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Five Magic Observations: The “Shot-making” Edition

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Historically bad field goal shooting, lineup changes, and Ibaka’s explosion on the Thunder.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Five Magic Observations. I can say with confidence that this last week of Orlando Magic basketball was the best week of Magic basketball within the last week, so let’s get started.

The Magic might be one of the worst-shooting teams of all time

That’s not an exaggeration designed to grab your attention at the start of the article, it’s something completely true designed to grab your attention at the start of the article. After 10 games, the team is shooting a collective 41.9%, which would be the single worst shooting season in franchise history, per Basketball Reference (the 94-95 Finals team, unsurprisingly, is the best in franchise history, hitting a ridiculous 50.2% of all their shots).

Not only would it go down as historically bad by Magic standards, it’d be one of the brickiest seasons in modern NBA history. In the 3-point era, the Magic’s current shooting woes would plant them in the bottom 20 among all team seasons.

This is true in spite of the Magic’s wicked-gnarly shooting performance (as the kids say these days) on Sunday against the Thunder. Before that game, they were sitting at 40.6%, which would be the second-worst season of all time in the modern era. That goes to show that they probably won’t end up being that bad just by sheer regression to the mean, but it’s scary that they’re even in the neighborhood.

If the inability to protect the rim with a handful of theoretically-good rim protectors is the Magic’s defensive crisis, then the failure to actually get the ball to go in the basket is the offensive emergency. Of course, saying “The Magic can’t do the single most fundamental thing in the sport of basketball, which is to put the ball in the basket” is probably an unhelpful description of the problem, so let’s dig a little deeper.

First, just to get this out of the way, going by effective field goal percentage or true shooting percentage does little to help the Magic’s case, as they’re last in both categories this season (46.7 eFG% and 50.1 TS%). Historically, using something like eFG% does give them a bump, since so many teams in the 80s and 90s shot very few threes, but being in the bottom 100 seasons of all time by eFG% isn’t really something to brag about.

Where are the Magic taking their shots from so far?

Magic zone chart, first 10 games

At first glance, this doesn’t necessarily look like the shot chart of one of the worst shooting teams of all time. After all, there’s a few green zones, and we do like our green zones. Unfortunately, things are actually pretty rough. For starters, of the 14 zones that NBA.com divides their shotcharts into, six of them are in the red for the Magic, which is to say well below average. If you add up the “distribution” percentages under each of these zones, it turns out almost a quarter of their shots happen in “bad” zones. Several of these red zones coincide with an area the Magic have staked out for a few years now: the midrange shots Nikola Vucevic has feasted on throughout his career, as well as other players like Jason Smith.

We can dig even deeper and bust out the ‘ol player tracking data. One noticeable trend: in terms of distance, the Magic take tougher 3-pointers than most teams. They shoot the 13th most 3-point attempts per game, but 9th most from 25 feet or more. Conversely, they don’t take very many corner-3s, just 5.3 a game, which is roughly a bottom-10 rate.

In other words, the Magic do a decent job at taking 3-pointers relative to league average, it’s just that they don’t take good 3-pointers. For a team with as much trouble hitting jumpers as the Magic, shooting mostly above-the-break 3-pointers only exacerbates the problem.

Lastly, we can point out a few specific players and trends. You’re welcome to scour the data for the whole team, but here’s some highlights. From beyond the arc, Serge Ibaka is shooting a crazy 47.8%, while Fournier is shooting 37% and D.J. Augustin is at 34%. Everyone else is below average.

Strikingly, not a single player is shooting above 50% from the field. Guys like DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, or Tyson Chandler may not be savants in the post, but there’s value in having players who just hit a massive number of the shots they take, even if they’re all dunks. Biyombo’s shooting is the most alarming of anyone’s, at a dreadful 35.3%. It’s not that impactful because he only takes 3.8 shots a game, but it’s way worse than what he shot in Toronto.

(Sidenote for all you betting types: Biyombo’s currently sitting at 2.108 fieldthrowovers. You all might have to sweat out the OVER 2.08)

Of course, it’s not like we expected much offense from this team going into the season. This, however, seems way past the level of bricklaying we anticipated. We’ll investigate the reasons behind these shooting woes in the future when we don’t have Four Other Magic Observations to get to, but for now know that this is certainly a problem.

What do lineup changes say about the team?

The big news out of Friday’s game against the Jazz might have been less about the result and more about what went into it. Namely, it was the first game that Frank Vogel made a change to the starting lineup, bringing in Jeff Green and sending Aaron Gordon to the bench. He also elected not to use Mario Hezonja in the rotation. He made the same choices on Sunday against the Thunder as well.

