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Five Magic Observations: The “Sustainable Offense” Edition

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The suddenly competent, offense, gauging playoff odds, and a block party in O-town

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

(Author’s note: The stats below are dated before the 112-102 victory over Memphis. Needless to say, the offense was pretty good that game, too.)

“X player has career night...” has been something of a pattern lately when it comes to Orlando Magic headlines, and for once it’s the Magic’s own players getting the accolades.

It started against the Washington Wizards, when Elfrid Payton scored a career-high 25 points, along with 9 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks (???). It certainly helped that John Wall was in “pure offense” mode and didn’t even pretend to guard Payton, but it was nice to see him make the opposition pay for ignoring him.

The next two games weren’t so hot. The Magic did fine in the first halves, but their schedule might have caught up to them, and they got smoked by the Celtics and Hornets in the second halves. Fast-forward to Atlanta, when the Magic lit up the Hawks to the tune of 131 points. Again, Payton was the headliner, once again setting a career high in scoring with 26, but also a career-high 14 assists.

The Magic could have been forgiven for coming out flat against a superior Clippers team on Wednesday, but the offense hummed along nearly the whole game. This time it was Aaron Gordon’s turn to put on a show, doing his best Blake Griffin impersonation with several monster dunks and alley-oops, but also nailing 4-8 from long range on the way to, yes, a career-high 33 points.

Even one of their worse shooting performances came in a good offensive game, when Orlando shot just 40% against Brooklyn, 24% from 3, and still posted a robust 107.8 offensive rating thanks to their 33-42 free throw shooting.

The points flowed freely in the double overtime game in Miami, and the Lakers showed little resistance. Orlando scored at least 108 points in seven of the last eleven games, for an offensive rating of 105.6, equivalent to the 10th-best offense in the league, and leagues beyond their league-worst offense throughout most of the season.

The obvious questions are twofold: where did this offense come from all of a sudden, and is there any hope of it sticking around?

Adjusting for the opposition

The simplest explanation is that the Magic have just been playing against bad defenses recently, so let’s see where those opponents stand in defensive efficiency. Counting up, the Magic’s 11 opponents have been ranked 5, 6, 7, 12, 14, 18, 21, 25, 27, 28, and 29. Average ranking: 17.45. Not incredible, but not too shabby, right?

Well, hold up a bit, because those rankings measure those teams’ success across the whole season. As we well know with Orlando in recent weeks, one’s defense can certainly come and go based on schedule, injuries, and simple randomness. Instead of the whole season, what if we only considered the last 11 games for all teams? Going by those rankings, those opponents are ranked 5, 6, 10, 15, 17, 20, 21, 22, 28, 29, 30, for an average of 18.45. If you consider that these ratings include those games against the suddenly-competent Magic offense, then it looks pretty similar to the season-long standings.

Unsurprisingly, some of the worse scoring nights for the Magic came against the better teams on this list, like Boston, Charlotte, and Toronto, and some of the better ones came against the terrible defenses like the Lakers and Nets. Some were strong performances against teams that were good throughout the season but bad recently, such as Atlanta.

Overall, the Magic have played a bit of a softer schedule, defensively-speaking, but they still scored against the teams they should be scoring against, which we couldn’t say for most of the season.

Outlier shooting performances

There are other potential reasons to be doubtful. The Magic certainly can’t expect to get anywhere close to the 58% they roasted the Hawks with, probably not for the rest of the season, but any of the plus-50% games have to be considered with some skepticism. Remember, the Magic were quite literally one of the worst-shooting teams of all time for the first part of the season. No matter what sort of revelations the Magic may have stumbled upon in this latest identity-crisis, there’s just no way they could transform into one of the better-shooting teams in the league overnight.

Let’s compare how some individual players have shot during the last 11 games compared to the rest of the season:

First 21 Last 11
FG% 3pt% eFG% FG% 3pt% eFG%
Gordon 41.1 27.9 45.3 43.9 35.1 50.0
Payton 42.5 17.8 44.4 52.3 37.9 56.6
Green 36.6 27.7 42.1 43.8 32.3 49.4
Fournier 43.4 37.0 50.5 49.3 35.4 55.0
Biyombo 43.9 n/a 43.9 57.6 n/a 57.6

These five players were among those with the biggest bump in recent games, and it’s not hard to imagine how the Magic’s offense improves when players like Payton and Gordon are hitting better than 35% from long range. That’s not a bad long-term goal for those two, but is there a reason to think they’ve turned the corner so quickly?

I’m inclined to be a little skeptical. For example, neither Gordon nor Payton have been excellent shooters at any point in their careers (hence all the recent career-highs), but in the right situation they’ve done alright. Last season, Payton shot 43.1% on wide-open 3-pointers, so it stands to reason that if he’s getting more open shots he’s going to hit them more (#analytics). In the first part of the season, Payton took 1.2 wide-open 3-pointers, about 12% of all the shots he took. In the 11 games since, he’s taken...1.0 wide-open threes a game, 9.3% of his shot total.

