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Turnovers Stymie Orlando Magic's Offense

Of all the problems the Orlando Magic must try to correct before the playoffs begin next month, turnovers might be the most prominent. The Magic needed overtime to dispatch a pesky Milwaukee Bucks team missing Andrew Bogut, its best player, last night due in part to Orlando's butterfingers, as it coughed the ball up 19 times in 92 trips down the floor. It was the Magic's second straight game with a turnover rate over 20, as they committed 18 miscues in just 85 possessions Monday night against the L.A. Lakers.

"If that [turnover] number’s going to be 17, 18, 19 every night, then we’re not going anywhere at playoff time. We’re just not," coach Stan Van Gundy told the media following the victory last night, and he's right.

Turnovers, and the fluidity of his team's offense in general, have worried Van Gundy since training camp. The midseason acquisitions of Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas were meant in part to boost the Magic's passing and playmaking, which in theory would mean reduced turnovers. On a season-long level, it's worked, as the Magic have trimmed their turnover rate by one percentage point since the deals. But in their last nine games, in which they own a 5-4 record, the Magic have committed 150 turnovers in just 824 possessions, which equals a turnover rate of 18.2, astronomical by NBA standards. For perspective, consider they could have two full games' worth of possessions, commit no turnovers, and still be in rough shape as far as turnover rate is concerned.

There are a few ways we can explain the turnover woes of late. Who's playing might seem obvious, but it's one place to start. A strained abdomen held J.J. Redick out of action in the final four games of the Magic's road trip; in the last three of those games, third-string point guard Chris Duhon logged an average of 19.3 minutes, helping Arenas soak some of Redick's minutes at off guard. Duhon, who hardly ever shoots, managed 7 turnovers in that stretch, or one every 8.3 minutes. His high-turnover approach contrasts sharply with Redick, whose month-long numbers suggest he'd have committed only one turnover in the same span.

There's more at work here than Duhon, clearly. Dwight Howard (40 turnovers) and Jameer Nelson (29) have had particularly bad turnover issues this month. Some of Howard's simply come with being a dominant, back-to-basket big in this league. Help defenders will slide in to take charges. Some folks will try, successfully, to flop. The issue for Howard is maintaining control of the ball when double-teams come from the top once he puts it on the floor; he's simply too big to win any scrums for the ball once he loses control of it. He also has to curb his tendency to shove otherwise helpless defenders once he's backed them well out of the play.

Nelson's case is a bit more puzzling. Usually a pretty surehanded facilitator, Nelson has instead averaged 3 turnover per game in March. Because his backups have always struggled with ball control, it's incumbent on Nelson to keep the Magic afloat from a passing standpoint; Orlando just doesn't have a low-mistake backup point guard on its roster.

I can't help but wonder if the magnified turnover issue is related to the team's attitude and approach of late, which has been one of nonchalance, indifference, or even arrogance, depending on your reading of Brian Schmitz's edditorial in yesterday's Orlando Sentinel. The team is more talented than it's shown, particularly on offense.

That's another point I'd like to address here: for all the hand-wringing about the Magic's lack of plus defenders apart from Howard, Orlando remains among the league's best teams on that end, thanks to Howard's all-around impact and Van Gundy's sharp scheming. Offense is a far greater concern for this team, for all its talent.

Let's consider the Four Factors for a moment. Because of the frequency and accuracy with which they shoot the three, Orlando will remain among the league's most potent teams in terms of effective field-goal shooting. But Van Gundy encourages his teams to forgo offensive rebounding in order to get back on defense, so they'll never rank highly there. For Orlando, turnovers and foul-drawing are the wildcards. How does it score if its shots aren't falling, as they might not do against elite defensive teams in the postseason? By keeping control of the ball--and thus maximizing scoring chances--and getting to the foul line for cheap, efficient points with the clock stopped.

The Magic's margin for error at the offensive end is slim. They can ratchet up that margin by simply not kicking the ball all over the gym.