Investigating the Orlando Magic's Struggling Defense against Point Guards

Following his team's 101-93 loss to the Chicago Bulls last night, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy noted three areas of concern for his team in recent games: its inability to get All-Star center Dwight Howard the ball in the low-post, its power forwards' inability to keep opponents off the offensive glass, and its point guards' poor defense. You can read some of Van Gundy's comments in John Denton's analysis at OrlandoMagic.com. What I'd like to focus on is that third point, about defending opposing point guards. Here's Van Gundy, as quoted by Denton:

"Virtually every night now it's the point guard who is the leading scorer. It's not all one-on-one with the point guards because they are in pick-and-rolls a lot, but we've got to get that figured out."

Overall, "virtually every night" is a bit of an overstatement, but not lately: the opponent's starting point guard has led his team in scoring in each of Orlando's last 3 games, but just 5 times in 33 contests so far. It's easy to see why Van Gundy's concerned. Orlando is 2-1 in its last games and 3-2 in those situations overall, but can't continue to give up 20-point performances to opposing point guards and expect to have a great season, which is why I've done some digging at basketball-reference.com and Hoopdata.com. I wanted to know what "clicks" for Magic opposing point guards in winning efforts.

This exercise is highly unscientific, and I wish I had the time and resources necessary to give it the attention it deserves. For instance, these data don't account for who was actually on the floor guarding these opposing point guards. They don't account for defensive switches. They don't account for well-defended shots that went in anyway, or poorly defended shots that somehow missed. They don't account for flukey shooting nights when the Magic let an opposing point guard take inefficient shots in areas in which they normally struggle, only for those shots to drop. They don't account for backup point guards at all. So please, take everything I'm about to present with a shaker of salt.

Orlando Magic Opposing Point Guard Statistics, Per-Game, By Result, 2009-10 NBA Season
Result Mins Pts Rebs Asts TOs 3FGA FTA eFG% TS% %Ast
ORL Wins 32.7 14.5 3.3 5.3 1.9 1.4 2.8 47.9% 51.3% 34.0
ORL Losses 37.4 19.2 5.8 8.4 2.9 2.4 6.1 49.2% 55.4% 18.6

Quickly, what jumps out at you? For me, it's the rebounding, assists, and free-throw attempts. In Magic losses, the opposing point guard is quite simply all over the place, creating shots for himself, for his teammates, hitting the glass, drawing fouls, and coughing the ball up a few times. That's a lot of activity. If a player managed to post similar averages over the course of a single season, he'd be in some elite company.

Also, check the stat in the rightmost column: that's the percentage of the player's shots that were assisted. The sharp contrast between wins and losses indicates that Orlando is in trouble when opposing point guards create off the dribble for themselves. Individual game logs bear that out, to a degree: when Mo Williams scored 28 against the Magic in a Cavaliers rout, none of his 12 field goals were assisted. But when Orlando defeated Minnesota two nights ago, it did so despite Jonny Flynn's 23 points. He didn't attempt any shots within 10 feet from the basket, and was assisted on 4 of his 7 baskets. That's a point guard not terribly interested in creating for himself. Also, take a look at this list of starting point guards who've faced the Magic twice, and their records against the Magic this year:

Record for Opposing Point Guards agains the Orlando Magic, 2009/10 NBA Season (min: 2 starts)
Player Team Rec. vs. ORL
Jose Calderon TOR 0-2
Chris Duhon NYK 0-2
Raymond Felton CHA 0-2
Brandon Jennings MIL 0-2
Steve Nash PHO 1-1
Rajon Rondo BOS 1-1
Rodney Stuckey DET 1-1
Russell Westbrook OKC 1-1
Deron Williams UTA 1-1

Yes, with the exception of Stuckey, each of the point guards with .500 records against Orlando plays for a .500-or-better team, so their improved record stands to reason. But look at the point guards who are winless against the Magic this year. Of the four, only Jennings is a real offensive dynamo. Calderon, Duhon, and Felton are conservative, "game-manager" types. The rest of the lot are either table-setters (Nash, Rondo, Williams) or hyperaggressive pogo sticks (Stuckey, Westbrook). These are unscientific classifications, to be sure, but still interesting.

But what happens if we examine opposing point guards not by wins and losses, but instead by whom Orlando trotted out against them?

Orlando Magic Opposing Point Guard Statistics, Per-Game, By Orlando Starter, 2009-10 NBA Season
Magic Starter Mins Pts Rebs Asts TOs 3FGA FTA eFG% TS% %Ast
Nelson 34.4 18.1 4.5 5.5 2.4 3.4 4.3 50.2% 53.9% 27.4
Williams 33.5 13.6 3.5 6.7 1.9 2.7 3.2 46.0% 51.1% 32.1

No, Jameer Nelson doesn't come out looking great here, does he? It's hard to ignore the shooting percentage splits between him and Jason Williams, but there might be an explanation: competition. As the first table suggested, Orlando has struggled with aggressive, high-energy point guards who create for themselves. (aside: who doesn't struggle with them?) Williams didn't face many such players during his 17-game stint starting for Orlando. In fact, he went 4 consecutive games starting against Mike Bibby, Jennings, and Duhon (twice) in which the opposing point guard did not attempt a single free throw! During that stretch, the opposing point guards were assisted on 36.8% of his baskets. Quite a favorable bit of scheduling there.

Again, there are a lot of questions these numbers just can't answer, and variables for which they can't account. Statisticians more qualified to comment than I am probably would be of more use. But this cursory look at the data gives us a clearer idea of the factors that may indicate Orlando will be in for a long night as far as defending point guards is concerned.

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