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Five Magic Observations: The Small Ball Edition

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Breaking down the Magic’s latest identity, Fournier dropping the hammer, and the Question of the Week.

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a long-overdue edition of Five Magic Observations, where we take stock of the Orlando Magic’s newfound small-ball identity as well as introduce my latest gimmic—er, I mean, feature, the Question of the Week!

How’s small-ball working out?

For all the ballyhooed discussion surrounding Aaron Gordon’s return to the power forward position (including some from yours-truly), the more persistent theme surrounding the team is their overall “small-ball” identity, an idea that everyone from the players to Frank Vogel invokes whenever they discuss their recent results. More than just Gordon playing at the 4 (though it is an important element), the team has made a conscious decision to change the way they’ve played, trying to earn fastbreak points, spread the court, and win with speed instead of strength.

At a bare minimum, the style’s a lot more fun for the fans, and Vogel hopes it’s the same for his team as well. “The ball’s going in the basket more, you know? And that’s always gonna be more fun. Guys are gonna be more engaged on the defensive end and everything we’re doing if the offense is flowing more easy.”

It certainly feels like the offense is better, and that’s because, well, it has been. Before the All-Star break (a season divider that’s usually pretty silly and arbitrary, but actually suits our purposes well for this discussion), the Magic posted a 100.5 offensive rating, better than only the Sixers. In the 7 games post-break, that’s jumped up to a 105.2, almost exactly league-average offense, which of course represents a massive improvement in the small sample-size we can measure.

The thing is, the offense hasn’t improved in necessarily the ways you’d expect. When Vogel says the ball is going in the basket more, he’s technically correct. The ball is, in fact, going in the basket exactly one additional time per 100 possessions, as far as field goals are concerned.

That’s the funny thing about this new speedy, spread attack: it seems to be neither especially speedy, nor especially good at spreading the floor. The Magic’s pace is pretty much the same as it was before, actually a touch slower than it was pre-break. That’s not even necessarily an effect of their opposition, given that five of the seven recent games have been against opponents ranked 10th-14th in pace (the other two being 20th and 22nd).

It turns out there’s a more interest trend hidden in these stats, when you break them down by quarter. In the first and third quarters, when the starters play a lot of the minutes and the Magic’s best “small-ball” lineup gets to stretch its legs, the Magic average a pace over 100, above average by full-game standards across the league, and certainly by their own standards. They slow down a little in the second—color me unsurprised that Jeff Green and C.J. Watson aren’t out there runnin’ and gunnin’—but it’s the fourth where things really take a turn. All teams tend to slow down in the fourth quarter as individual possessions become more important and teams start running out the clock, but the Magic have become absolutely glacial in the fourth lately, crawling to a ridiculously slow 91.7 pace, slower than any other team averages in the final frame this season.

That’s probably a good explanation for why the Magic have struggled in fourth quarters lately, or perhaps, it’s better to say it’s a symptom of their struggles. Pace naturally increases with forcing turnovers, and the Magic have forced far fewer in recent fourth quarters, only 9.2 per 100 possessions compared to about 14, 17, and 15 in each of the first three quarters, respectively. In other words, the Magic’s fast-paced attack works when they can actually play fast, but they haven’t been able to keep it up for entire games, yet.

Then there’s the “spread” part of the equation, another element which doesn’t seem to be manifesting in the Magic’s offense, at least on the perimeter. The Magic are actually shooting worse from behind the arc, down from 33% to 30%. On some level, this actually isn’t terribly surprising, from a pure statistical standpoint. When the Magic replaced Serge Ibaka with Terrence Ross, they actually swapped for the less accurate 3-point shooter, and Ross is shooting worse than he was in Toronto, only 31%, compared to the 38%+ Ibaka averaged.

The trend’s been true for everyone though. Across the board, most of the team has shot worse from behind the arc, including Gordon, Green, even Mario Hezonja. Personally, I suspect this is just a small sample-size thing, but the broader point is that there’s no evidence yet that playing small has improved the Magic’s shooting on the perimeter.

The real effect of that spacing, however, is found in the painted area. The Magic are shooting about 2.5% better within 5 feet of the basket, but more importantly, they’re drawing more fouls, taking about 4 more attempts per game, and hitting 3 more per game. This actually tidies up that improvement in offensive efficiency nicely: the Magic are getting one more made field goal per game, and 3 more made free throws, which adds up to the five points they’ve roughly improved by.

Free throw shooting has long been the Magic’s greatest offensive weakness, even more than the 3-point shooting, so it’s encouraging to see a short-term improvement in that area. Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic appear to be the biggest beneficiaries so far, which makes sense. Payton’s able to attack the rim more freely with a more spaced lineup, and Vucevic gets under the basket more when he’s not sharing real-estate with Ibaka or Biyombo.

