Year after year, the NBA goes through a transition, be it in playing style, personnel and how it’s used, or a mixture of both.
As the league trends in one direction, players of yesteryear talk about how the game is “in the worse place it’s ever been” and that players need to “toughen up” and play a more “physical” brand of basketball. While that might be true in some cases, trying to do the opposite of the rest of the teams in the league puts you behind the eight ball, and likely gets you run over.
As the Orlando Magic sit at 16-22 after another loss at the hands of the Houston Rockets, their insistence on playing big, while everyone else plays small, bit them yet again.
Houston, one of the top-3 offensive teams in the league, predicates their offense on shooting three-pointers. A night after combining to attempt 69 three-pointers, the Rockets took 49 of their own — a Magic opponent single game record — and while they only made 15 of them, it gave them a 21-point advantage from behind the line.
Of teams ranked in the top-10 in the league in three-pointers attempted per game, six of those teams also rank in the top-10 in offensive rating.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who shoot the second most three’s on a per game average — behind only the Rockets nearly 40 attempts per game — just made a move for Kyle Korver, one of the leagues deadliest shooters. They won the championship last season, largely in part to their ability to knock down the three ball at a high rate.
Looking back at the Magic, while they shoot the 12th most three’s on a per game average, they rank as the fourth worst three-point shooting team percentage wise, and boast the 27th offensive rating in the league. Yes, they’re attempting a high amount per game — 26.4 to be exact — but they aren’t making them, partially due to their poor roster construction.
When the Magic acquired Serge Ibaka in the summer, many believed the Magic would play him at center, with Aaron Gordon playing along side at the four. The Magic appeared to be set to adapt to the new smaller, quicker, more shot attempts style the league is trending in.
Fast forward less than two weeks later and they’re announcing the signing of Bismack Biyombo, a confusing move considering the acquisition of Ibaka. With Frank Vogel, who was notorious for playing two traditional big men with the Indiana Pacers, as head coach, the move was one that was slightly understandable, but a sign that the Magic could be in trouble if they fell in love with playing big.
Now, as they get set to embark on a six-game, 11-day road trip, the issues with their rosters current construction loom even larger.
After taking a three-point lead into the second quarter against the Rockets on Friday night, the Magic crumbled early in the second quarter. As is customary, Vogel turned to the Biyombo-Nikola Vucevic pairing, one that, against certain teams, has had success.
With a smaller and quicker lineup out there for the Rockets — Sam Dekker, the Rockets power forward at the time was guarded by the slow footed Vucevic — the Rockets made the Magic pay. Despite making only three of their 13 attempts from deep in the quarter, the Rockets nabbed seven offensive rebounds, leading to seven second chance points.
The stylistic differences were clear, and they hurt the Magic, despite their best efforts to keep the game within striking distance. If not for D.J. Augustin erupting for 16 points in the quarter, the Magic likely would’ve found themselves down by double digits and seemingly out of the game.
Trying to be different can work sometimes, but when you’re going against seemingly an entire league, you’re asking for trouble on a night-to-night basis. Those problems are becoming more and more clear for the Magic, especially as Vogel continues to trot out the same lineups night-after-night.
With more and more teams trending towards smaller, more athletic power forwards, the Magic are doing the exact opposite. Instead of using a lighter, they find themselves trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and it’s not working.
The Magic, under the tutelage of Stan Van Gundy were the first team to really embrace playing someone who wasn’t a “traditional” power forward at that position, and it worked. In the four seasons from 2007-2011 where the Magic featured Rashard Lewis at the four spot, they ranked in the top-10 in three-point field goal percentage each season, and top-two in attempts. Those teams included, in some estimations, the best Magic team in franchise history in 2010.
Those teams single handedly changed the landscape and the way the game is played. Now, as the league continues to transition deeper and deeper into the pace and space style, the Magic are becoming archaic, trying to zig, while everyone else zags.
If they keep moving in that direction, they’re not going to be successful. In some ways, Friday night showed that with the Rockets being able to take advantage of matchups for stretches, and use their three-point shooting as the main weapon in their 29th win of the season.
Things won’t change overnight for the Magic, but they’re going to need to make some changes, and soon, if they’re going to avoid missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season, and digging yet a deeper hole for themselves for the future.