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The limitations of Scott Skiles' schemes with the Magic

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The Orlando Magic don't have the best players, nor the best NBA skills, but Scott Skiles didn't get the most he could have from this team.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I have little doubt that, in the days to follow, we're going to hear a lot more about the relationship between Scott Skiles, his players, and the Orlando Magic organization. We'll get some leaks about Skiles (we have already), some reactions from players (we already have), and more think pieces about Skiles's coaching philosophies than you can shake a stick at. Certainly, throughout the course of the season there's been plenty of talk about issues with rotations, players getting stuck in the coach's doghouse, and nervousness about how secure each guy was in his role and playing time.

This stuff matters. The last few seasons haven't been the happiest ones for Magic fans, but one of the few things they could lean on was that this group of players seemed like they really did like each other, that they played together on the court and were friends off the court. Even if the results weren't there, this was a group that looked like it would grow, and grow up together. Did Scott Skiles sacrifice some of that in the name of wins? Maybe. I'm not in the locker room with these guys—hell, I've never met any of them in person—so its hard for me to judge that kind of thing.

That all said, I think these discussions about the Magic's "social issues" distract from the larger issue with the short-lived Scott Skiles Era: this team played a flawed brand of basketball. Not only did they fail to really look like a "Skiles" team, with all the defense, grittiness, and toughness you expect, they never really looked like they had the best game plan, and when things fell off a cliff in January, he never found an adjustment to put things back together.

The Flawed Defense

As our esteemed editor Zach Oliver wrote this week, the Magic showed essentially no progress on the defensive end compared to past season. This feat is especially remarkable when you consider that, two months into what looked like a promising season, Orlando sported a top-10 defensive efficiency. At the time, it was easy to think that this team finally turned a corner. After all, the reputations of players like Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, and Aaron Gordon suggested they'd be above average defenders, given enough time. Scott Skiles finally unlocked their hidden potential!

...except, not really. Not at all. Not even close. Fast forward another two months, and Orlando was right back where they were a year ago, looking lost on both an individual and a team level. I've written about this before on a few occasions, about how this defensive plan looked good at first, and fell apart quickly in the latter part of the season.

The Magic's defensive scheme this season revolved around very aggressive doubling, helping, and rotating out to shooters. They helped on the ball handler maybe more than any other team this year, an idea backed up by NBA.com's SportVU tracking data. On defense, the Magic ran a total of of 8.12 miles throughout the season, more than any other team in the league.

On the surface, that sounds like a good thing, like the team is really hustling and working and trying harder than everyone else. That perception doesn't really bear out, however, when you look at other teams near the top of this list. Of the top 10 in defense distance traveled, two teams are really good defensively, the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. The other 8 teams, including the Magic, were generally awful, including the likes of the Rockets, Sixers, Kings, and Pelicans.

To an extent, I can understand why Skiles would try something like this. The roster has a lot of holes that make it hard to trust everyone to just take their guy one-on-one. Nikola Vucevic can't just hang back and guard the rim like a DeAndre Jordan or a Roy Hibbert. Oladipo, Payton, and some of the other perimeter guys have struggled for years to navigate screens effectively. We've seen how this plays out many times during the rebuild: the ball handler blows by the Magic's guards, and Vucevic gets toasted on the ensuing drive.

It's easy to see why Skiles would want to compensate for these problems. If you accept that the guards won't be able to stay in front of their men, and that Vucevic can't protect the rim in that situation, the natural instinct is to bring in help from all sides to stem the drive. You force the other team to pass the ball out, and race out to those shooters to contest the shot at the last second, and accept the results. Better than getting burned at the rim over and over, right?

Unfortunately, those results were bad. Very, very bad. The logical extension of this strategy is that you expect to give up a lot of 3-pointers, and that's exactly what happened. The Magic gave up the 10th-most 3-point attempts on a per-possession basis, and allowed the 11th-highest percentage on those shots. More than ever before, a team's propensity to take long-range shots correlates with winning more basketball games (making them doesn't hurt, either). By extension, allowing those shots isn't a winning strategy.

Then again, as we all know, this team isn't stocked with All-NBA defenders, and compromises must be made to find the best possible scheme, even if it isn't a good one by objective standards. The problem is that, in exchange for giving up those 3-pointers, the Magic didn't get anything back. Per NBAwowy.com, the Magic let opponents take the 6th-highest percentage of their shots from 0-3 feet, as well as when you broaden the range out to 0-6 feet. They also fouled a lot, sending opponents to the line at a 10th-worst rate in the league.