Following the Jazz game, Vogel was asked why they made the change, answering, “[To] rely more heavily on our veterans, wasn’t anything Aaron Gordon did.”

Uh oh.

“...when you are struggling, you turn to your vets.”

UH OH.

“It was about experience.”

Is Vogel really hitting the “Scott Skiles Veteran Player Panic Button” just 9 games into the season? It’s possible it’s paid dividends so far, given the Magic’s strong play at the beginning of the Thunder game, but in the Jazz game I’d argue that the Gordon-led bench unit outperformed the starters.

I can sort of kind of maybe-ish see the upside. Vogel wouldn’t admit it when asked, but I think he’s really just trying to put as few non-shooters on the court at the same time. Splitting Gordon’s and Payton’s time together frees up space for both of them to do what they do well, which is make things happen driving or cutting into the paint. On Sunday, Payton was effective in the first quarter at getting into the paint, and I think he scored on almost every drive early on (though the Thunder’s lazy defense helped).

In practice, I’m not so sure it helps that much. Green’s status as a “shooter” is flimsy enough when he’s only hitting 32.4% from long range —Gordon’s shooting 30%—, and Gordon’s defense is unequivocally better than Green’s.

More importantly, even if there’s short term gain, is this worth the long-term damage? What are the ripple effects from sending Gordon to the bench and slapping the DNP-CD on Hezonja? Hezonja certainly wasn’t playing well enough to get much playing time in a vacuum, but as one of only three important rookie-scale prospects left on the roster (unless you’re counting Zimmerman for some reason), he needs a chance to get better. All in all, this makes me nervous.

That one time Serge Ibaka murdered the team that raised him

I won’t lie, my coverage of Ibaka’s season so far has been...less than positive. That’s why his Sunday-night explosion was so welcome for me. I wouldn’t bet on “the real Serge Ibaka” being back on a full-time basis, but this proves that he’s still in there somewhere. He single-handedly held down the Thunder’s offense in the first quarter, and he single-handedly held up the Magic’s offense throughout the night (when Elfrid Payton wasn’t doing his best Stephen Curry impression, that is). If he can be 70% of that guy on a regular basis, especially on defense, things will be alright.

(Also I’m just really glad it was Ibaka getting OKC and not Oladipo getting Orlando ‘cause that would have suuuuuucked.)

Why you need to root for the Lakers

Usually, rooting against the biggest of big teams like the Knicks and Lakers is a fun hobby of mine, but this year we have a rooting interest in the Lakers playing as well as possible. It’s Dwight Howard’s last parting gift to the franchise: a 2019 first round pick from the Lakers.

The catch: getting that pick is contingent on the Lakers sending their 2017 pick to the Sixers, and that is contingent on the pick falling outside the top-3. Otherwise, the Sixers get the 2018 pick, and the Magic have to settle for a second-rounder instead. The reasons are a little convoluted and have to do with the rule that the Lakers can’t give up first round picks in consecutive future seasons.

Long story short, if the Lakers’ pick this season falls outside the top-3, the Magic get a first rounder from them. That’s technically possible even if the Lakers are the worst team and have the best lottery odds, but the chances increase the better their record. The best possible outcome is that Los Angeles inexplicably makes the playoffs this season and then becomes awful again by 2019, but for now let’s just root for them to get out of the top-3 picks.

What’s coming up next?

11/14 - Magic @ Pacers - I’ve been skeptical about the Pacers’ chances of being a legit player in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, largely due to their defense falling off after firing Frank Vogel, though I also thought that would coincide with the Magic’s defense getting much better, and, well, let’s not talk about that. Paul George is still a beast, though. We might see another shootout like in Oklahoma City.

11/16 - Magic vs. Pelicans - Hey, another totally beatable team! The Magic are doomed! Really, though, it’s a tragedy how bad the Pelicans are despite The Brow’s ludicrous stat lines on a night-to-night basis. If I could make one arbitrary change to any non-Magic team, it would probably be to put him on some other team. Their defense is actually pretty good, so this might be one of those 88-84 games we were promised with this Orlando team.

11/19 - Magic vs. Mavericks - Hey, another totally beatable team! In all seriousness, the Magic could plausibly go 2-1 in the next week and be in a very reasonable position in the conference standings. Or, you know, they shoot 12% the whole week and set basketball back 50 years. Either way works, I guess. Really, though, it’s a tragedy how bad the Mavericks are despite The Black Falcon’s ludic-hahahahaha sorry I couldn’t actually finish that sentence. (Ed note: Cory you’re fired again. Wave bye to Cory everyone.)