"I've had to unlearn a lot of what I've believed in with offensive spacing because of the way the league plays today."
Frank Vogel made this comment to reporters before Game 5 of his series with the Toronto Raptors, weeks before this comment would become very relevant to his new team, before said new team knew he'd need a new team at all. Now, his greatest challenge as the coach of the Orlando Magic is to remold an offense that has consistently underperformed since the prolific shooting days of the Stan Van Gundy-era.
While the team has shown signs of life defensively and has consistently drafted high-upside athletes with defensive potential, the offense has offered little to get excited about. The bursts of scoring are fleeting at best, functions of random lucky quarters of hot shooting more than evidence of a productive plan of attack.
Vogel's attitude is important because he's going to need that new offensive philosophy to succeed in Orlando. His Pacer teams looked and played very different than Orlando does, and how he transitions to this new roster will be key in deciding the future of the franchise. Let's take a look at how well his Pacer teams scored, and what needs to change to build a successful offense for the Magic.
We'll start with some baseline stats for the two Pacer teams that made the conference finals back in 2013 and 2014, just to get an idea of how they played and how effective they were. Overall league rankings are in parentheses:
|Off. Efficiency||101.6 (19th)||101.5 (22nd)|
|Effective FG%||47.9% (22nd)||49.0% (19th)|
|Turnover %||14.3% (27th)||14.3% (26th)|
|Off. Rebound%||30.3% (4th)||24.9% (21st)|
|Free Throw Rate||29.3% (9th)||29.0% (13th)|
Nothing too surprising here. Both years featured mediocre offenses--not terrible, but hurt by their inability to make shots and their propensity for turning the ball over. They got to the line a good amount, however, led by Paul George's ability to create off the dribble, and by overpowering big men like Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi who drew hacks around the rim. They corralled their own misses at an astounding rate in that first great season, getting a do-over on nearly a third of their misses, but that skill dropped off the next season as Hibbert started to decline and Tyler Hansbrough moved on to Toronto.
Now that he's been mentioned, we can't really go on without talking about George's impact as the focal point of the Indiana offense. The starting lineup, which George was of course a part of, was actually pretty solid offensively. He had the second highest usage rate on the team in 2012-2013, behind only David West (yes, David West), but quickly took over the highest usage the next season as he became the team's true star player.
George is one of the NBA's precious "two-way" players, capable of locking down the opposition's best wings while carrying the offense. He's capable in just about every way you'd want your star wing to be: handles the ball well, shoots decently from all over the court --though perhaps not as efficiently as you'd ultimately like-- and gets to the line. He's earned the reputation as somebody who you can throw the ball to at the end of games and ask to create a shot for your team, if that's the sort of thing you're into.
(Small sidebar: I can't help but be bothered by the phrase "best two-way player." Shouldn't that just be, y'know, the best player? Really, the expression just serves to award second-place status to a player who plays defense behind the "superstar" player whose defensive deficiencies we ignore. Perhaps the current Finals matchup will shift the public's perspective on the dangers of relying on "one-way" players.)
On the one hand, George appears to be fairly indispensable to the team's offense. Again, the offense has always performed better with him than without him, every season except the one he barely played. On the other hand, that's true of all the starters, and it's really been more indicative of the infamously awful bench Indiana has operated with, despite their efforts to correct the problem every offseason. The net result is the middling numbers in the table above.
Lest we get distracted from our intended goal, let's steer this back to Frank Vogel's contributions to the offense. I gave him plenty of credit for his defensive schemes, even though he had Paul George on his team, so I have to give him some blame too when it comes to their middling offense.
- The team's offense was average at best in their most successful seasons, and it's gradually declined since then. This season they finished somewhere between 23rd and 25th in offensive efficiency, depending on whose stats you use (NBA.com and Nylon Calculus's numbers, respectively, in this case).
- Those poor bench units might be a sign that Vogel can't craft a scheme that works without super-talented players to carry the team. Virtually every team's offense is worse with their bench players, but Indiana's has been famously bad. It's worth remembering that Indiana probably threw away a crucial playoff game against Toronto by keeping their bench lineup in too long late in Game 5. Based on Nylon Calculus's cumulative game-flow chart, that wasn't just a problem in the playoffs:
- Indiana didn't always take the highest-quality shots, either. Nylon Calculus also tracked "expected eFG%", which measures how well an average team would shoot taking the shots Indiana did, factoring in shot distance using tracking data. At an expected eFG% of 49.2%, Indiana was among the lowest in the league, and most of the other teams in their range (e.g. Memphis, Minnesota, and the Lakers) were pretty miserable on offense. It should be noted that this stat only includes data through January when the NBA stopped publicly supplying some critical tracking information.
- Many Pacer players experienced the best years of their careers with Indiana. Lance Stephenson is the most notable example, churning out triple doubles and rounding out the team as another "creator" next to Paul George and George Hill. Since he left the team, however, he's ranged from "middling" to "unmitigated disaster" everywhere he's been. Roy Hibbert similarly excelled for the Pacers but has been unable to replicate his results with the Lakers. George Hill transitioned from a backup role in San Antonio to starting for the Pacers, anchoring the offense next to Paul George. Notwithstanding some odd gossip involving George and Hibbert, the Pacers have been a cohesive team under Vogel that often gets more out of their players than other teams might.
- If there's any proxy for how Vogel might coach a team without his star small forward, it's the 2014-15 season in which they exceeded expectations. They weren't good offensively that year either, but they experienced only a small drop-off compared to previous seasons, about 1 point per 100 possessions. Orlando hasn't found a way to play competent offense, but I like the talent on the current roster more than what Vogel had to work with that season.
- During his introductory presser, Vogel was quick to point out what Orlando would look like. He noted that he intended to bring the same defensive identity Indiana played with, but actually spoke at greater length about the team's offense:
...but we're also going to play a style offensively where we adapt to the way today's NBA game is played on the offensive end. We're gonna play with pace, and we're gonna take advantage of the athleticism we have on the roster, run the floor, and we're also gonna space similarly to the way a lot of these teams are playin' in today's NBA....I've got a great desire to play up-and-down, great desire, and I feel like we have the athleticism and youth to achieve that right away.