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How to Fix the Magic’s Offense in Five Easy Steps

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Orlando’s offense is broken. Let’s try to put it back together.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It is our right, as denizens of the internet—perhaps even, our responsibility—to offer amateur solutions to the problems that professional players and coaches face each day. If there’s one problem the Magic need answers for more than anything, it’s the absolutely dreadful offense.

We’ve been over this a couple times now, so we don’t need spend too much time discussing how bad the offense is. The short version is that they can’t shoot the ball to save their lives. They remain dead last in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, truest shooting percentage, totally rad shooting percentage, whatever metric you wanna use.

Still, there’s definitely a good version of the Magic’s offense lurking in there behind all the bad, and while it’s probably a pipedream to wish for more than anything than mediocre offensive efficiency from this particular team, I believe they have the potential to be more than, well, dead last in the category.

So, let’s try to fix it! A couple ground rules and assumptions going into this exercise: for starters, we can’t just improve each player’s skills like we’re fooling around with the NBA2K player ratings. It’s probably fair to assume a little bit of regression to the mean for some players who are especially struggling in some category (for example, Nikola Vucevic’s midrange shooting), but the point is to work with the hand we’ve been dealt. By the same token, no mystical trade machine nonsense, either. We’re using the roster as-is.

If there is anything “video gamey” about my suggestions, it’s that they don’t really take into account personal personnel problems. In the real world, maybe redistributing some of Serge Ibaka’s worse shots to other places or people helps the offense, but he might not play as hard on defense if he doesn’t feel like he’s getting his due opportunities to score (Just as an example, of course. I haven’t gotten any selfish vibes from him from what I’ve seen and heard in the locker room). In short, I’m assuming the best from these guys, that they’ll take the changes in stride and play at least as effectively on a per-possession basis.

I’m also not going to make any changes that will substantially risk tanking the defense. Trading a little bit of defense for a lot of offense is a worthwhile trade, but it’s easy to imagine going too far by loading up on one-way players like Damjan Rudez.

One more note: this is a “win now” hypothetical. Spoiler alert: I’m not giving Mario Hezonja any more playing time than he’s getting right now (which is to say, none at all). It may be in the franchise’s best interest long term to give him as much playing time as possible to try to break him out of his shooting slump, but playing him at his current offensive level will almost certainly undo any positive changes they’d make elsewhere, and then some.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Step 1: Drastically cut Jeff Green’s playing time

When I originally drafted this article, I had this suggestion somewhere in the middle, but the more research I did, the more and more I was convinced that this is the single most important change the Magic could make, so it gets the #1 spot.

Vogel said that when the team struggled he needed to turn to his vets. It’s obvious that Jeff Green’s own production has been atrocious, so if he’s really contributing in a way Vogel’s happy with, it’s gotta show up in terms of the team’s production or habits, right?

Look, I tried really, really hard to find evidence of his “intangible” contributions, and you really have to grasp at straws to find anything. Digging through the on-off data on nbawowy.com, most of the evidence suggests the Magic are worse in almost every way when he’s on the court. As a team, when he’s on the court, they shoot much worse, turn the ball over more, shoot fewer shots close to the rim, assist on a smaller percentage of their shots, and get fewer steals. They rebound at about the same rate whether he’s on or off.

His individual hustle stats aren’t anything special either. He’s had a total of 12 deflections, and 10 of his screens have led directly to scores. He’s recovered one loose ball. He has taken zero charges.

The only positives I can say are that the team shoots more 3-pointers when he plays, and more midrange shots when he doesn’t, but the effect is substantially outweighed by the team’s increased efficiency without him. They also have a higher block rate, but it’s probably a bit too charitable to credit Green, and that doesn’t really have much to do with the offensive problem we’re trying to solve anyway. Beyond that, you’re getting into really niche things, like “The Magic shoot better after a foul with Jeff Green” or “The Magic have no 3-second violations on offense while Jeff Green has played.”

More damning than anything is the simplest on-off statistic: offensive efficiency. The Magic are at their very worst offensively when Green is on the court (88.1 points per 100 possessions), and their very best when he’s on the bench (101.5 points per 100 possessions).

I don’t have a clever solution here to juice Green’s offense. The simple reality is that, like every other time a team has looked to Jeff Green in their time of need, he is just not the answer to any problem you’re trying to solve. I don’t even think it matters that much who you give his minutes to, though I think most fans wouldn’t mind seeing more time for Aaron Gordon. Heck, if you’re going to waste offensive possessions, you might as well do it with Hezonja out there instead of Green and give him the reps he needs to get better.

