The Orlando Magic have once again reached the point where they need to focus on next season. Big man Khem Birch is trying to ensure he is in the team’s plans.
For the Orlando Magic, their disappointing season flamed out before the turn of the year and has resulted in them once more hovering above the bottom of the Eastern conference standings.
At 14-32, they are going nowhere fast, with fans already much more excited about which high lottery pick will be joining their core next season.
While on paper it looks like a new and dynamic point guard is what is needed most, there are still plenty of young players on this team who could stick around for the long-term. Rookie Jonathan Isaac is one of those, while Aaron Gordon (a restricted free agent this summer), most certainly should be.
Beyond that there is no telling which faces will remain on the team, but one young player who is doing all he can to earn more playing time is center Khem Birch. An afterthought to begin the season, Birch has found himself in the rotation recently for a couple of reasons.
The injury to big man Nikola Vucevic is the key injury leading to minutes for Birch, but also the fact that head coach Frank Vogel needs to try new lineup combinations to see what works for the future.
The Magic have gone 2-8 over their last 10 games — completely to be expected, only those two wins came against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics. That we didn’t see coming. Birch has found himself backup minutes over the past three games, so how much of their mini-revival is down to his play on this team? Better still, can it last?
At 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds in a 10-game career for the team, none of which he has started, Birch isn’t exactly an active contributor when it comes to the box score each night.
But what the 25-year-old is doing is exactly what the team would have wanted to when it brought him over from Europe during the offseason: play with an energy and enthusiasm on both ends that would be infectious throughout the whole team.
It is hard to say just how much Birch’s insertion into the rotation has coincided with the apparent uptick in urgency on the court, but it has been noticeable.
In the past three games, Birch has played 19 (win vs. Timberwolves), 17 (loss vs. Cleveland Cavaliers) and 17 (win vs Celtics) minutes for the team.
Of the modest stats he has put up, the most impressive of all was having a plus/minus rating of +13 against the Timberwolves, which was the joint-highest on the team on the night. That win against Minnesota got even better for Birch too, as he posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
For the season, he is also averaging a fantastic Player Efficiency Rating (league average 15) of 20.9. That is the second-highest ranking on the team after Vucevic.
It is nice to see Birch take advantage of receiving more playing time, but is there any proof in this admittedly tiny same size that he is helping the team as well? It is tough to say with complete certainty, but the Magic are trending in the right direction as a unit defensively now as well.
Currently owning the 27th defensive rating (108.5) in the league is awful, and only teams like the Cavaliers (29th) and Sacramento Kings (30th) are worse than the Magic on that end right now.
But over the last three games and against teams seeded no lower than third in their respective conferences, the Magic have the seventh-best rating on that end at 101.2.
Can we credit Birch solely with this small turnaround? Probably not, and yet there are no other real reasons the team would make such a big jump while facing quality opposition.
Bismack Biyombo deserves some credit here as well. He had 16 rebounds against the Timberwolves and is just a solid defensive presence who knows how to protect the paint.
His confidence continues to improve as this team’s starting big man, but it is when you combine his skill-set with Birch that their apparent defensive improvement begins to make sense.
The team now gets 48 minutes of quality defensive play from their big men, either through experience (Biyombo) or sheer desire to play hard and stick with this team (Birch).
Vucevic has been a great servant to this organization, and he can do things offensively that neither of the other two will ever be able to. But he has always struggled defensively and at this point doesn’t even look particularly bothered on that end. Not when he can come down the floor and score on his opponent in a variety of ways.
That being said, Biyombo is having the worst year of his career statistically on the defensive end (109.8), with Birch being even worse (110.5). Still, the two haven’t had a chance to ensure one is on the court at all times before now, and early returns have been positive for both players and the team.
That’s really about all the Orlando Magic can hope for at this point of the season. Either they’ve stumbled across a young and cheap big man who will make trading Nikola Vucevic easier to do, or else they’ve got a long-term replacement when Bismack Biyombo’s monster $72 million contract comes off the books in 2020.
Either way, the play of Khem Birch has become a small bright spot in what has been a miserable season up to this point.