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Orlando Magic Free-Agent Point Guard Primer, Part One: Unrestricted Targets

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In his post-NBA Draft media availability session, Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith twice mentioned that one of the roster needs he will address via free agency is a backup point guard for starter Jameer Nelson. In anticipation of the free-agency negotiating period, which starts Thursday, I thought it'd make sense to look over some of the unrestricted veterans--that is, players whose teams cannot retain their services simply by matching their offer sheet--point guards who might be available. These players are, alphabetically, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon, Luke Ridnour, and Earl Watson. We'll take a look at some of the restricted options a bit later on.

And no, none of those guys can put the Magic over the top. That's not the idea here. This is a player who will ideally only log 15 minutes a night behind Nelson, and do so without undermining the team's chances. To use a baseball analogy, Smith doesn't need to hit a home run with this signing; he merely needs to reach base, and if that means an infield it, that's OK.

The ideal point guard in the Magic's offense can accomplish the following tasks, listed in no particular order:

  • Run the pick-and-roll efficiently;

  • shoot the three-pointer;

  • create his own shot;

  • and take care of the ball.

Youth and the ability to defend are important factors to consider as well.

I've included jump-cuts to make navigating the behemoth of a post a bit easier.

Steve Blake | Chris Duhon | Luke Ridnour | Earl Watson


Steve Blake

Blake's a rare sort of NBA journeyman: he's played for 5 different teams in 7 seasons, including two stints with Portland, yet he's started nearly 60% of the games in which he's appeared. You'd think a guy with as many different stops in his relatively brief career would be a full-time backup, but you'd be wrong, at least so far. Blake is transitioning into that stage of his career, though. He split last season between Portland and the L.A. Clippers, to whom the Trail Blazers sent him in exchange for Marcus Camby. The statistics used in this post reflect his time in Portland last year, because that's where he played most of his minutes.

In the pick-and-roll, Blake doesn't fare so well, producing 0.657 points per possession when he calls his own number--which is mercifully just 36.3% of the time he runs it--according to Synergy Sports Technology. It's easy to understand why: his limited athleticism and creativity means he's hardly able to get all the way to the basket; not once, in the 70 possessions he ran the pick and roll and didn't pass the ball, did he earn any free throws. He's also turnover-prone, which further reduces his effectiveness in these situations.

So what's there to like about Blake? As a passer in the pick-and-roll, he's dynamite. He tends to find the big man rolling to the basket--67 times in 123 possessions--and Orlando has, in Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat, two tremendously efficient roll-man targets.

Blake also has three-point range on his jumper, with a 39.3% mark for his career, and 39.5% last year combined between the Blazers and Clippers. It's not a sample-size issue, either, as he's averaged no fewer than 2.1 trey attempts per game in any of his pro seasons, and nearly half of his overall shot attempts have come from the outside.

What's less encouraging, though, is that he can't get that three-pointer on his own. Indeed, teammates have assisted 91.4% of Blake's three-pointers over the last four seasons, and that's with four different teams with four different offenses. He can't create his own shot, be it a three-pointer or a two.

Where Blake looks great is in terms of taking care of the ball. John Hollinger's Pure Point Rating, a time-adjusted measure of passing efficiency which counts a turnover as more harmful than an assist is helpful, rates Blakes as among the league's most careful ballhandlers; his combined 5.8 rating last year tied him with LeBron James for 10th among qualified players.

Synergy rates Blake's defense as "very good," but there's a big red flag, one that should be expected. His lack of athleticism makes him an incredible liability in isolation situations, which accounted for nearly one-in-five of the possessions he defended last year in Portland. Teams know that weakness, and exploit it. In Orlando, he'd have Howard and Gortat covering for him, which helps mitigate that a bit. Still, that's a worrisome weakness for a team that values defense as much as the Magic do.

Blake's efficient distributing and threat of an outside shot make him mildly attractive for Orlando, yet his inability to get his own shot presents a problem: with teams always playing him for the pass, how can he keep the offense going? In all, he sounds like merely a younger version of Jason Williams, whom he'd replace were the Magic to sign him, albeit one without the requisite speed or inclination to push the ball. He's worth keeping an eye on.

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Chris Duhon

Two years ago, Smith made Duhon his top target in free agency, offering him a portion of the mid-level exception for three years to back up Nelson and play for a winning program. The Knicks offered him more money, as well as the chance to start, over fewer years. He chose that, and the privilege of playing in New York City, over being Nelson's caddy, and Smith gave Mickael Pietrus the money he initially earmarked for Duhon. Funny how that all turned out.