Green said after the Wednesday night loss against the Suns that the team had to “fix [the offense] now, if we want to be there at the end.” If there’s anything close to a quick-fix solution, playing him less might be it.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Step 2: Make Ibaka a full-time stretch-4

Every time Ibaka attempts one of those baseline turnaround fadeaway jumpers, I want to throw my laptop out a window. The sad part is that my laptop has a better chance of landing in a basketball hoop somewhere than his shot does, and I don’t own a basketball hoop.

As Zach Lowe noted among his recent “10 Things,” Ibaka was shooting 12-32 in the post on the season before Wednesday’s game against the Suns, per Synergy Sports tracking. Will Ogburn recently wrote about Ibaka’s slow transition away from the basket, but I would accelerate that trend as fast as possible. The Magic should still count on Ibaka to play rim protector on defense, but offensively he’s been excellent beyond the arc, shooting 46.7% from long range.

In fact, take away pretty much anything that’s not immediately at the rim or beyond the arc. That’s not just my analytical bias talking: Ibaka’s shooting 19-54 on midrange shots, per NBA.com. As long as Ibaka’s shooting that much better from outside, the team has to put a bigger priority on getting him those shots. Granted, his high percentage partly comes from being very selective about which shots he takes, but even if he dropped all the way from 46% to 37-40%, it’d be worth it if he took twice as many or more shots at that range.

Of course, the benefits go beyond his personal production. I can’t project all the ramifications of parking Ibaka beyond the arc when he’s not setting screens, but one big beneficiary could be Fournier. We think of him as a long-range specialist, but a large part his offensive game comes from his ability to dribble into the paint and make floaters or layups. Stretching one big man out of the paint makes that easier, and that in turn might open up shooting opportunities if opponents have to respect his drive.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Step 3: Make quicker decisions on offense

The most frustrating kind of possession the Magic run is when a point guard, often Elfrid Payton, stands around the top of the arc as two or three other players look to make some kind of off-ball action happen. The idea is good, but the execution is terrible. More often than not, Elfrid just stands or dribbles the ball in place, waiting for something to materialize that never appears. 10 seconds later, they have eight seconds left on the shot clock and they revert into the most vanilla pick-and-rolls possible, since it’s the only way they can find to get the ball moving in the vague direction of the basket.

To that point, the Magic take the 9th-highest percentage of their shots between 4-7 seconds left on the shot clock, and the 6th-highest percentage from 0-4 seconds left. Here’s the really crazy thing: they have a really terrible effective field goal percentage anywhere in the 15-or-less range, about the second or third worst in the league, but the fifth-best when they take “early” shots between 15-18 seconds. That suggests there’s something there in that “secondary break” kind of zone, where the Magic get into their set quickly, decisively find an opening, and exploit it. In particular, the Magic shoot very well on 3-pointers in that time span, 43.1%.

One simple example: Augustin getting a quick 3-pointer off of a Biyombo screen.

Sidenote: this also shows how good Biyombo is at getting guys open off of screens. He leads the team in screen-assists for a reason (though it’s not nearly enough to make up for his offensive deficiencies everywhere else).

One other plausible interpretation of this odd trend is that the Magic do alright when their initial action works, but very poorly once that fails to produce a good opportunity. Again, there are so many possessions where the Magic run somebody like Fournier off a pindown screen under the hoop or near the free throw line, while somebody else is cutting across the baseline, but the pass is never made at a time when it would be helpful. Instead, both players finish their crisscross pattern, and only then does the ball move to another player, never finding its way inside the 3-point line.

I would make a point of trying to force those passes, to try to hit those players while they’re in motion in the middle of the court rather than when they finish their pattern and settle behind the arc again. There’s a good chance this leads to a lot more turnovers, but generally speaking the Magic have some room to spare in that category. The Milwaukee Bucks game had a ghastly 24 turnovers by Orlando, but that was more the exception than the rule, as they’re sitting at a league-average 14.4 TOs/100 possessions.

Running plays like this gets the Magic those earlier scoring opportunities, gets guys more chances to drive, and relies less on bailout isos or postups. The Magic are only 21st on field goal percentage on drives, but that’s still better than they do on catch-and-shoot shots (last in eFG%), post-ups (last), or pull-ups (second-to-last). Gordon, in particular, would benefit from being able to catch the ball on the move toward the basket so he can use his athleticism to make a play.

