Since June 25, 2009 I've been waiting for this, arguing with anyone about the Magic's playoff chances (that is of course, not their chances of making the playoffs, or having a deep playoffs run, but rather their chances of winning the trophy to bid Amway Arena goodbye). June 25th, 2009 was, if you're not aware, the date the Magic traded Rafer Alston, Tony Battie, and Courtney Lee to the New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter, and effectively sent Hedo Turkoglu packing to Toronto. My roommate, as consummate a basketball fan as I am, lamented the trade, loosing entire tirades about Vince's inability to take the team deep into the playoffs and how much Toronto fans hated him for his lack of toughness, determination, and overall drive to win (ironically many of the things Toronto fans now hate about Turkoglu). It's nearly impossible to disagree with history, so I would soothe myself knowing that Turkoglu ridiculous contract would never be worth what he could bring to the table. Losing Courtney Lee didn't help much either, but still I couldn't help but feel that Vince, playing in as close to his hometown as he could get, would have a career re-invigorating year. Our argument's have lasted from the ecstatic beginnings of the preseason through the honestly awful winter months and January and right on through to spring, and all season they've ended exactly where I'm sure millions of other debates have as well, at "we'll see what happens in the playoffs." Well tomorrow the playoffs start, and we're not alone in having our disagreements about Vince Carter, just the other day Bill Simmons tore into Vince Carter and the Magic's playoff hopes for many of the same reasons my roommate has. In particular he asks "Where are you going to go in the last three minutes of a tight game?" Well what will the Magic likely do in the last three minutes of a close game, and how will it stack up to last year?
Last year during the regular season Hedo Turkoglu had about a 48.2% Usage in clutch time (defined as the final 5 minutes or overtime of a game in which neither team leads by more than 5). Out of his teammates who were usually on the floor during that time, Jameer Nelson/Rafer Alston (I've simply combined them due to the fact that neither played during the same time in the regular season) got the highest usage at 50.7%, Rashard Lewis followed at 42% Usage, and Dwight got the lowest 32% Usage. The results aren't surprising in that you see two shoot-first point guards taking up a large share of the usage, Turkoglu, the Magic's dominant shot-creator in the clutch taking up quite a big of usage himself, Rashard Lewis benefiting heavily from being on the weak side of Turkoglu and Dwight Howard's plays (I'll get to this in a minute) and consequently getting left open more often than he should have been for either the spot-up 3 or the hockey assist, and Dwight not touching the ball too much out of fear of fouls. Not that that means that Dwight didn't have a serious impact on the Magic's offense in the clutch last year, it was simply that he would set the high pick for Hedo Turkoglu, roll down the lane, and more often than not either open up a shot for Turkoglu (who gets credit for usage here for being the ball handler) off the pick, or force help defense off of the opposing team's power forward leaving Rashard open, and so without ever once touching the ball enable the Magic's offense to flow.
There are two notes to make about Hedo's place in the Magic's clutch offense in the 2008-2009 regular season. First is that, as the Usage numbers indicate, Hedo Turkoglu was not the Magic's primary playmaker and ball handler in the clutch until Jameer Nelson went down with his knee injury. The second is that the Magic simply didn't have very many clutch games with Jameer Nelson in the starting line-up last year, with the five man unit of Nelson-Lee-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard and outscoring their opponents by an average .2 points per possession, and outscoring them by a combined 120 points in 21 games. Likewise the earlier line-up of Nelson-Bogans-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard outscored their opponents by a combined 112 in 21 games. Once Jameer Nelson went down however, the Magic's starting unit of Alston-Lee-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard outscored it's opponents combined by a measly 21 points in a total of 23 games. During this stretch and on into the playoffs Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard defined the late-2000's Magic with the strength and consistency of running the 3/5 pick and roll in the clutch.