So, he’s not actually taking “better” shots. He’s just hitting way, way more of them. Is it possible he’s figured something out? Is he benefiting from coming off the bench? Any of that could be true, but the reality is that he’s probably just getting lucky. I don’t want to believe that, because the Magic come and go with Payton’s fortunes perhaps more than any other player on the team, but it’s hard to think he’s even a league-average shooter out of nowhere.

Other players I can be a bit more optimistic about. Biyombo, for example, should be hitting more shots than he has for most of the season, just because the shots he takes are supposed to be easy. Green hitting 32% of his 3-pointers isn’t good, but it’s closer to what we’d expect from him than the sub-30% he’d shot until recently.

There’s a few team-wide stats that are good signs as well. The turnover rate is down from 14.1% to 11.1% over those 11 games, the pace is up (though that’s probably at least as much about the flagging defense as it is about the offense), and 3-point attempts are up. Those are all good things for this team.

All together, it’s probably too soon to say Orlando’s a good offense, or even just an average one. On the other hand, there’s enough here to say that they’re certainly not destined to be the worst. Depending on whether the defense ever comes around, that could be enough.

Assessing playoff odds

After the win over Memphis on Monday night, the Magic sit at 15-18. In the messy Eastern Conference—though honestly, that’s probably an unfair characterization given that the West is in a similar state at the bottom of the playoff race—that’s enough to put them right in the thick of things. To that point, the 6th-place team (Atlanta) and the 12th (Magic) are separated by just a game. The 5th-place team, the Knicks, probably aren’t as good as their record, based on point differential. If any one of those eight teams finds a way to put together a few wins in a row, especially against the other seven, they could very quickly find themselves in a comfortable position near the middle of the playoff bracket.

(Related sidenote: The Magic’s next four games are versus the Hornets, Pacers, Knicks, and Hawks.)

If we want to be a little more discerning, however, we can turn to a more sophisticated projection system. One example: FiveThirtyEight.com’s system that predicts a team’s expected end-of-season record and playoff chances based on a variety on information, including current record, point differential, strength of schedule, and more. Right now, the Magic are expected to finish with a 35-47 record, with a 30% chance of making the playoffs. Encouragingly, they’ve seen the largest gains of any team in the last week in 538’s “elo” scoring, likely thanks to multiple double-digit wins.

In other words, despite all the early-season struggles, they’re not out of it yet.

The incomprehensible Orlando Magic

I won’t throw together a whole bunch of stats to prove my point here, because I think it’s already pretty self-evident: this team is weird. Bizarre. Confusing and confounding, baffling and bewildering, puzzling and perplexing. If anyone says for sure that they know how the Magic will play on any given night, they’re lying to you.

It’s not just a game-by-game thing. Three weeks ago, I would have sworn up and down that the team was elite defensively and hopeless offensively, and now they’re in a shootout every other night.

After winning two solid games in a row, I’m inclined to say the Magic might be figuring things out, which definitely means they’re going to lay an egg against the Hornets...which definitely means they’re actually going to play well, which...well, you get the point. I want the Magic to achieve consistency, if only for my own sanity.

That one time the Magic held a party, and all the blocks were invited

It was nice to see the defense come back for a short visit, and while the multiple blocks against the helpless Timofey Mozgov was the most fun subplot of the first quarter, this particular block against Nick Young was my personal favorite.

This is how we’d hope the Magic would play, even if it didn’t necessarily come with all the blocks attached. If anything, I think I’m actually more impressed with their first quarter defense against the Grizzlies, which was just a great overall team effort.

What’s coming up next?

12/28 - Magic vs. Hornets - Last time didn’t go so well, but for the totally unpredictable Magic, who knows how this could turn out? Heck, the Hornets just lost to the Nets on the same night the Magic dropped 112 on arguably the best defense in the league. This feels like a big Kemba night to me, but maybe Payton can have another career night. Seems to be the recent trend, right?

1/1 - Magic @ Pacers - As noted previously, this next week is filled with opponents the Magic very much need to beat if they want to reassert themselves in the pecking order of the Eastern Conference morass. Last time these two played, Orlando scored just 69 (nice) points. In the whole game. I don’t expect that to happen again.

1/2 - Magic @ Knicks - Based on comments by the players and coach, the team was particularly miffed about dropping the last game to the Knicks (which in part led to the beatdown against the Lakers the next night). I’m right there with them: the Knicks are an excellent benchmark team for the Magic to judge themselves against, and I think they won’t let two in a row get away against New York.