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The Orlando Magic's Offense of Extremes

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Given the embarrassing and swift manner in which the Orlando Magic's season ended--in the first round of the playoffs, to an Atlanta Hawks team it swept by a historic average victory margin the previous spring--their fans seem antsier than usual this summer. They're asking more questions, and tougher ones, too. Who's to blame? Should the team trade Dwight Howard if he makes it clear he won't re-sign when he opts out of his contract next summer? Whom should the Magic target in free agency or via the trade market?

Of course, they'd ask those questions anyway, regardless of the season outcome. It's just the answers seem more elusive and important now.

Among the things about their team they're questioning: its unconventional offense, designed by coach Stan Van Gundy. This post aims to outline my impression of Van Gundy's offensive principles. I say "my impression of" because I didn't speak directly to Van Gundy for this post, and I don't want anyone to think I'm putting words in his mouth.

This discussion is worth having because, in my view, improving the offense--not necessarily the scheme, but the players and their skills--is of the utmost importance to Orlando this offseason. For all the consternation about the Magic's defense, let's not forget the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard, anchors it. And that, despite Howard's standing as the only outstanding individual- or help-defender on the roster, it finished third in the NBA in efficiency this season.

For all its talent, Orlando's offense tied the pitiful Detroit Pistons' for 14th in efficiency, just barely above the league average.

None of this is to say that Orlando shouldn't upgrade its defense. Of course the Magic should be on the lookout for ace defenders, particularly on the wing. All I'm saying is offense is a larger problem.

Van Gundy's offense is unique, and one of extremes. For instance, Synergy Sports Technology data tell us the team led the league in the percentage of possessions which ended with a three-point shot (21.1), and 30th--that's dead last--in the percentage of possessions which end with a long two-point jumper (9.5); here, "long two-point jumper" refers to a jump shot taken between 17 feet from the basket and the three-point line.

Because the Magic don't have a dynamic, one-on-one perimeter scorer--something Van Gundy lamented after a playoff loss to Atlanta--they must rely on crisp, clean ball movement and split-second decision-making to create those open shots. We see this reflected in the percentage of their offense generated in the pick-and-roll: 29.8 percent, the third-highest figure in the league.

The problem here is that the Magic turned the ball over on 14.5 percent of their possessions this season, tied with the Boston Celtics for the league's third-worst figure. They fared a bit better than their average in the pick-and-roll, turning it over on 10.4 percent of such possessions.

Another consequence of not having a top-shelf perimeter guy is that Orlando ranks last in the percentage of possessions which end in isolation (7.1 percent). In general, isolation basketball is inefficient basketball, as it tends to lead to a lot of dribbling in place. Ironically, a positive to playing a one-on-one style is that it limits turnovers. Unless the offensive player gets his pocket picked, travels, or a teammate of his commits a foul or three-second violation, that ball ain't goin' to the other team.

For whatever it's worth, Orlando's top one-on-one players this season are Hedo Turkoglu (1.01 points per possession) and Brandon Bass (0.939 points per possession).

Orlando ranked fourth in the league in the percentage of possessions which resulted in free-throw attempts, another result of Howard's presence. Unfortunately, the Magic stand as the league's worst free-throw shooting team (69.2 percent) and Howard is their only player who consistently draws fouls. Bass ranks second at 13.8 percent, and reserve guard J.J. Redick places third at 11.9 percent. Notably, the otherwise offensively challenged Earl Clark channeled his energy into foul shots on 10.9 percent of his possessions, which bodes well for his potential going forward.

Given the dearth of long twos and isolation play, as well as the plentitude of threes and free-throw attempts, it's almost as though stat geeks found room enough in their parents' basement to design this offense. Lots of high-efficiency shots, few low-efficiency ones. That much isn't up for debate.

At issue, though, is this team should have performed better than it did; every Magic fan, I think, would agree with me on that point. And before everyone piles on Van Gundy, railing against what some folks derisively call this chuck-and-duck scheme, let's recall an offense with the same principles ranked fourth just one year ago, and helped Orlando to win 59 games.

The principles didn't change; the players did. Vince Carter, Matt Barnes, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, and Jason Williams are all regulars from the 2009/10 squad who departed prior to, or during, the next season.

To me, this all indicates Van Gundy's offensive style works when equipped with the right personnel. He's not an offensive genius like, say, Rick Adelman, whose superstar-less Houston Rockets squad had the league's fourth-best offense this season. Seven Rockets averaged at least two assists per game. Adelman's offense is more of a "plug-and-play" situation, if you catch my meaning. No matter the personnel, his teams will be brilliant offensively. The same is not true of Van Gundy, whose teams stand out more for their consistently great defense than offense.

