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Analyzing the Magic's struggling offense

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Orlando's defense is much better this season, but why hasn't Orlando's offense showed any improvement?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked into how much better the Magic's defense has performed under Scott Skiles.  By shifting to a more aggressive, on-ball focused style, the Magic are forcing a lot more misses, even as they allow more "good" attempts near the hoop and beyond the arc.

That's the good news! Here's the bad: the Magic are still terrible on offense. Actually, they're slightly worse, if you go by offensive efficiency, dipping from 99.7 to 97.7 points scored per 100 possessions. To be fair, nobody expected them to suddenly turn into a Spursian offensive machine, but it's a bit disappointing to see so little progress on that side of the floor.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of these offensive struggles is that the Magic are so inconsistent. This team can absolutely blow opponents off the floor. We've seen it happen multiple times this season, notably a 67-point first half against the Thunder. The "good" version of the Magic offense is filled with tons of cuts and off-ball movement, drives that lead to kick-out 3-pointers, and easy post-ups deep in the paint for Nikola Vucevic.

Unfortunately, this article isn't titled "Analyzing The Magic's Super-Amazing Offense, Which Flows Like A River Yet Strikes Like A Fierce Python."

The Magic Can't Hit Shots

This should surprise absolutely nobody, but the Magic just can't shoot very well. They rank in the bottom-six of the league in both Effective FG% (eFG%) and True Shooting (TS%) -- they were actually roughly league-average by eFG% last season. In other words, some combination of their shot selection and shooting ability has declined from last year. To dig into this a bit deeper, let's start with the team's shot chart. Unless otherwise noted, stats come courtesy of NBA.com/stats.

Magic Shooting as of 11-22-15

Magic Shooting as of 11-22-15

It's not all doom-and-gloom. The right wing appears to be an area of strength--unsurprisingly, that happens to be one of Evan Fournier's best spot-up zones--and those baseline shots seem like they're pretty good. Look closely at the numbers, though, and you'll see a lot of below-average areas, including in most of those yellow zones.

There's a handy way to encapsulate all those below average numbers into one, which is to calculate the "expected" eFG%. That measures how well the Magic would be shooting if they hit at league average on all their shots. Nyloncalculus.com takes care of that for us. Not counting Saturday's game against the Kings, the Magic are shooting a 47.9 eFG%, but if they took the same shots and hit at a league-average rate, they would have an expected 50.5 eFG%. Not a gigantic difference, but enough to show how the Magic aren't hitting shots as well as their peers.


NBA Rank
Offensive Rating 97.7 27th
eFG% 47.9% 22nd
TS% 50.5% 27th
Expected eFG% 50.5% 11th
% of "Morey Ball" shots 56.6% 9th

Expected eFG% is one way to see that the Magic's shot selection is actually pretty good. Another, more specific way is to figure out how many of the Magic's shots come from high-efficiency spots. Nylon Calculus helpfully tracks "Morey Ball" shots, named after GM Darryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. Based upon the namesake's fondness for high-efficiency shot selection, a "Morey Ball" shot is either a close range attempt (less than 5ft, to be exact) or a 3-pointer. Taking lots of these shots isn't a surefire way to have an efficient offense (see: Philadelphia 76ers), but it tends to correlate well with scoring more. 56.6% of all the Magic's shot attempts come from close-range or beyond the arc, above average compared to the rest of the league.

In a way, this explains why the Magic's scoring is so up-and-down. When they happen to make those high-efficiency baskets, things go really well. When those long-range bombs won't go down, or when those contested layups rim in and out, things get really bad. That sounds incredibly obvious, but the effect is especially drastic for Orlando because of their most glaring weakness. When other teams can't make the ball go down, they can turn to a tool the Magic just don't have.

The Magic Can't Draw Fouls

The Magic draw the second fewest fouls per 100 possessions, and accordingly take the second fewest free throw attempts. Tobias Harris takes the most free throws on the team... at a whopping 3.4 per game. Most of the roster takes less than three a night. Some of this probably comes from the youth of the roster and the lack of a true star player to get those generous calls from the refs, but the main issue is that the Magic aren't doing enough to draw those penalties.

Take, for instance, this Victor Oladipo drive from Saturday's game against the Kings.

Oladipo has a nice opportunity to drive straight at the basket and perhaps draw a foul, but instead does his best to avoid contact and attempts an awkward, looping reverse layup. I'll grant that DeMarcus Cousins isn't exactly the easiest guy to try to drive straight into, but this is the kind of habit that prevents trips to the line for easy points.

Some good offensive teams, like San Antonio, are similarly bad at getting to the line, but they can get away with it because they're so good at everything else. The Magic, as demonstrated by their below-average shooting percentages, have no such advantages.

How do the Magic Improve their Offense?

At this point, I think it comes down to individual player development. The team takes good shots, in general, but they struggle at hitting them. In particular, the Magic need better play from their guards, especially when it comes to finishing drives in traffic. Oladipo is shooting a miserable 41.3% around the basket, while Elfrid Payton is even worse at 39.7%.

While we all dream of a day they become ace outside shooters, it's probably best to hope for league-average shooting from them based on what we've seen so far. In light of that, it's absolutely critical that they learn how to finish tough shots, and more importantly, draw fouls and get those trips to the line.

The Oladipo gif above is fairly indicative of a few problems for him. It shows how he doesn't take steps to draw fouls, but it also stands as an example of how he struggles driving and finishing on the left.

Payton, on the other hand, probably needs to take more...normal shots. It's hard to explain, but a lot of his shots look like this:

When he gets to the paint, Elfrid often ends up doing a herky-jerky, awkward shot, rather than a smooth drive-and-layup. Who knows, maybe he'll get better at these funky finger rolls and floaters, but it might serve him well to take "easier" layups.

Beyond simple shot-making, there's not too much more in the way of low-hanging fruit. Orlando doesn't really turn the ball over too much (12th in the league in TO rate), and they get an above-average number of offensive rebounds -- sixth in the league, averaging 12 a game, with an offensive rebound rate of 25.4, good enough for 11th in the league. They might try to push the pace more and get some more transition opportunities, but they already rank seventh in fast break points on a per-possession basis.

It's also entirely possible that the solution will come from outside the team. Channing Frye was meant to be that super-spacing forward the Magic needed to open up the floor, but that hasn't totally panned out. Maybe a future free agent will provide enough spacing for these guys to get easier shots in the paint. Maybe that guy is already on the roster, in the form of Mario Hezonja.

Until then, this is a defense-first team that'll probably be in a lot of close games the whole season, and maybe that's ok. That's still a huge step forward for a team whose biggest problem a year ago was a lack of identity. As impatient as we are in year four of the rebuild, the Magic are still young, and I suspect we've yet to see their last great evolution.