They say that there are two certainties in life, those being death and taxes. I have thought very carefully about this and would like to add one other inevitability to the list: Orlando’s anemic free throw rate.
You have to go all the way back to 2012 to find a season where the Magic don’t rank in the league’s bottom third in this metric. In fact, they’ve finished dead last on three different occasions in the years since. It’s one of the most extended periods of free throw-drawing futility that the league has ever witnessed.
It just hasn’t been a part of the team’s game, and now that they’re again interested in winning it’s something that needs to be monitored. What exactly is going on when it comes to the Magic and their apparent inability to benefit from the freebies that the game of basketball offers?
How likely are the Magic to shoot a free throw?
The best place to start a consideration of this topic is with free throw rate. This number provides a measure of how many attempts from the charity stripe a team will generate per field goal attempt. For the Magic, they’re easily the worst in the league in this metric, with a paltry figure of .197. This sits a long way behind the league average of .262, and there’s even a sizeable gap between them and the 29th ranked team (Boston, with a rate of .213).
The in-game application of this is that the Magic rarely get to the free throw line. They’re generating a paltry 17.4 attempts per contest, more than 11 less than the pace-setting Clippers and even 1.7 behind the 29th placed Suns. If we isolate just the raw figures the discrepancy is even starker. Orlando have 504 free throw attempts on the season, a full 60 less than the next worst team and a staggering 372 behind the league leader.
Conclusion: don’t hold your breath waiting for the Magic to get to the line. Seriously, don’t: when watching a game the Magic shoot a free throw approximately every 8 real-world minutes. You will literally pass out.
Why is this the case?
These figures aren’t arrived at by accident. However, it’s a difficult thing to quantify. Is it personnel? The game-plan? Bias? Let’s try and figure it out.
Most of this undoubtedly comes down to the players and their style of play. Nikola Vucevic brings a lot to the table on offense, but he’s a finesse big man more comfortable shooting jumpers or using his footwork to shake free of defenders. As Aaron Gordon’s game has developed so too has his fondness for three point attempts and jumpers off the dribble. He’s attacking the rim less, and doing more of his work out of the immediate way of opposition contact. Evan Fournier now takes almost half of his attempts from beyond the arc.
So we know that the natural proclivity of the most possession-heavy players isn’t going to result in a steady stream of free throw attempts. How about the team’s style of play? This obviously goes hand in hand with the personnel, but it’s safe to say that what’s being drawn up on the clipboard doesn’t do much to shift these numbers. With Vucevic’s improved passing and playmaking a lot of the offense comes from the elbow extended, and much of the action the team runs generates looks from the mid-range and beyond the arc.
In fact, exactly 50% of Orlando’s shots have come from 16 feet or further out. This is a huge number, and one topped by only four teams: Golden State, Houston and Boston. As one might expect, the Warriors and Celtics also both rank in the bottom third of the league in terms of free throw rate. The Rockets, however, offset this only thanks to James Harden’s otherworldly ability to generate contact. If you’re mainly shooting jumpers, you’re probably not shooting free throws.
Only 23.2% of the team’s field goal attempts come within 3 feet of the rim, which is where one would expect the majority of contact and drawn shooting fouls to occur. This frequency ranks the Magic 28th in the league, and a quick inspection indicates that many of the teams in the bottom third of this metric are also those that rank in the bottom third of free throw rate (Philadelphia being a unique exception). If you want to get to the charity stripe, it behooves one to get to the rim first.
As for bias, I don’t think there’s much to this argument. The concept of superstar calls is one that any fan of the league is familiar with, and we hear time and time again about how rookies have to earn respect from both peers and officials before the whistles start blowing in their favor. The Magic are a relatively young team, so maybe that’s the answer. Anecdotally, we aren’t that far removed from games where Victor Oladipo would hurtle into the lane, tumble to the ground amid a forest of flailing limbs and heavy contact, only to watch as the game moved to the other end of the court with nary a whistle heard. That has to be it, right?
Well, closer inspection of this memory doesn’t hold weight. While it’s true that Oladipo shot more free throws per game last season than any previous, it turns out that the two campaigns of his with the highest free throw rate actually happened here in Orlando, during those very games that I’m still salty about. He’s only shooting a greater number of free throws now because he’s playing more and finishing more possessions.
The current roster actually tells a similar story. Gordon was more likely to make it to the line as a rookie than he is this year. Fournier’s last two seasons have resulted in the lowest free throw rates of his career. Vucevic is in the midst of a legitimate All-Star push but still trails his 2014 and 2015 free throw rate numbers by a decent margin. All three have grown in years of service and stature, but not in free throw rate.
The commonality for all of these players is not their experience or perceived standing in the game’s hierarchy. It’s the frequency with which they attempt shots close to the rim. As each of these players has stretched their shooting and relied more heavily on the three ball the likelihood of a trip to the line has decreased. It makes sense!
It also makes sense when you apply this thinking to the rest of the current Magic roster and consider the type of players they don’t have. There isn’t a bruising inside presence banging bodies possession to possession. There isn’t a slashing wing that gets their points attacking the rim. There isn’t a physical point guard who likes to craftily generate contact. The players bring plenty to the table, but high rates of free throw shooting just isn’t something in their arsenal.
What impact does this have game to game?
We know that the Magic’s greatest struggle this year is on offense. They’re currently ranked 27th in offensive rating and 24th in true shooting percentage, both of which are metrics that take free throw rate and accuracy into consideration. If they want to remain a legitimate playoff chance they need to get better with the ball in hand, and an improvement at the stripe would seem an obvious way to give these numbers a little more juice.
An element of frustration when considering how free throws are impacting Orlando is the fact that they’re shooting really well when they do get to the line. As a team they’re ranked 10th in free throw percentage, converting at a rate of 78.6%. D.J. Augustin leads the regulars in this with his current conversion rate of 87.5%, while others including Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Jonathon Simmons are all currently sporting career-best figures from the line.
So far this season the average number of free throw attempts a team gets up each game sits at 23.2. The Magic, as we know, are a long way below this at 17.4. If they were somehow able to get themselves to this league middle ground, and if we assume a conversion rate a little worse than their current figure – let’s say 75%, which is also actually a touch below league average – we’d arrive at a figure of 4.35 extra points per game. For a team with a per-game points differential of 2.7 on the season to date, this appears meaningful.
If you want to simplify things even further and theoretically give the team an extra four points in each of their contests, Orlando’s record would shift from 14-15 to 17-12 (or 18-11 if you also want to throw in the Denver game, which was tied at the conclusion of the fourth). This would vault the Magic into first place in the division, and within a game of a home-court seed.
Such thinking is, of course, too simplistic. But it’s still interesting to consider, and provides an indication of what potentially could be with some adjustments. Maybe the easiest conclusion is this: if the Magic shot more free throws they would almost certainly win more games.
Finding answers to Orlando’s free throw conundrum is difficult. It’s one thing to tell players to be more aggressive in attacking the hoop and generating contact, but another to change one’s style of play to facilitate this. Regardless, as it stands this is an area of weakness and inefficiency for the Magic that they would benefit from addressing. Perhaps that development comes via the trade market or in free agency and the draft in years to come. Less likely, but maybe it’s achieved internally through development and scheme.
Either way, it’s something that would offer a boost to their chances of winning games.