Tomorrow night, Rashard Lewis will take the court in a meaningful game for the Orlando Magic for the first time since June 14th, 2009. A 10-game suspension to start the regular season due to testing positive for a banned substance has kept Lewis out of action. This 10 games he's missed to start the season exceeds the total number of game he missed in his first two seasons with Orlando combined: he missed one game in 2007/08 with a strained neck, and the final three games last season with knee tendinitis. That's it.
I believe Lewis' durability, and his soft-spoken nature--his official website listed "The Quiet Man" as one of his nicknames prior to its recent overhaul--have conspired to make Magic fans take him for granted. If there's anything the first 10 games of this season have highlighted, though, it's that this team needs him, or a player like him, in order to succeed on the offensive end.
Stan Van Gundy's game-plan since joining the Magic involves surrounding All-Star center Dwight Howard with four reliable three-point shooters. Lewis, with a career three-point percentage of 39.1%, certainly fits this description. The wrinkle is that he, a career-long small forward with the Seattle SuperSonics, has played heavily at power forward in Van Gundy's offense. Naturally, many pundits consider this decision gimmicky. If the Magic had a "true" power forward, one who could "get dirty" and "bang around inside," Orlando would enjoy more success. Thus, when the Magic signed big, burly Brandon Bass this summer, these critics assumed Bass would start at power forward and Lewis would move back to small forward. Nevermind the fact that Orlando had just reached the NBA Finals with Lewis starting 79 games at big forward, and led the NBA in three-pointers made and attempted that season.
With Lewis' suspension, the Magic turned to recently acquired, second-year man Ryan Anderson to start at power forward. Trainer/scout extraordinaire David Thorpe, of Scouts, Inc. and ESPN, told our own Eddy Rivera this summer that he regards Anderson as "Lewis-lite" due to their similar skill-sets. And through the first six games of this season, the Magic posted an offensive rating of 116.7 and an effective field goal percentage of 53.0% with Anderson contributing 15 points, and 2.8 three-pointers, per game. The Magic's offense was coasting until he sprained his ankle, which left Orlando with only Bass to play power forward.
And this is, as I'll show after the fold, where the Magic's offense went off the rails. The three games Bass started in Lewis' and Anderson's absences--before he came down with the flu, comically leaving the Magic with 0 available power forwards on a 13-man roster against the New Jersey Nets--highlighted for me just how important a floor-stretching power forward is to the Magic's offense. So I compiled data from those three games, and from the three games Lewis missed last season, to illustrate the extent to which Orlando's offense suffers when playing "traditionally," or the way most pundits prescribed in the wake of their Finals ouster.
Before showing the results, I want to first define the terms as they appear in the charts below. "Stretch" refers to a starting lineup which included a non-traditional power forward. These lineups include the 160 games Lewis started at that position, 6 from Ryan Anderson, 1 from Hedo Turkoglu, and 1 from Matt Barnes. Classifying Barnes as a "stretch" power forward is a bit dubious, as he's a career 32.6% shooter from long-range. Nonetheless, he's certainly not a "traditional" power forward, which leads me to my explanation of that term: any power forward who doesn't have three-point range. Specifically, that's Tony Battie in his three starts last season, and Bass in three starts this year.
There are obvious caveats which I'd also like to address: first, that sample size skews heavily toward "stretch": 168 data points for it compared to 6 for "traditional." Second, the three games Battie started were the final ones of last season, in which the Magic had nothing at stake. Third, neither Bass nor Battie has Lewis' level of talent, and any offense will suffer when it subtracts an All-Star and adds two career role-players. Had the Magic replaced Lewis with a "traditional" power forward who also happened to be an All-Star--Carlos Boozer springs immediately to mind--then the results may have been different. Let's bear all these facts in mind when we consider the data.
Here are the Magic's offensive statistics over the last three seasons, split by games with a "stretch" power forward and games with a "traditional" power forward in the starting lineup:
|GP||Efficiency||eFG%||FT Rate||OReb%||TO Rate|
Now here are the same numbers presented by split, and not by year:
|GP||Efficiency||eFG%||FT Rate||OReb%||TO Rate|
As is readily apparent, the Magic suffer mightily on offense when forced to start a traditional" power forward. Their efficiency drops a shade over 10%; shooting and foul-drawing dips; and only turnovers improve. Oddly, even with "traditional" power forwards--with whom we'd expect to be more successful on the glass--the Magic do not improve on their offensive rebounding, although that fact might be more of a reflection of Van Gundy's strategy of sending four men back after a shot attempt in order to shore-up transition defense.
I also measured the effect starting a stretch power forward had on the team's shot selection. Note that FGA% refers to the percentage of overall shots, while FG% refers to conversion rate.
The Magic shoot much fewer three-pointers when they field a traditional starting five; that much is obvious, because if it weren't I wouldn't have written this post. What's also significant is that they don't shoot nearly as many free throws. As New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank recently explained to the New York Times, the most efficient shots in basketball are, in order: the free throw, the layup, and the three-pointer. In other words, the Magic get fewer attempts at two of the best shots an offense can possibly get when they start a traditional lineup. Worse still, they don't make nearly as many of their two-point attempts. Their offense, in short, becomes a shell of itself. And while they have the pieces to be a top-five defensive team--they led the league in defensive efficiency last year, after all--they'd have to play stifling D every single night to compensate for such an anemic, inefficient offense.
All these data lead me to several conclusions: first, Rashard Lewis is vitally important to Orlando's success on offense. Second, the 21-year-old Ryan Anderson--whose starts comprise 6 of the 7 data points for stretch power forwards this season--figures to be a key player for Orlando this season and in the long-term. In fact, Anderson's impressed Magic fans so much that a plurality of 3QC poll respondents believe he should continue to start even when Lewis returns, which would shift Lewis to small forward.
And that's where I disagree.
Keeping Anderson in the starting lineup leaves the bench fairly bereft of firepower. Guards Jason Williams and J.J. Redick have three-point range, but are inconsistent shooters; ditto for forwards Mickael Pietrus and Barnes. Bass has missed all 11 treys he's attempted in 3773 career minutes, while center Marcin Gortat is 1-for-1 in 1026 career minutes. Conversely, moving Anderson to the bench enables the Magic to play with a floor-spacing power forward for all 48 minutes each game, if they so choose. Nothing but good can come of such an arrangement; Dwight Howard gets room to work inside, while Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter, and Pietrus have lanes through which to drive at their heart's content. The offense would never lag, at least in theory, because it would always have range at four positions. This luxury is one the Magic have never enjoyed. While it's true that they employed three-point specialist power forward Brian Cook for parts of the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, his poor rebounding, defense, and conditioning kept him out of the rotation and prevented him from making a consistent impact. Anderson figures see regular playing time, despite his needing work defensively, and is a superior rebounder to Cook.
So if it were up to me, Nelson, Carter, Barnes, Lewis, and Howard would comprise the Magic's starting five against Charlotte tomorrow night; Anderson would play a key role off the bench. And if it were up to me, we'd all take a moment to appreciate Lewis' sizable role in Orlando's success, and that NBA teams can indeed win big without a traditional power forward.