On the surface, the strategy worked. The fine folks at Nylon Calculus recently dove into some defensive drive statistics, and drivers scored very poorly when they took those shots. All that help made those shots inefficient. That stat is a mirage, however. On the whole, teams actually shot very well against the Magic in the restricted area. In other words, while the initial drive is usually snuffed, opponents have very easily been able to pass the ball around and find a layup anyway. It's not hard to think back on all those dump-off passes around the basket, like one I featured earlier this year against the Grizz:

When you let your opponent take a lot of 3-pointers, a lot of layups, and a lot of free throws, it's virtually impossible to be a good defense. Scott Skiles tried to use his defensive scheme to compensate for the team's weaknesses, and instead ended up compromising everything.

The Uninspiring Offense

The offense was a little more encouraging in the sense that the Magic actually improved on that end, but it's hard to pick out how much of that was due to Skiles's influence. The Magic shot more three-pointers (20.3 to 22.3 per 100 possessions), but everyone shot more threes this season. Relative to the rest of the NBA, that only moves them from 23rd to 22nd. They hit them at about the same percentage, around a very average 35%. That holds true for their overall field goal percentage, too.

They got better at hitting free throws, but no better at actually getting to the line in the first place. They got about the same number of steals, and got a similar percentage of their points off turnovers compared to last year. Their offensive rebounding rate was the same, too.

In the end, three statistical categories jump out as possible improvements over last season. First and second are assists and turnovers. The Magic got about two assists more per 100 possessions, and on an individual level, Vucevic was among the most "improved" passers, jumping from 2.9 to 4.3 assists per 100 possessions. They reduced their turnovers from 15.5 to 14.2, and while that isn't a monstrous change, every possession counts, and getting more chances to actually score goes a long way.

The third stat, and one of the biggest surprises to me, is how many shots the Magic take that are "wide-open" (closest defender more than 10 feet away). Last season, the Magic took a whopping 18.5% of their shots with that kind of space, among the best in the league, and somehow that number jumped to 20.3% this year, second only behind the Hawks. Put all this together, and there's a neat little story we can tell about how the Magic used their improved passing to generate higher quality shots.

That narrative is a little too simple, though. It's just as easy to say that opponents chose not to respect the Magic's shooters, and with good reason. Remember, the Magic were only slightly better at making shots than last season. The passing is, I believe, strictly good, especially coming from Vucevic, and it's always good to reduce turnovers, but I'd be inclined to say the wide-open shots aren't entirely the result of crafty X's-and-O's.

If I'm going to give Skiles credit for his offensive scheme, I'd point to two things. First, the team had noticeably better off-ball movement than in previous seasons. It was painful to watch those Jacque Vaughn teams just park three guys on the perimeter, still as statues while the other two did their pick-and-rolls. The second is how the team relied very little on isolation plays. You would hope they wouldn't try to let individual guys try to make things happen, given the current roster, and in fact they only ran 5.3% of their plays that way, among the least-frequent isolation-runners in the league.

Here's my biggest problem with the offense: the Magic just don't excel at anything. I mean, just look at their shot chart:

Holy yellow zones, Batman! That's the most average-looking shot chart I've ever seen. I guess it's nice that there's no below-average red zones, but this just picture just screams "We have no identity!" Shout outs to the free throw line jumper, though.

Going into the season, that was one of the biggest complaints about the team, that they have no identity, nor even a trademark skill. The closest thing to a "signature move" the Orlando Magic have is an 18-foot jumper by one of their tall white dudes. You'll have to forgive me if I don't find that an especially interesting trademark.

I think what proves this point more than anything is, ironically, that the Magic's greatest accomplishment came outside an actual game. Aaron Gordon's dunk contest, understandably, was the highlight of the season, and I'm all for celebrating that moment. At the same time, I think it says something that it felt like 97% of Magic hype commercials from that point forward revolved around his dunks as opposed to actual in-game moments. There's nothing else to get excited about.

Moving Forward

To be fair, figuring these problems out isn't easy. I can look at these results and say that this clearly isn't working, but my armchair-coaching suggestions for how to fix things hardly compare to an NBA coach's skills. I've seen suggestions that the Magic should have blitzed pick-and-rolls harder, by hedging more with their big men.

Does Orlando have bigs that can pull that off? Maybe they could have played super small to juice the lineup with even more speed. After all, if Vucevic isn't protecting the rim, does it really hurt that much to put, I dunno, Aaron Gordon in that spot and let him pretend to be Draymond Green for a while? Sounds like a fun idea in theory, and probably terrible in practice.

I whined about the identity of the offense, but it's hard for me to imagine what it could be, under ideal circumstances. It'd be super cool if Hezonja-Gordon alley-oops hearkened the advent of Lob City 2.0, but that just feels like a pipe dream. Payton slices and dices through the lane on occasion with his nifty dribbles, and those might be my favorite semi-regular moments on this team, but they never come frequently enough to put together a decent highlight reel.

In that sense, if I were choosing the coach, I'd look for somebody to solve these problems. I want somebody who can put together a legitimate defense, and perhaps more importantly, turn this team into...something. Anything. Something we can point to and say "That right there is what Orlando Magic basketball is all about."