What makes Duhon intriguing is that he's familiar with a pick-and-roll-heavhy system, having played the "Steve Nash" role in Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less offense for the Knicks over the last two seasons. Thanks largely to David Lee's incredible finishing ability, Duhon rates well as a pick-and-roll player, producing 1.016 points per possessions counting his offense and that of other players for whom he creates in the pick-and-roll. As is the case with Blake, though, it's the "his offense" part of the equation that needs work. Duhon committed turnovers 20.8% of the time in his own pick-and-roll offense, which ranks 50th among the 51 players with a minimum of 200 pick-and-roll possessions.

Duhon is a competent three-point shooter, with a 36.2% career mark and a 37.2% showing with the Knicks. He uses fewer possessions overall than Blake--his usage rate of 13.1 is lower than Blake's of 14.8--yet when he does, he's more likely to get his own shot, as he's assisted on a shade less than half his baskets. The point being that he seems capable enough when it comes to getting his offense.

Duhon rates ahead of Blake in terms of playmaking efficiency, with the 8th-best Pure Point Rating in the NBA last season.

Though similar to Blake in a lot of ways on offense, he's like Blakezarro on the other side of the floor: an excellent individual defender (0.676 points per possession yielded in isolation settings) who struggles to execute team schemes. The increased emphasis on defense in Orlando may help him tighten up, however.

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Luke Ridnour

Ridnour had a tremendous second season under Scott Skiles in Milwaukee, with career-bests in percentages from the field, three-point range, and the foul line. He also posted the second-best assist rate,and best turnover rate, of hsi career, while appearing in all 82 games for the first time since 2004/05, his sophomore NBA campaign. Contract-year push? Some dumb luck? Both? Neither? Whatever the reason, Ridnour's value has never been higher.

For a guy with such a slight frame and limited athleticism, Ridnour sure can get his own shot. Surprisingly, he's more likely to look for that out of the pick-and-roll than he is to find a teammate, though that might be a product of his role in Milwaukee rather than a true reflection of his abilities. His balance as a pick-and-roll player, in terms of passing, is really remarkable: 47.2% of the time his passes found their way to spot-up shooters, but 45% of the time he sent them to the roll-man instead. Coupled with his aggressiveness--he called his own number on 57.8% of his pick-and-rolls--he's a guy who can put a surprising level of pressure on a defense.

The three-pointer was kind to him as well, as he hit 38.1% of his triple-tries last year. It could be a fluke, however, as the only time he approached that level of three-point proficiency was in 2004/05, when he drained 37.6% of his treys as a SuperSonic. His jump-shooting last season seems flukey, as his 57% showing on long two-pointers--after connecting on 44%, 41%, ad 45% in the three years prior--attests. Orlando can't expect him to duplicate that performance if it signs him.

Ridnour's Pure Point Rating of 6.3 bests Blakes and is just shy of Duhon's but he didn't play enough minutes to qualify for KnickerBlogger's leaderboard. His defense is similarly nondescript: though he's not an asset, Synergy's data don't paint him as the liability his reputation suggests he is.

Given the options so far, Ridnour's the best of the bunch, but also the most costly. And there's no guarantee he will be able to even approximate his productivity from last season. From that standpoint, it might behoove the Magic to save some money by getting a less talented, but more known, commodity. But Ridnour's ability to create for himself makes him a tougher cover, which is something the Magic ought to consider.

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Earl Watson

Hoo, boy. Watson is the least offensively-inclined player surveyed in this post. If the thought of Steve Blake trying to generate his own shot frightened you, well, you need to steel yourself for Watson's numbers. In 138 pick-and-rolls in which he called his own number, Watson produced a staggeringly horrible 0.580 points per possession, including more turnovers (44) than field goals. In fact, his 31.9% turnover rate was dead-last, by a wide margin, among the 95 players who ran at least 100 pick-and-rolls for themselves. He shot just 12-of-30, with 8 turnovers, when he tried taking the ball all the way to the basket. He is a nightmare, really, and doesn't merit guarding.

But--did you see the "but" coming?--there's a major caveat: of all the players surveyed here, he's the best at generating offense for others in the pick-and-roll, with 1.176 points per possession.

The book on Watson is fairly simple: he can get others involved, but that's about it. Blake, Duhon, and Ridnour have outside shots on which to rely, but the same is not true of Watson, who nonetheless takes two-thirds of his jumpers from beyond the arc, at a 30.5% clip. The turnovers and lack of range make him a poor fit in the Magic's offense.

But--predictable yet?--he's one of the top defenders among all free-agent point guards.

Watson happens to be the subject of the most spot-on Ball Don't Lie Create-A-Caption yet. The runner-up caption fits neatly with the idea I'm trying to convey in this post.

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Summarily, if the Magic want a point guard who can break a defense down off the dribble, they might have to look elsewhere. However, each of these players could be useful, albeit to varying degrees, in the Magic's offense were they to sign here. Were I making the personnel moves, I would rank Ridnour first, Duhon second, Blake third, and Watson fourth. Of course, Smith's opinion, and yours, may vary.