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NBA PM: Magic Benefit from Surprising Lineup Change

The Orlando Magic recently moved Victor Oladipo to the bench and, so far, the change has worked.

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Orlando Benefiting from Surprising Lineup Change

Victor Oladipo was drafted to be the Orlando Magic’s next great talent. During his two-plus seasons with the Magic, he’s shown flashes of that star player the team wants him to be. He finished last season eighth in scoring in the Eastern Conference and dazzled the crowd in New York City during the Slam Dunk Contest.

So, it was a little surprising when news broke that Magic head coach Scott Skiles was going to bring Oladipo off of the bench in an attempt to jump start the team’s offense. It was a move that caught a lot of people off guard. Some criticized the decision, as Oladipo was widely considered Orlando’s best player.

However, making tough calls like this is why the team hired Skiles. They wanted a guy who can provide structure and hold players accountable. It doesn’t matter what Oladipo did last season. The Magic won 25 games last year, so clearly not many things went right. Skiles made this decision because he wants to win more games now. He was brought in to turn around this franchise and not worry about where each player was drafted. In past years, the team might not have had made the same decision.

The move may not have been popular with Oladipo, but he’s handled the situation like a professional. He understandably looked upset in recent interviews when addressing the change, but he’s embraced it for the betterment of the team and his teammates have taken notice with how he’s handled it.

“Victor is a basketball player,” teammate Tobias Harris said. “He’s going to play his game regardless. He’s going to bring energy. He’s for the team. We wouldn’t have won these games with the new lineup without his effort off of the bench. We know he can score the ball and that’s what we really need him to do. It says a lot about him as a person to come off of the bench and play the role he has been playing.”

The results of the change have been hard to argue with. Since Skiles inserted Channing Frye into the starting lineup in place of Oladipo last Wednesday, the team has posted a 3-0 record and have picked up wins against quality teams like the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Skiles said at the time that the change wasn’t permanent – although they’ll likely stick with it as long as they keep winning – and he has commended Oladipo for how he’s handled the situation.

The team has played with a much higher energy level during the past three games and it’s started with Oladipo. He’s given the team a spark off of the bench and has flourished in the second unit. He’s averaging 20 points, six rebounds, 5.7 assists and one steal per game off of the bench. He missed time earlier this month with a concussion, and now appears to be fully recovered.

“It’s a role that he’s adjusted to pretty well,” Nikola Vucevic said. “He obviously gets more freedom in that second unit – [running] pick-and-rolls and driving to the paint and making plays. That’s what he’s used to; that’s his game. I think it’s a good role for him. Obviously, he would probably rather prefer to be starting just like everybody else, but he plays very well for us in that second unit. He gives us a spark off of the bench. He can do so many things on the court when he’s out there.”

The recent hot streak has launched the team into their most successful stretch in recent memory. Friday night’s 114-90 win over the Bucks gave the team its first largest margin of victory over a team since beating the Detroit Pistons, 119-89, on April 4, 2012.

The team’s 9-6 record in the month of November will ensure they finish with their first winning month of basketball since March of 2012. Of course, that was Dwight Howard’s last season in Orlando and that team was on their way to a playoff berth. This is a huge step in the right direction for the young team.

“If you have a winning month and then you have another winning month and if you have six winning months – you’re six games over .500 and you’re in the playoffs,” Skiles joked.

Coming into the season, Frye wasn’t regarded as a great defensive player. Last season in Orlando, Frye would often be paired up next to Vucevic in the post and the duo didn’t prove to be very effective defensively. This season, the two have performed much better together and the results are showing.

Orlando’s current starting lineup of Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Harris, Frye and Vucevic average 15 minutes together on the court and have become one of the team’s better offensive lineups. The five are scoring 112.3 points per 100 possessions, which is 17.6 points better than the team’s previous starting lineup with Oladipo. Unlike the previous lineup, this starting five features a lot more shooting, which Orlando desperately needed. This group is also better defensively, as the new starting lineup is holding teams to 9.9 fewer points per 100 possessions.

“I can’t take [all of the] credit,” Frye said. “I’m not out there doing too much. I’m just trying to be in the right place, be that steady guy. I think what I’m supposed to do out there is be that steady guy – make sure I got the right spacing, help-side defense, maybe get a block. I’m a complementary player to these guys. These guys are so talented. For me, I just enjoy the way the ball is moving.

“We’re playing good basketball and defensively we’re on the same page. We’re going to make mistakes, guys are going to make shots, but it’s fun to watch. I hope the fans see how much we’re trying to play for each other, even on defense. Nobody is yelling at each other. I think that’s good basketball.”

The Magic improved to 9-8 after defeating the Celtics on Sunday night, and currently own the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. The team has played well against some of the better opponents in the league, and could have had a better record had a couple of plays went in their favor.

It’s entirely too early to begin thinking about the Magic returning to the playoffs, but it’s clear after talking to the players in the locker room that the culture is starting to change for the better. It seems that the players are finally believing that they can win games. For some of these younger guys, this is the best success they’ve had since entering the league. Is this the best the Magic have been since Dwight Howard left?

“Definitely,” Oladipo said. “There’s no question about it. No question. It’s not even close.”

Okafor Owning up to Mistakes

Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor has had a pretty solid rookie season on the court thus far, as he currently leads his class in scoring with 17.5 points per game. The same can’t be said for his time off the court in recent weeks.

A report yesterday by the Philadelphia Inquirer claims that Okafor was stopped about three weeks ago for driving 108 mph on the Ben Franklin Bridge. The normal speed limit on the bridge is 45 mph, and the offense is considered reckless driving since he was driving at least 40 mph over the limit.

In addition to the traffic citation from three weeks ago, Okafor was also involved in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub last Thursday. Video of the fight surfaced, and it appears Okafor is seen pushing and punching a heckler (who was taunting Okafor and teammates about the 76ers’ struggles). That incident is now being investigated as a man filed a report claiming that he was the victim.

On Sunday, Okafor took to hold himself accountable and vow not to become a distraction to his team.

“I hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else ever could and I’m not proud of some of my decisions over the last few months,” Okafor tweeted. “I own my choices both personally and now publicly. At this point I am cooperating and respecting the process I have to go through.

“Going forward I don’t want to be a distraction for my team and am grateful for the support and guidance those close to me are giving. I am 100% focused on my responsibility to the league, my teammates and fans.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown said on Sunday that he’s unsure if Okafor will face discipline from the team.

“As an organization, anything like this is concerning,” Brown said. “It’s like any 19-year-old kid; you are trying to find ways to help him. He’s knows he’s made mistakes, and we know he’s made mistakes. As an organization, we will deal with them as we need to and should.”

Okafor and the 76ers return to the court on Tuesday to face off against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Sixers are trying to get their first win of the season, as they are currently 0-18.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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