Unsurprisingly, in the 2009 Playoffs Hedo Turkoglu's clutch usage jumps up to 52.6% Usage. Also unsurprisingly, the Magic's usage at the point guard position dips considerably down to 36.5% Clutch Usage for Rafer Alston, largely leaving Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, who rocket up to 36.6% Clutch Usage and 48.2% Clutch Usage respectively, to pick up the slack. In the 2009 Playoffs with Hedo Turkoglu as the Magic's primary ball-handler and play-maker in the clutch the Magic ran several different variations of a single play, the 3/5 pick and roll, nearly 50% of the time. The play was in fact extremely effective, and even in a basic diagram not assuming the threat of Rashard Lewis shooting the long ball in the corner the play had an efficiency of 51.25% and could have been expected to score 102.5 points per 100 possessions. If you assume, as I did, that the Magic ran some variation of the 3/5 pick and roll in the clutch approximately 50% of the time, you could actually predict that the Magic would have run and scored off of the play a stunning 25.6% of the time. In fact, you could almost say that Hedo Turkoglu and the Orlando Magic pick and rolled their way right into the NBA Finals, where Phil Jackson saw what was going on and shut it down. Sure, there were definitely plenty of other factors that affected who won the championship (Kobe's pure will, the Magic's inexperience, the reintroduction of Jameer Nelson in Game 1, Lamar Odom, about 1/100 of a second in Game 2, Pau Gasol's strong post play, Trevor Ariza's 3 point shooting) it certainly couldn't have hurt for the Magic to have had a few more efficient, effective plays to run in those almost unbearably down to the wire crunch-time losses in games 2 and 4 that ultimately came pretty close to deciding the series. Is it any surprise that the Magic lost when the most he could muster was a combined 46.9% shooting from the field on 12.3 shots and an average of 3 assists per game? Considering that Turkoglu averaged 3.6 assists per 48 minutes of clutch time, what must have been particularly disconcerting for the Magic was his inability to create the open looks not only for himself during those losses, but also for his teammates.
*Let's assume that given Turk's usage etc. that the Magic ran this play about 50% of the time in the clutch.
(75% Turk) ----------- (47.6% Jumper)
+ 11.9% .0682 6.9% .0686
(25% Dwight) --------------(57.1% Close)-------------(100% Dunk)
11.5% (65.5% Foul Shots) .0188
+ 20.1% .0669
(75% Turk) ---------------(33.3% Close)--------------
10.7% (83.3% Foul Shots) .0668
51.25% x 50% = 25.6%
The chances that the Magic ran the 3/5 Pick and Roll with Dwight and Turk in clutch time and scored are 25.6%.
The play had a scoring rate 51.25%
*A sidenote to this is that Rashard's usage increased due to defenders often leaving him open for the weakside 3 to defend Howard in the paint after the roll.
Given that the more often a play is run, the less likely it is to be effective it's not surprising that the Magic decided to bring in new blood to last year's high-achieving NBA Finalists- they had hit their ceiling. We could have always waited around for Dwight Howard to improve offensively (which he has) and become a better foul-shooter and indispensable in the clutch (not quite yet), but instead Otis Smith and the Magic front office were aggressive and blew apart the team that had won 59 games last year and made it to the NBA Finals and acquired Matt Barnes, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, Jason Williams, and Vince Carter. Now at the end of another 59 win season, what can we expect from Vince Carter and crew in the clutch the playoffs?
When Otis Smith traded for Vince Carter, it was widely assumed that the he was acquired to be the Man for the Magic in clutch time, when the Magic simply can't run the inside-out offense they run for the other 43 minutes of the game because of Dwight's foul-shooting. He came in as a replacement for Hedo Turkoglu, lovingly dubbed Mr. Fourth Quarter (on a sidenote: one of my favorite what-if basketball scenarios is when I wonder what the Magic would look like now if we had resigned Chauncey Billups, Mr. Big Shot, in 2000 and now had him running the point and hitting the clutch shots in the fourth). Although at times he's looked absolutely awful Vinsanity has certainly stepped it up in the clutch picking up 70.1% of the Magic's clutch usage. And not only that but he's scored 74 points, notched 4 assists, grabbed 14 rebounds, and had a block in about 89 minutes. The Magic also have Jameer Nelson pulling in 51% Clutch Usage, scoring 36 points and notching 9 assists in a much more limited 67.8 minutes. In the frontcourt, Rashard Lewis is gaining about 35.3% Clutch Usage, and Dwight's only getting about 28% Clutch Usage. The first thing that jumps out here, apart from Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson's stellar play (in the estimated 5 minutes of clutch time the backcourt duo would score about 6.5 points by themselves as opposed to the average 2.4 points provided by Turkoglu) is the lack of usage for not just Dwight Howard, but Rashard as well. Why would the Magic move away from a shooter like Rashard with ice in his veins?
