When the Bucks bested the Magic on the weekend there were a few interesting figures to take away from the contest. The win was Milwaukee’s 33rd on the season and kept their nose in front in the race for the league’s best record. The loss dropped Orlando to 19-27, which was the first time they had slipped 8 games below .500 this season. It was the 24th double-digit victory for the Bucks, and the 16th defeat by the same margin for the Magic. Brook Lopez had 4 blocks in the first six minutes, while little-used Jarell Martin connected on 4 triples (matching his season total in only 16 minutes of action). Eric Bledsoe poured in a season high 30 points.
But amidst all of this there was one other number that stood out: the number two.
This figure was buried away in the boxscore, but an inkling as to its existence likely emerged for anyone watching the game unfold live. You see, 2 was the sum total of the Magic’s fast break points on the night, a stark contrast to the 31 piled up by the Bucks. When you’re considering a game that was decided by 10 -- and a game in which Orlando had more shot attempts, made more threes, committed less turnovers, and kept the now-expected free throw disparity close (15 to 9) -- it feels like a pretty relevant place to start.
Do the Magic need to run more?
The Truth in the Numbers
Let’s start by having a look at some of this season’s surface numbers. The Magic generate only 9.9 fastbreak points per game, which is good for 26th league-wide. To try and put that into context they’re only half a point out of last, 3 points away from the league average, and a whopping 11.6 points behind the league-leading Kings. That’s a lot of buckets that the already offensively-challenged side has to make up in other ways.
In terms of pace, Orlando also predictably languish in the league’s bottom third. Basketball Reference has them pegged as the 26th ranked team by this metric, generating approximately 97.1 possessions per 48 minutes. Over the course of a game they can expect to see two more possessions than the last-placed Grizzlies, but seven less than the league-leading Hawks. Again, for the sake of context, the Magic will use approximately 2-to-3 possessions less than the average team.
Each of these statistical measurements speak to the speed with which a team plays. Fastbreak points measure the opportunistic buckets generated in transition before they’re forced to settle into their half court offense. Pace gives some indication as to how aggressively they’ll seek out shots early in the possession, as opposed to a methodical twenty-four second grind. Combine the two and you’ll end up with a good feel for how a team approaches the offensive side of the basketball equation.
For the Magic, these figures confirm what the eye test reveals: a careful, risk-averse side that is more likely to settle into a half court set than look to beat the opposition down the floor. This speaks to the coaching and gameplan. Steve Clifford has deliberate instructions for the team’s offense. He appears to be more comfortable asking the team to look for opportunities out of the two-man pick-and-roll game or after ball movement on the wings. This precision is also reflected in their economical passing game; compared to the league average they make less passes but are much more likely to generate an assist. In addition, with Nikola Vucevic the team’s offensive centerpoint, their play will always be reflective of his own characteristics. Vooch simply isn’t going to rip down rebounds and immediately put the ball on the floor or hit a halfcourt outlet, nor is he going to win many foot races to the rim. With the ball in hand, he’s methodical in breaking down his direct opponent.
It’s also worth keeping in mind where it is that many fastbreak opportunities originate: opposition turnovers. As such, it’s understandable why the Magic generate so few points in this way. Although they’re very good at looking after their own possessions, the fact is that they don’t cause the opposition to cough it up much at all. Orlando force only 12.7 turnovers a game (ranked 25th), including just 6.5 steals (ranked 28th). Again, these figures simply aren’t conducive to a fastbreak-heavy style of play.
Also interesting to note is the available data that shows precisely when the Magic are attempting shots. In terms of shot clock usage, an average possession is going to result in a field goal attempt with somewhere between 15 and 7 seconds remaining. Orlando see a league-leading 51.6% of their attempts occur during this window. If you combine this with their late (7 to 4 seconds remaining) and very late (4 to 0 seconds) possessions -- another 9.7% and 8.4%, respectively -- we can see that less than 30% of the team’s shots come in the first third of the shot clock. Once they’ve got the ball in hand you can almost guarantee that Orlando will take their time.
Methodical. Patient. Deliberate. The game plan doesn’t call for the Magic to run or rush.
The Horses in the Race
Now, both individually and collectively these figures are neither good nor bad; they’re merely interesting. But how do they jibe with our view of the individual roster pieces?
Aaron Gordon. Jonathan Isaac. Evan Fournier. Wes Iwundu. Jonathon Simmons. All relatively young, athletic, and with some demonstrated proficiency when attacking downhill in the open court. More often than not some combination of three of these rotation players are on the court at any one time, accompanied by a point guard and center. We know that neither Vucevic nor Mo Bamba are going to be leading the break, but both D.J. Augustin and Isaiah Briscoe are perfectly competent when quarterbacking in transition. Doesn’t it seem like the Magic have the makings of a team that could more aggressively seek to push the pace?
Someone like Gordon, in particular, seems like he would thrive with an increase in open court opportunities. He’s shown real development as both a ball handler and a decision maker, while his combination of speed and hops makes him a frightening presence when he’s racing to the rim at top speed. He’s more ready than ever to be effective on the break, either as the player pushing the pace with ball in hand or filling those lanes awaiting a lob or handoff. He just needs the chance.
Maybe the key piece the Magic are missing at the moment in terms of pace is a turbocharged point guard. Augustin is having a fine season and is certainly a capable decision maker in the open court, but he’s also a wily veteran and much more comfortable with a contained pace. By contrast, a look to the recent past reveals that during those seasons when the point was manned by Elfrid Payton -- a player who was more comfortable in transition than anywhere else -- the team routinely ranked in the top half of the league in terms of both pace and possessions per game. It might be as simple as horses and courses.
The Conclusion in the End
When watching the games, one gets the sense that the Magic are a team that should push the pace a little more. When you consider this alongside their known difficulties scoring in the half court the potential benefit becomes clear. Anything that makes their offensive life a little easier at this point would be a good idea.
However, this is absolutely one of those ‘easier said than done’ circumstances. If pushing the pace and scoring more on the fastbreak could simply be spoken into existence then every team would be running up the score on a nightly basis. There’s a certain type of player, game plan and attitude needed.
It’s understandable why the Magic approach offense the way that they do. They start most games facing a talent deficit, mitigating this by playing a relatively conservative and methodical offense. The aim is to minimize risks, and in many ways they successfully do this. Basketball can be a simple sport in that the greater the number of possessions, the greater the likelihood that the better and more talented team will win. For some, slowing things down is a way to even the fight.
Yet there remains a nagging sense that the Magic are failing to tap into a skill that could be leveraged to their benefit. At the least, it might be a way to generate some easy buckets and keep contests a bit tighter.
The Magic don’t have to run for their lives. But maybe they could try running a little more.