There’s some good news buried here in all these stats: there’s an argument that the Magic are actually underperforming what they “should” be scoring right now. Orlando’s been a bad shooting team, but they’re better than a 30% team from behind the arc. If that ticks back up a point or two, Orlando’s offense looks even better.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Mini mock draft round-up

Obviously there’s plenty of time yet to explore draft prospects, but with the Magic place in the lottery pecking order becoming surer each week, thoughts naturally start drifting toward the draft. I’ll admit, I’ve done very little in the way of draft research as of yet (that’ll start in earnest closer to April), but I figured I’d take a glance at a handful of expert mock drafts to see what other folks are predicting.

CBSSports.com and Bleacher Report , and Draft Express each predict the Magic will take small forward Jayson Tatum from Duke, based on their projections from early March. Tatum is a good athlete with with a solid midrange game. Both sites note how he could fit as a scorer next to Gordon in the small forward position, but he has work to do to become an all-around scoring threat, particularly from long range. Something that jumps out at me that I like: 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks a game, stats which historically carry over well from college to the NBA.

ESPN’s Mock Draft 3.3 from mid-February has the Magic picking up freshman point guard Dennis Smith from NC State. Smith is an elite athlete with a knack for getting to the basket, someone with scoring talent that the Magic could use. On the other hand, his shooting isn’t outstanding, and after a few years of Elfrid Payton, having a guard that’s a legitimate perimeter threat might be a requirement. This is the oldest of any of these mock drafts (and I’m not a huge fan of Chad Ford anyway), so maybe a more recent one might consider Tatum here as well.

In both cases, the Magic wouldn’t be adding someone who’s a surefire threat from the 3-point line, and were I personally involved I’d be taking a long look at whoever the best shooter is that’s in reasonable range of the Magic’s pick on their draft board. Still, Hennigan’s M.O. has been to take the best prospect available, so that may be the route the Magic take (assuming he’s the one making that pick).

There’s a lot of time for things to change between now and the draft in June, between the tournament, the combine, and team workouts, so don’t be surprised if prospects’ stocks rise and fall in the meantime.

NBA: Orlando Magic-Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Question of the week: Did the Magic make the right draft picks?

A new addition I’d like to try for Five Magic Observations is a “question of the week,” a discussion topic for the community to mull over.

Speaking of the draft, this week’s topic is the Magic’s draft picks under Rob Hennigan. The question is simple...do you think the Magic, given all the information available at the time, made the right picks in the first round? To summarize their selections briefly:

Victor Oladipo, 2nd in 2013
Aaron Gordon, 4th in 2014
Elfrid Payton, 10th in 2014 (via Philadelphia)
Mario Hezonja, 5th in 2015

On the one hand, it’s easy to identify another player better than each of these who was selected later (for example, Giannis going 15th in Oladipo’s draft). On the other, is it fair to say the Magic really should have taken him that soon, when nobody even thought of him as a top-10 prospect? How do we separate what we know now versus what we knew, or should have known, back then?

Sound off in the comments!

That one time Evan Fournier posterized Kristaps Porzingis

In the games against the Hawks and Knicks, Ross and Fournier alternated efficient shooting, and against the Knicks it was Fournier that got going (one of the few Magic players that could). The highlight, of course, was this massive jam over Porzingis.

Sidenote: Why can’t Gordon do this more often? Fournier almost always tries to take the ball all the way to the basket, even when he’s just going for layups, but Gordon pulls up more often than he tries to finish strong. Maybe he doesn’t trust his ball handling that close to the basket, and perhaps with more time as the power forward he’ll change his tendencies, but for now it’s a bad habit that limits how threatening he is on the court.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What’s coming up next?

3/10 - Magic @ Hornets - The Hornets desperately need wins to keep their playoff hopes alive after a disastrously bad second half of the season, and luckily for Charlotte the Magic beat the Bulls on Wednesday, meaning it’s literally impossible for them to win their next game. Aside from the Magic’s total inability to string together winning streaks, this always feels like a tough matchup for them, since Charlotte is in many ways just a better version of Orlando.

3/11 - Magic vs. Cavaliers - On the other hand, this is not a team that desperately needs to win. They’re pretty much the opposite, really, just looking for a way not to crumble into bone dust before the playoffs. Still, this is hardly an easy matchup, and the Magic have no answer at all for LeBron James. At least they only play one Finals team this week, right?

3/13 - Magic @ Kings - If there’s one thing that should give Magic fans solice at the end of a failed rebuild (and likely, the start of another one), it’s that, well, at least they aren’t Kings fans. I could see the Magic winning by 20, or I could see The Buddy Hield Game ruining everything.

3/16 - Magic @ Warriors - Well. This is unfortunate. If the Hornets were as good as they were at the start of the season, this week would probably be the easy pick for the hardest one on the whole schedule this season, right up there with, well, the last week they had to play the Warriors. The Magic don’t have the benefit of a bizarre 12PM Eastern tipoff to give them an early advantage over their West Coast foe this time around, so this is probably gonna be over quickly.