The answer is simple, beginning in late February (coincidentally, also when the Magic began to roll) the Magic introduced a new play that they run often in the clutch now, the 1/2 Pick and Roll between Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter. It's play that the Magic have quietly begun to use commonly, judging on the clutch usage for Nelson and Carter, even up to approximately one-third of the time down the stretch. It's a pretty effective play too, a basic chart of it not including the option for a kick-out to an open shooter, gives it an efficiency of about 46.5%. That means that if the Magic continue to use this play as their go-to play down the stretch in the playoffs we can expect to see them score off of running it approximately 15.5% of the time. Of course, the Magic are still extremely effective in the clutch running off of picks set by Dwight Howard, and often run two plays based off of this as well, the 2/5 pick and roll with Vince and Dwight, and the 1/5 with Jameer and Dwight. It seems like the Magic run these plays a little over one-fifth of the time, but given that they have been used less and less frequently and that it makes the theoretical math much easier let's assume that they are each used one-sixth of the time down the stretch. While neither of these plays is as remarkably effective as the 3/5 pick and roll with Dwight and Turkoglu was (as in fact neither is the 1/2 pick and roll) both are still quite effective with the 2/5 pick and roll effective 44.2% of the time, and the 1/5 pick and roll effective 43.7% percent of the time. Altogether the Magic look likely to run these three plays at least two-thirds of the time in the clutch, for 43.3% efficiency, and 86.6 points produced per 100 possessions. Altogether you could expect to see the Magic score off of one of these plays about 29.8% of the time.
*Approximately 1/3 of the time it's the 1/2 Pick and Roll
1/6 of the time it's the 2/5 Pick and Roll
1/6 of the time it's the 1/5 Pick and Roll
the rest of the time it's transition offense, Vince isolations, plays for Rashard, offensive rebounds etc.
25% 16.9% .0721 4.4% .0183 1.2% .0012
(Vince)------------- (42.7% Jumper)-------------(41.7% Close)------------(100% Dunk)
10% (86.2% Foul Shots) +
+ 3.0% .0152 1.7% .0017
16.6% (Dwight)-----------(50% Close)---------------(100% Dunk)
56.7% (50% Foul Shots)
25% 18.1% .0793 5.4% .0232
(Jameer) ----------- (43.8% Jumper)-------------(42.9% Close)----------------------
6.1% (60.0% Foul Shots)
The chances that the Magic will run these playsets and score in the clutch are 28.9%.
The playsets have a scoring rate of 43.3%
At first, these numbers seem to be a clear indication that the Orlando Magic were a far superior team in the clutch with Hedo Turkoglu last season than they are right now. Their bread and butter play, the 3/5 pick and roll was remarkably effective and probably got them all the way to the NBA Finals. This year the Magic face a tough match-up against Cleveland, and their impact plays are markedly less effective. But what's worth at least an interesting footnote is the notion, proposed by Brian Skinner at this years MIT Sloan Conference, that sometimes teams become more effective overall when they rely less heavily on a single effective play or player. This year's Orlando Magic may be one of the most anarchist in basketball, no one expects to have to be looking at Vince Carter and saying "Save us!," the team is expected to have to come up with shots by playing smart basketball. In fact I'm more worried about Vince trying to create his own shot and firing off deep threes with a hand in face than I am about the Magic not being able to get quality looks at the basket in the clutch.
Hedo Turkoglu and last year's playoff Magic basketball team relied to heavily on a single play. Certainly the play highlighted what a match-up nightmare the Magic's front court of Turkoglu, Howard, and Lewis could be and shocked the Cavs, whose weak front court wasn't able to keep pace, but against the Laker's Gasol fortified front court, and even against the decimated (yes, not having KG counts as decimated) Boston Celtics front court the Magic's reliance on a single play, no matter how effective it was, turned from an asset into a liability. John Hollinger recently looked into the value of match-ups in the NBA Playoffs, and found that apart from the first round, they hardly ever affect who wins the series because the best teams simply have the talent to get it done. Last year the Magic got to NBA Finals because of a favorable match-up with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year, we wouldn't have been so lucky, but it doesn't matter anymore because we have the all-around talent to back it up.
In the end, I'm not sure we'll ever know whether Vince Carter was a better pick-up than Hedo Turkoglu. It's even possible that he'll have been better for the Magic, as a team, by being less effective. What is not a debate however, is that this year's Orlando Magic team entering the playoffs is better than last year's team. The starting five man unit entering the playoffs this year Nelson-Carter-Barnes-Lewis-Howard have outscored their opponents 17.1% more of the time than last year's unit of Alston-Lee-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard. They also boast outscoring their opponents by a combined 184 points over 43 games and .13 points per possession. And not only that but the Magic's bench has improved as well. So much so in fact that JJ Redick is averaging an astonishing 21.7 points per 48 minutes of clutch time, good for third best on the Magic. So how's this for redemption- could you imagine JJ Redick being the top clutch creator on an NBA champ? Because if Vince does end up tweaking his ankle, that just might be what you see.