type of talent that teams can reasonably expect their players to achieve.
Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has intentionally built this team to be deep, and it looks like Skiles can take better advantage of it. After all, in the last full season that Skiles coached, with the 2011-12 Milwaukee Bucks, he gave both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis over 35 MPG, all while severely limiting the play of then-prospects Larry Sanders (12.4 MPG in 52 games), Jon Leuer (12.1 MPG in 46 games) and a 19-year-old named Tobias Harris (11.4 MPG in 42 games). Here’s how I’d recommend reorganizing minutes across Orlando’s roster:
1. Give Channing Frye more minutes in place of Harris.
Funny how fast things change in the NBA: at the start of training camp, there were quiet rumors that Frye would be traded. Now, Frye is turning in perhaps the most efficient season of his 10-year NBA career, including career-highs in true shooting percentage and win shares per minute. Frye’s 42.4 percent accuracy on three-point shots gives Orlando’s lineup some much-needed spacing: the Magic’s offense improves by a significant five points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. With Frye currently at only 14 MPG so far, this change gives the lineup rest while improving competitiveness.
2. Give Shabazz Napier more minutes in place of Payton or Oladipo.
After a good-as-can-be-expected rookie season, it remains a puzzle to me why the Miami Heat were willing to part with Napier for a single (protected) second-round pick. So far, the Magic are actually giving him even less nightly playing time than the Heat did: 13.5 MPG, down from 19.8. Not only should the Magic give Napier significant playing time to see if he’s a player the team will want to keep in the long-term, but his solid three-point shooting (36.6 percent for his career) improves Orlando’s offense by more than six points per 100 possessions.
3. Give Aaron Gordon more minutes in place of Fournier.
While Fournier has been something of a revelation for the Magic, playing him 37.1 MPG after a previous career high of 28.6 seems like it’s destined to bring about late-season fatigue. It’s possible that Gordon is on some sort of minutes restriction after last summer’s broken jaw — but if not, then Orlando needs to make sure that this potential superstar is better than 15th among the 2014 draft class in MPG. When coupled with backup center Dewayne Dedmon, Gordon helps lock down opposing offenses, resulting in big leads for the Magic.
After two consecutive lackluster performances against the Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers, Skiles has made a resolution to adjust Orlando’s lineups, starting with replacing Oladipo with Frye in the starting lineup on Wednesday against the New York Knicks. What remains to be seen is if Skiles will alter rotations throughout the entire game, perhaps to ease the massive minutes load on Fournier.