The Orlando Magic sure can't have too many complaints about their performance since acquiring Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark on December 18th. Since the four newcomers joined the team, Orlando's gone 10-4 with an average victory margin of 8.1 points, a mark which would lead the league if sustained over the course of a full season. But a major issue still remains: they get off to poor starts in the first quarter, often having to play catch-up in the final 36 minutes.
Since the trades, Orlando is 3-11 in first quarters with a -2.5 average scoring margin. As Richardson told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel following last night's win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, in which the Magic trailed by 9 points after the first quarter, "We can't do that, especially against good teams. They'll bury us."
Coach Stan Van Gundy has said he may look at changing his starting lineup, but elected to go with the same group of Jameer Nelson, Richardson, Turkoglu, Brandon Bass, and Dwight Howard against Minnesota. That group didn't do its job facing a poor offensive team missing its most versatile scorer, Michael Beasley, yielding 29 points on an estimated 23 possessions.
To diagnose the problem, I culled boxscore stats for the first quarters of all 14 Magic games since the newcomers' arrival, and then looked at the Four Factors. The results are a little disheartening.
So here's the Four Factors carnage. The first row shows the Magic's first-quarter offense compared to its season average, with the second showing its defense. Note that opponent free-throw rate is the only category, of eight surveyed, in which Orlando has bested its season averages in first quarters since the deals.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
Orlando's mark of 99.4 points per 100 first-quarter possessions during this stretch would rank last in the league, while its defensive mark of 111.5 allowed would rank 28th. The efficiency differential, 12.1, would also rank dead last. Essentially, Orlando has played like a lottery team, a really awful one, in the first quarters since the trades.
What's strangest here is the Magic's lack of defensive rebounding. Overall, Orlando's the league's top defensive rebounding team this year, snagging 77.6 percent of available opponent misses. But in their last 14 first quarters, that figure has slipped to 72.8 percent.
The Magic's stats pick up across the board throughout the rest of the game, but it is troubling that there's no one obvious, single area they need to improve. Perhaps these data suggest a lack of focus, energy, or intensity, especially considering how high Orlando's ceiling gets in subsequent periods.
The Magic simply haven't played winning basketball in first quarters, and I mean "winning basketball" in the literal, statistically proven way. They shoot poorly, don't rebound their own misses, turn the ball over, and don't get to the free throw line. At the other end, they permit their opponents to shoot well, permit their opponents to grab offensive rebounds, don't force turnovers at their already near-the-bottom rate, and send their opponent to the foul line more often than their average.
What doesn't show up expressly in that chart is Orlando's poor mark from long range. The Magic are 27-of-83 (32.5 percent) on three-pointers in the first quarters since the deals, and that includes and explosive, 7-of-9 outing in the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are on pace to become the worst three-point defensive team of all time. So, against teams not on track to set a historically bad defensive precedent, Orlando is 20-of-74 (27 percent) on triples in first quarters. The Magic rely on the three-pointer for much of their offense, and they haven't gotten many threes to start them off since the trades. That's becoming an issue.
Of course, since the trades allowed Van Gundy to keep a tight, eight-man rotation with every cog a scoring threat--as opposed to his pre-trade rotation which featured Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson, and Marcin Gortat, three specialists--Orlando's more apt to shoot its way back into games now than before, which is totally fine. Plenty of coaches would love to boast a second unit as explosive as Orlando's of Arenas, J.J. Redick, and Ryan Anderson. But getting off to stronger starts eliminates the necessity of relying on reserves, or the opponent's mistakes, to get the Magic back into the game.
Van Gundy's biggest problem here is that the new starters simply don't play well together. As of BasketballValue.com's last update, on January 11th, the current starting group had logged 108.5 minutes together, with a -7 scoring differential. On balance, that's not terrible--it's not as though that crew's getting killed--but a team with championship aspirations certainly needs a better five-man combination to get things rolling immediately after tipoff. It's possible the new crew simply needs time to jell, and soon enough it'll start rolling teams. But that may not ever happen, which is why Van Gundy should strongly consider shuffling his rotation.
The most obvious fix, since Bass has slumped and Anderson's caught fire, would be to swap those two at power forward. In his last three games, Bass is 10-of-34 from the floor for 24 points, adding 18 rebounds in 77 minutes. Anderson's 15-of-30 from the floor, and 10-of-20 from three-point range, in the same span, pouring in 44 points and 24 boards in 73 minutes.
The tricky thing about this switch is it might be too soon, too knee-jerk. But I think it makes sense on paper, even considering that Bass probably can't play much worse, and Anderson would be hard pressed to do more. Anderson spreads the floor with his three-point shooting--which, as I noted, has been a prblem for the Magic here--giving Turkoglu and Nelson another weapon in their high screen-and-rolls with Howard. I believe adding another three-point threat would help the Magic get even more from Turkoglu, whose work with Rashard Lewis in pick-and-pop situations during their shared time in Orlando proved nearly impossible to defend.
To be fair, Bass has great range for a big man as well, shooting 49.4 percent on two-point jumpers from beyond 17 feet, according to Synergy Sports Technology; it's not as though his range is particularly limited.
And there is the human component to consider, of course. Early this season, Van Gundy occasionally started Anderson at power forward and moved Lewis to small forward based on matchups, but Anderson failed to impress the coach and soon fell out of the rotation, opening the door for Bass to eventually take the full-time starting role. As a result of his uninspiring starts, Anderson owns the distinction of averaging more minutes per game off the bench (18) than as a starter (10.8).
I've gone pretty far afield here, once again discussing Bass and Anderson relative to one another rather than on their own merits. The original focus was on the Magic's poor play in the first quarters, and that's the subject to which I now return in order to wrap this up. Orlando has to get more, on both ends, from its players at the start of games. Rotating Anderson into the starting lineup may help, but it's only one potential solution. Simply coming out and playing harder, with more purpose and a sharper focus, would help the Magic achieve their full potential. That they have, on average, outscored their opponents by 10.6 points in the final three quarters of their games since the trades indicates they have the talent, on both sides of the ball, to become a true NBA juggernaut.