With just over one-third of the season now in the record books, it’s time for the Magic to once again begin earnestly contemplating the letter P.
There is, however, a twist to this consternation. In years past this has been in reference to Ping-Pong balls and purgatory, but the 2018/19 season sees us flipping the dictionary to a different page. A much more optimistic page.
Dare we say it aloud?
Is it time to start thinking about the playoffs?
As it stands the Magic are 13-15, which is good for 8th in the Eastern Conference. After some sloppy performances early the team managed to right the ship with a fruitful 3-3 road trip that saw them hang with some of the league’s best. The wheels have fallen off for this squad on West Coast swings before, so to emerge relatively unscathed and with a .500 record was a real positive.
Orlando has taken a step back in the games since, with a series of dispiriting losses sapping the team of any momentum they might have built. They dropped an overtime heartbreaker to Denver that exposed some frustrations and fragility, and then followed this with two listless blowouts against the Pacers and the Mavericks. A lackluster win in Mexico against the hapless and over-practiced Bulls has stemmed the bleeding only for the moment.
Thanks to the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference the Magic still find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. Their major competition for the eighth seed – Miami and Washington – haven’t been able to totally close the gap, while the teams immediately ahead of them in the standings have also failed to stretch their advantage. They’re still in it, and if they’re good enough, they’ll be there come season’s end.
O + D = ?
We all know that the winner of a basketball game is determined by who has the most points at the end of the game. Want to make the playoffs? Either be good enough at shooting that more often than not opponents can’t keep up, or suffocating enough defensively that they never had a chance. It ain’t rocket science.
For a measure of these two aptitudes it’s probably best to look at the offensive and defensive ratings of teams league-wide, along with the net rating that emerges when these are combined. These figures are arrived at over the course of 100 possessions, providing firstly an average number of points a team will rack up in this time, and secondly the average number of points they’ll concede. Individually they allow us to get a feel for how proficient a squad is at these two facets of the game. The net rating, of course, provides us with a predicted outcome after considering both sides of the ball.
If we consider last year’s 16 playoff teams, the importance of each of these rankings becomes immediately clear. In 2017/18, the playoffs were the final destination for 15 of the 18 most prolific offenses. Defensively it’s not quite as pronounced, although we still have 14 of the top 19 ranked units playing games in late April. The outliers in each of these cases -- Miami offensively (ranked 22); Minnesota (28) and Cleveland (29) defensively -- made up for their inefficiency at one end by being elite at the other. The Heat had the league’s 7th stingiest defense, while the Timberwolves (4) and the Cavaliers (5) sizzled when it came to scoring.
Still, 16 teams make the NBA playoffs, which means a passing grade is usually enough to see you advance. But what exactly is the threshold for playoff participation when it comes to teams that may not be absolutely elite at either end? Exactly how competent do you need to be if you’re one of the middle class? We know that an elite ranking in one category can offset poor performance in another, but what happens when you’re a little removed from the league’s pacesetters in either facet?
Net rating gives us an all-inclusive figure to consider. It stands to reason that the teams with the greatest gap between their own predicted offense and what they’re expected to give up to the opposition are the ones who’ll bank the most wins, but is it that simple? Let’s start by checking out 2017/18 (the bolded teams are those that qualified for the playoffs).
|Team||ORtg Rank||DRtg Rank||NetRTG Rank|
Looking at last year’s results reveals a pretty obvious truth: when your offense and defense combine to put your net performance in the top half of the league it’s very likely that you’ll be suiting up for the playoffs. Denver, with the 11th best net rating, seemingly had the greatest reason to feel upset with how things played out. However, remember that they did feature in a ‘winner-take-all’ (where ‘all’ equals ‘victim of a first round gentleman’s sweep’) play-in against Minnesota in game 82. The West was brutally tough, but having 8 of the top 9 teams from the conference still standing at the end of the regular season was basically as expected.
Things were a little wonkier in the East, where Milwaukee emerged as a bit of an outlier. They were the only playoff team to finish the season with a negative net rating (-0.3 points per 100 possessions), but somehow managed to leapfrog both Detroit and Charlotte on their way to the final seed (the reason for this might be as simple as ‘Antetokounmpo’). Otherwise it was the seven top-ranked teams in net rating who made it in, clearly indicating the importance of the figure.
Wins (and, by extension, losses) are ultimately the only number that matters when it comes to figuring out who makes the playoffs. Still, year-to-year net rating serves as an accurate indicator of how a team is performing relative to postseason likelihood. At this stage of the season, with only 28 games in the book, it is perhaps the best tool we have for cutting through the volatility and dissonance of incomplete season standings and accurately making playoff projections.
So what’s the diagnosis, Doc’?
What does all of this mean for the Magic? Well, if we’re being perfectly honest, it’s not good news. The team currently ranks 24th in net rating, courtesy of the 27th ranked offense and the 14th ranked defense. In the last ten years, no team has performed so poorly by net rating and made the playoffs; the Brooklyn Nets of 2013/14 are the closest, having squeaked in despite being ranked 22nd by this metric.
Steve Clifford has the team performing perfectly adequately on defense, which means that it’s the other side of the ball that is currently the cause for concern. This is no surprise to those who have watched the team closely this season. They lack a go-to scorer who can breakdown defenses with their own individual brilliance. As a team, their free throw rate is positively anemic (they rank dead last). They don’t generate second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass (27th), and their effective field goal percentage stands in the league’s bottom third (21st).
Orlando doesn’t need to turn into an offensive juggernaut to chase the playoffs this season. Instead, they just need to be average. For inspiration they should look to a team like the Wizards, who finished last season ranked 14th and 15th in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. Being perfectly average in a league where more than half of the teams qualify for the playoffs is usually going to be enough.
It’s also worth considering the schedule and the slate of games still to come. Looking at the difficulty of the opponents to come shows that the Magic are prime candidates for improvement. According to Tankathon.com, the Magic have the third easiest remaining schedule, facing a collective opposition win percentage of .479. This is bad for tanking, but great for a team looking to extricate themselves from those doldrums. As the games theoretically get a little easier it’s not unrealistic to expect some improvement for Orlando at both ends of the court.
More good news when wading through related information is that those closest to them in the standings – Miami, Washington, Charlotte and Detroit – all have apparently had an easier run of things through the first-third of the season. Each of those teams ranks below the Magic and in the bottom half of the league when looking at the strength of schedule metric. Pythagorean wins (a figure determined by net rating) also peg the Pistons and Wizards as overachievers, having exceeded their current expected win total.
Through all the ups and down the Magic are slightly outperforming expectations. Their per-game point differential of -3.4 places them 10th in the conference, while pythagorean wins has them ranked similarly as an 11-win squad. The schedule may yet get a little easier, but that optimism should be tempered by the relatively clean bill of health the team has enjoyed to this point (currently in the bottom third of the league when it comes to total man-games lost). Ultimately, there’s legitimate reason to be concerned about the underlying numbers, regardless of what the standings show.
If the season ended today the Magic would be on their way to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Instead, there are still 56 games to go. And while the standings might suggest that the team is headed in the right direction, the figures that aim to measure the on-court production aren’t as kind. The team will need to either improve at one end of the court, or keep winning beyond statistical expectations.
Both are tough roads. Let’s see if they’re up to it.