Another of Orlando's problems is stagnation. Howard's post-ups mean the Magic rank second in the league in the percentage of offense that ends with a post-up (19.2) and sixth in points per possession (0.947) on that front, but the consequence is that his teammates find themselves doing about as much as the basket stanchion. There's very little off-ball movement once Howard begins to back his man down. Even if he draws a double-team, the kickouts, it seems to me, tend to lead to ball-reversals to a standstill three-point shooter on the weakside wing or corner. Barnes excelled in cutting to the rim for easy scores when defenders ignored him to pay attention to Howard. He's not here anymore.

I don't know whom to blame here. Is it Howard's teammates for relaxing, Van Gundy for not installing more movement, some combination of both, or something else entirely? Regardless of the cause, this problem needs a solution. Orlando can't afford to let defenses relax.

How can the Magic return to form at the offensive end next season? That's a bit tougher to say.

Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon, two newcomers, had uncharacteristically bad seasons and should bounce back next year; however, their impact may be minimal, given their tenuous status in Van Gundy's rotation. It's the heavier hitters, save for Howard, who need to do more. In particular, I'm referring to Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Turkoglu, and Gilbert Arenas.

The trickier part is nobody knows for sure those players' statuses. Richardson is eligible to sign a contract extension before June 30th, but more than likely he will enter unrestricted free agency; it's possible that he, the best player Orlando acquired in its December trades, may walk away for nothing after half a season and a disappointing playoff showing.

If the league's new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes an amnesty clause, which would allow teams to remove one player from their roster and salary-cap figure, Arenas and Turkoglu--the two other rotation players acquired in December--are the likeliest to get the axe. They'd still get their money, but they'd also become free agents and could not re-sign with the Magic.

Though Nelson is likely safe, he might be the Magic's best trade chip other than Howard, given his reasonable salary and solid, though not spectacular, productivity.

It seems to me that the best way to boost Orlando's offense back into the league's elite would be to acquire a wing scorer with better foul-drawing instincts than Jason Richardson. In theory, his catch-and-shoot game makes him well suited to the Magic's attack; in practice, he failed to contribute if his jumper didn't fall, as he hardly ever attacked the basket or broke a defense down.

Whomever this mystery player is--be it a free agent, a draft pick (fat chance of that; Orlando's only selection is 53rd overall), or someone acquired in a trade--he must be able to create his own shot, and draw contact, more successfully than Jason Richardson did. I don't say this to be cruel, but it'd be hard for them to do worse in those respects. Only 5.6 percent of his possessions ended with a free-throw attempt, the worst figure on the team among rotation players. Further, a teammate assisted on 74.7 percent of his field goals this season; the league average for all players is 59.9 percent.

And, not to get too Bill Simmons-y on you, but the recent NBA champions have all had brilliant perimeter play. While I don't think the Magic necessarily need a player in the Kobe Bryant/Paul Pierce/Manu Ginobili class--which is to say the Hall-of-Fame class--they need someone better than Turkoglu and Jason Richardson. Carter wasn't that guy, though I maintain fans underrate his performance with the Magic. Turkoglu wasn't the guy two seasons ago and he isn't now.

Obviously, the demand for premier wing scorers exceeds supply; the same is true of the mythical "low-post scorer" that almost every other team needs. (Think about all the times you've heard a talking head on TV start a sentence by saying something along the lines of, "If [Team] only had a low-post scorer...")

Under Van Gundy, and by necessity, Orlando uses what one might term a closer-by-committee approach. Rather than clear out for their top wing guy to create a shot--as the Lakers might do with Kobe, or the Celtics might do with Pierce--they simply draw up a play with a multitude of options for their wing players. This approach appeals to me, on some level, because it keeps defenses guessing; they can't commit to any one player. It's not an ideal situation, but it's good enough.

Most folks in the media believe every team needs what Charles Barkley refers to as "that dude"--that wing superduperstar who can create offense even against the stiffest defenses. Barkley explained this philosophy on Inside The NBA a few weeks ago:

"At some point, you've got to have 'that dude.' You have to have that dude where you can say, 'Hey, here's the ball.' When a coach says, 'Hey, here's the ball, I need a basket.' ... Games in the NBA always come down to that. You have to have 'that dude.'"

I'm still grappling with this idea.

And as for whom Orlando should target? I wish I knew. I don't want to speculate about potential trades or free-agent signees because of the tenuous labor situation.

I didn't set out to provide answers in this post, but rather to add context to criticism of the team, and to explain how its philosophy informs its statistical profile. If nothing else, I hope what Orlando tries to accomplish with its offense is now more clear.