This is all easier said than done. In a win-now environment, it’s stressful to make those risky passes, because mistakes are fatal for a team that teeters on the precipice of close games so often, but ultimately those might be necessary growing pains to foster a competent offense in the long term.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Step 4: Pick up the pace in the halfcourt, but not necessarily overall

It’s borderline cliche to suggest a team needs to go more up-tempo to juice the offense, and while that’s a tempting suggestion for Orlando (heck, it was what I started to write here before I researched it), that’s not necessarily the problem they’re facing right now. They do have the 7th-slowest pace in the league, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not pushing the ball in transition enough. To that point, Orlando runs the 8th-highest percentage of their plays in transition.

In other words, even though they do run a decent amount of the time, they’re painfully slow in halfcourt situations, and they don’t have a lot of leeway to turn many more of those halfcourt possessions into fastbreak possessions. Also, pace goes both ways, and the slow pace may be even more about what the Magic’s defense is accomplishing than about their offensive strategy. Forcing a lot of opponent possessions late into the shot clock will slow the pace down considerably.

Instead, it needs to be about moving more in the halfcourt.. The Magic have the fourth-lowest distance traveled per game on offense. That alone isn’t a sign of a bad offense; in fact, the three teams lower than them are the Cavaliers, Clippers, and Rockets, and those are all elite scoring teams. The difference is that those teams find success very quickly in the halfcourt thanks to their excellent guards/LeBrons, and they can spot up elite shooters who don’t necessarily have to run around a whole bunch to get enough space to shoot.

Those are not qualities Orlando shares, and as such I think they need to do a better job of moving as many guys around as possible to find opportunities to make plays. This goes back to step three: if your point guard is standing in place with the ball for more than five seconds, you’re probably not running a very good play, or you’re running it very poorly. Vogel needs to find opportunities for Payton, Augustin, and even Fournier to make moves even while they’re waiting for others to run off-ball actions.

That said, I think the best strategy for Orlando is to play with as few possessions as possible while still maintaining a high-energy offense. As an underdog, it’s a sound strategy to reduce the number of chances each team has to score, because that increases the variance of the game’s outcomes. To take this logic to its most extreme, if the Magic had to play a game against the Cavaliers with one possession for each team to score, they’re still going to lose a decent amount of those games, but they’ll win a lot more than if, say, they played a 200-possession game, where the Cavaliers have many more opportunities to demonstrate that they’re a better team.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Step 5: Let Nikola Vucevic control the offense

This isn’t to say that point-Vuc is the future, but as Vogel noted after Friday’s close loss to the Wizards, Vucevic is playing the most unselfish basketball of anyone right now, and beyond that, he’s undeniably the best offensive player on the team. His defense has improved enough that Vogel should be comfortable playing him in more situations and for more minutes.

Preseason, both Zach Oliver and I predicted we’d see Vucevic moved from the starting lineup eventually, but I’ve changed my tune: Vucevic needs to be featured as the focal point of the team. He’s among the best passing centers in the league, and after starting the season out ice cold shooting the ball, he’s had two great games in a row where he’s been able to make it happen on his usual array of post moves and jumpers. He’s even added a 3-point shot, one he uses very rarely, but one that looks pretty good when he does try it (and that’s gone in about a third of the time, above-average by Orlando standards).

Despite what some advanced stats suggest right now, I’d still take Biyombo over Vucevic for defense, but the difference right now is sharply outweighed by what Vuc provides offensively. Biyombo’s offensive struggles are well-documented, and the team is able to compensate sometimes in that two-point-guard second unit, but the Magic spacing is so poor most of the time that he can’t even get open for dunks in the lane...when he’s able to catch the ball, that is. Vucevic is the better solution to that problem, even if his screening continues to be pretty weak compared to Biyombo’s.

At the very least, parking the ball in Vucevic’s hands at the elbow is probably more productive than stopping it at the top of the arc in Payton’s, since Vuc is more likely to find cutters from that position. I’m not about to advocate the Magic start running the triangle all of a sudden, but there are a lot of nifty things you can do with a center that can pass from the elbow, and hopefully Vogel finds a way to add some more complexity to the system that feature’s Vucevic’s skills.

Tempering expectations

Making these changes is much easier said than done, and that’s assuming that these are even good ideas in the first place. These guys have a lot of bad habits built up from the Vaughn and Skiles days, and Vogel isn’t exactly known for his offensive genius. There are also complicated factors to consider like rotations, factoring in injury concerns, developing players, and even those pesky egos I dismissed earlier.

The overriding lesson is that something has to change. The Magic are well beyond the point of “We just didn’t hit our shots tonight.” After not hitting shots 15 out of 16 games, it’s time to make something different happen, and as the Magic’s players have made clear after the last couple losses, they don’t have an unlimited amount of time to fix these problems.